Climate change

December 7, 2009

Copenhagen reality check – what’s really coming

Filed under: Climate Change, Copenhagen, Global Warming — Barry Brook @ 11:01 am

Here in Australia, there’s currently a political storm over a proposed cap-and-trade system for putting a price on carbon pollution. In brief, the federal Labor (left wing) government has passed the legislation for an emissions trading scheme in the house of representatives (where they have a clear parliamentary majority), but have had it blocked in the senate, where they lack a majority.

It has now become clear that the Liberal/National coalition (conservatives) will not pass the bill the second time around, for various reasons (a large number of members are sceptical of a human role in climate change, and others claim it will be an economic disaster). The Greens party, with five senators, have also refused to vote with Labor to pass the bill in the senate for inverse reasons — they claim it is a flawed system because of the way it rewards big polluters and due to its grossly inadequate emissions reduction targets.

A similar vexed position exists as the US debates the Waxman-Markey bill, as outlined here. In Europe, which has had an emissions trading scheme for a few years now, the system is failing to make any noticeable difference. Indeed, it’s fair to conclude that there is nowhere in the world where an effective cap-and-trade system is working as intended.

So, what does this mean for the upcoming Copenhagen UN Climate Change Conference (7 — 18 December)? Is there any prospect for a global deal to reduce emissions in developed and developing countries? If there is, will the targets be meaningful? Will there be agreement on the preferred system for putting a price on carbon (cap-and-trade, carbon tax, fee and dividend, etc.). I’d like to hear your thoughts in the comments section.

Jim Hansen has made his views pretty darned clear. Here’s what he said recently asked if there any real chance of averting the climate crisis:

Absolutely. It is possible – if we give politicians a cold, hard slap in the face. The fraudulence of the Copenhagen approach – “goals” for emission reductions, “offsets” that render ironclad goals almost meaningless, the ineffectual “cap-and-trade” mechanism – must be exposed. We must rebel against such politics as usual. Governments going to Copenhagen claim to have such goals for 2050, which they will achieve with the “cap-and-trade” mechanism. They are lying through their teeth. Instead, the United States signed an agreement with Canada for a pipeline to carry oil squeezed from tar sands. Australia is building port facilities for large increases in coal export. Coal-to-oil factories are being built. Coal-fired power plants are being constructed worldwide. Governments are stating emission goals that they know are lies – or, if we want to be generous, they do not understand the geophysics and are kidding themselves.

All this sits in the context of worsening climate change impacts and evidence of acceleration of many important signals of global warming (sea levels, polar ice loss, ocean heat content, extreme weather events). The excellent Copenhagen Diagnosis report provides a clear and concerning update to the IPCC AR4 2007, based on the latest science published in the last few years. This is definitely worth a read.

Given this context, what do I, personally, think are the prospects for Copenhagen? I’ve been asked that a lot recently, and my answer seems to surprise many (perhaps not my regular readers…).

In short, I think Copenhagen is an irrelevant side show, for much the same reasons as Jim has articulated so well in the quote above. In December, we’ll see politicians from all manner of countries strutting around on the world stage saying how seriously they take the climate change issue, why delay on action is unacceptable, and why the world must move towards a low carbon economy — “blah di blah blah blah“. They’ll most certainly earnestly commit to a definite emissions reduction target for some far distant date (probably 2050), and will probably also agree to some vague notion of an in-principle x% cut by 2020 (choose whatever value you want for x — it’s meaningless). Everyone will then head home, and the world will go on cranking up the carbon, much as before.

Then, as we continue to dither and meander our way through the next 10 or so years, the squeeze will start to be felt, with the grip of increasingly severe climate impacts (most notably extreme events and some unanticipated abrupt changes), and energy insecurity, inexorably tightening. Oil and natural gas prices will rise substantially, as unavoidable production shortages begin to seriously constrain business-as-usual. Those who can pay for the oil and its derivatives, or those who have the large remaining reserves, will be set inequitably apart from the rest. Continued rising temperatures, increasingly severe short-term events, persistent rainfall shifts (each with a decent chance of sudden step changes), and so on, will make the reality of global warming starkly apparently to all but the most delusional pea brains. At some point — well within the next two decades I suspect — humanity will, under considerable duress and societal upheaval, move at last into emergency mode.

At that point, we’ll be back to the 1940s can-do, will-do, mindset. The attitude that anything is possible. I really don’t think most people understand how countries mobilised and committed themselves during World War II. Winning was everything — it was a matter of life and death — the difference between the survival or downfall of a nation and political ideology. Military spending went from 2 — 5 % of GDP to 35 — 60 % for the major powers. The US diverted most of its automobile factories to making an extraordinary 300,000 planes and a vast naval fleet (the emergency shipbuilders). Russia produced over 50,000 T-34 tanks within the space of a few years, and threw millions of men against the German war machine, losses be damned. Japan was going to fight tooth-and-nail on the home islands, with millions of projected causalities, until the atomic bomb forced a sudden and unexpected surrender.

So, this is the pragmatic reality check: the Copenhagen UN Climate Change Conference is worthless, and we just shouldn’t care. It could never be any other way.

The hard fact is that there’ll be no gain until we’ve felt the pain, until we really know that we have our collective ’skin in the game’. For all our intellect and wisdom, we’re still evolved, instinctive animals, and we respond best to obvious, in-our-face threats. It seems we need a new Pearl Harbor, our next Thermopylae. I seriously doubt there’ll ever be a global price on carbon (or a meaningful one in any individual country) — by the time we truly understand why this was (in hindsight) necessary, it’ll be a useless gesture, because there’ll be the imperative for much more drastic action than any ‘economic instrument’ could possibly deliver.

Yet, mine is patently not a ‘doomer’ vision. I don’t buy the Olduvai Theory. I don’t accept the argument that a peaking oil supply will cause our society to collapse. Yes, it will help force our hand, but it ain’t gonna be our undoing — we’re way too resilient and ingenious for that — at least when the pressure is on. If society realises that it has to build 10,000 nuclear power plants in a period of 20 years, then it’ll do it (as others have pointed out, things happened incredibly fast in the early years of nuclear power — the first 15 years saw a staggering rate of technical development). We’ll find the way to make it happen — of that I have little doubt. India and China might have the head start here (and good wishes to them for this!), but the rest of the developed world will quickly catch up.

In the meantime, it’s up to people like you and me to work hard to try to concertina the length of time between the current fallow age of procrastination, and the coming age of action.

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