Despite a veritable barrage over the past few months of harsh scientific news about global warming, hope seemed to be springing anew on the first of December in the exotic soil of Peru’s vast military training facility aptly referred to as the Pentagonito. It is there under the shadow of the fortress-like intelligence headquarters that the United Nations’ enormous and complex annual initiative for dealing with climate change has been relaunched.
Referred to, in this acronym-rich environment, as the 20th Conference of the Parties (COP 20) of the UN Framework Convention of Climate Change (UNFCCC), the two week event was convened with great fanfare and a wave of upbeat-despite-it-all rhetoric from the prevailing dignitaries. There was even a bona fide cultural event–a polished crew who danced with energy on a wave of music from a variety of instruments made from recycled materials.
There had been a mildly disconcerting moment earlier that first morning when the approximate 10,000 attendees winding toward the event through this mega city, via shuttle buses and taxis, were forced to confront traffic jams of epic dimension. It led one to an odd speculation about trying to save the world but getting caught in traffic. This in turn sparked an ironic what-if reverie about not being able to save the whole because the parts, the infrastructure, were worn out.
It took Rajendra Pauchari, head of the IPCC (the body of atmospheric scientists that does the research for the UN’s Climate secretariat), when his turn came to speak in the opening ceremony to fully remind the overly celebrative about the lateness of the day. “The window for change'” he stated solemnly, “is rapidly closing.” He minced neither words nor math. We have filled the atmosphere with so much CO2, most of it since l970, that the task of preventing a temperature rise from exceeding the magic number of 2 degrees Celsius grows slimmer by the day.
Sixty five percent of the atmospheric space that we would need to keep temperatures below the mark is already filled up, mostly by us, the developed countries. If the remaining space was parceled out fairly among all the people of the world, we’d run beyond our target and lose the struggle within five years. If developing economies were allotted space commensurate to their right to develop, we are already running on empty. And to complete the picture, Pachauri first and then others pulled yet another leg out from under any sense of complacency by suggesting that it well may be that the odds of averting disaster at the 2 degree peak calculate out at about 50%. A more reasonable ceiling target may be more like 1.5 degrees or even 1 degree. Either took us farther beyond the range of the possible given the current national-level posturing and petty politicking surrounding greenhouse gas reductions.
The final volley of dismal scientific information came today, December 3rd, when, in simultaneous press conferences, Dr. Bert Metz, widely regarded Swiss atmospheric scientist and World Meteorological Organization Deputy Director R.D. Lemgassa delivered a one-two punch. We may be living through the warmest year on record and we are on a trajectory to fall considerably beyond our 2 degree avoidance target.
Few here are denying or trying to divert attention from the extremity of the situation. There are no overt skeptics here. But there are delegations from Parties (the countries involved) whose governments and business sectors are applying great pressure to maintain economic vitality and competitive advantage even though the price of that maintenance could be earth-shattering. Like Obama, many world leaders are performing balancing acts between yawning chasms. In front of one is a sign that says “This Way Lies Sustainability”, in front of the other, a warning of political oblivion.
So the COP enters day four tomorrow and the back and forth gradually moves forward like a great train trying to overcome inertia and gain speed. Everyone knows strong measures are called for. The word “Ambitious” is the tenth word out of every public speakers’ or politicians’ mouth. Since the huge failure to act decisively at COP 15 in Copenhagen the UNFCCC has been paddling around uncertainly. Last year’s COP 19 in Warsaw was rocked when 800 civil society representatives walked out en masse in protest of inaction.
Memories of these things are on everyones’ minds. Equally weighty are the fresh images of 400,000 people, many of them young and of all races, creeds and cultures, marching through the streets of New York City last September in the name of ambitious climate action. The great good spirits of the marchers did not hide their deep determination to follow a course which will allow our civilization and our cultures to survive.
The most important (and maybe the longest) question to be answered at Lima is: Do “we” the national governments of the world, finally have the will to do the right thing for the future or will ambition be overruled once more like in Copenhagen or Durban or Warsaw by forces that are determined to ignore reality in the name of short term commercial advantage or in defense of national sovereignty–which at this remove seems like an exploitable obstacle if not a painful anachronism? If the answer to this question is ‘no’ than the recommendations passed on to COP 21 in Paris–where final commitments of the Parties are to be added up–will be fatally flawed and “we”, the people of the world, will have to march again and again and again. Worse case is that our future will be strongly cardiovascular.
So the discussions go on. A committee originally mandated at COP 17in Durban is working now to develop an acceptable text which will list the INDC’s, a new acronym for Intended Nationally Determined Contributions. Will those INDC’s collectively pencil out to enough carbon reductions to keep our planet and its civilizations from deep jeopardy? Right now, in light of past levels of commitment and action it seems tragically unlikely. But then, one has to hope.
Maybe it’s the Lima weather, extremely temperate and soft, just four degrees from the equator nearing the summer solstice here and it’s warm, yes, but pleasantly so, well below 30 degrees C at the peak of the day. Or maybe its just that the gravest threat humanity has faced is barreling typhoon-like toward all of us and we are scattered, disorganized and very distant from being ready to face it. Whatever the cause, there are potent forces running in a vastly complex stream just beneath the surface here at the UN climate event (COP 20) that makes the head spin and the heart race.These conferences have been regularly co-opted by large industrial and commercial interests, modifying and tempering every final product in order to minimize the costs to the economies of developed countries . This, in turn, leaves the leadership in developing countries steaming in frustrationThe concept of Common but Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR) emerged early in the UNFCC process to indicate that wealthier countries, which have enjoyed the benefits of fossil fuel-driven development, owe a greater obligation to the process of mitigating climate change than the poorer countries. To these–the developing countries–CBDR is the basis of fairness in negotiations. The developed countries, like the US, act as if someone they don’t trust has a hand in their pockets. This is a basic conflict running throughout the UNFCC process.
This event in Lima has every indication of following precedent. The problem for the forces of placation, though, is that the evidence by now is so overwhelming and the science proven so accurate, what good reason for resisting decisive action can there be? Every time the forces in support of the status quo seem to be again ascendant, some new source of scientific or technical authority, a powerful study, a new metric or prognostication sweeps in the door and tumbles the neatly spaced pins.
Here are just a few major ground shifters related to COP 20 that help bring the message home.
–Earlier this week, the Financial Times announced that the venerable Bank of England is launching an internal investigation into whether the fossil fuel industry is a threat to the world economy. The implications of this could be enormous both in terms of market reaction, investment and disinvestment strategies. Volatility is one part of the problem. The prices of some fossil fuels are currently in such rapid decline that their market value could fall beneath production costs. These costlier fuels include Venezuelan dark crude and, glory be, Athabaskan tar sands. Other aspects of any such investigation might relate to externalities–the costs of pollution to society that are not accounted for in the commercial transactions. Especially compelling to the bank investigation is the newly established surmise that in order to keep world temperatures from soaring way beyond the liveable, over 80% of the known fossil fuel reserves will have to remain in the ground
–Another oil note; an outfit called Oil Change held a press conference today in Lima in which a painful contradiction was pointed out. In the past few weeks, the nations with the world’s largest economies announced that a total of 10 billion dollars will be donated to the UN’s Global Climate Fund. The Fund supports projects that mitigate carbon emissions and help the poorer countries hurt by climate change adapt. In the past year, those same countries subsidized the coal oil and gas industries to search for new reserves to the tune of $29 billion. This means that at a time when we are fighting the dire impacts of burning fossil fuel and it has become clear that we need to let reserves stay in the ground, we are heavily subsidizing the oil companies to find more. A spokesperson for Oil Change said that it was like “trying to shovel your way out of a deep hole while someone with a bigger shovel keeps filling it in”
–One of Europe’s largest power sellers. E.ON, based in Dusseldorf, Germany, just announced that it is shifting to non-carbon, non-nuclear sources of fuel altogether.
–It seems that for the fourth time, the Philippines is going to endure a major typhoon during, just before or just after the annual COP. Last year the worst typhoon, Haiyan, struck three days before COP 19. The year before that, Bopha struck during the middle of COP 18 and the year before that, Endog terrorized the Philippines the week after the COP. This year, it’s Ruby. These are extremely costly punctuations (Haiyan caused thousands of deaths and destroyed tens of thousands of homes. It forced the UNFCCC to adopt a new sub-category for climate-related intervention, “Loss and Damages”. Little money has gone into it to date.)
The typhoon stands as a telling example of the vicious injustices involved in climate change. The people in the Philippines did not overload the atmosphere with greenhouse gases that intensify storms. Nor did they reap the developmental benefits from that loading that could have given them the wherewithal to protect their homes and families from the severity of such storms. Their helplessness should be on the hearts and minds of the well-off and comfortable, the beneficiaries of fossil-fuel based development. Instead, their reactions are, in a word, stingy.
Over 170 coal burning plants in the US have closed down since 2010. According to Michael Dorsey, a Sierra Club Director in attendance in Lima, that number will reach 344 within three more years. The City of Los Angeles and Southern California Edison have recently decided to buy no more power produced from burning coal and are studying the possibility of replacing coal directly with renewables instead of opting for an interim stage based on natural gas.
So the first week of the penultimate climate summit draws to a close. It would be foolhardy at this stage to be optimistic that an ambitious piece of work will emerge from the deliberations. It is not considered likely by the more effective climate negotiation handicappers that the ADP committee (Ad hoc Committee on the Durban Platform) will step very far outside parameters of risk that have bound the COPs in the past. That committee is enjoined to help establish the ground rules for COP 21 in Paris when a new set of emissions reductions targets and other elements of climate change response will be agreed upon. These INDC’s (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions) are what countries will ultimately commit to in Paris.) Those who wish to “financialize” climate change response and take profit from it still have a very powerful hold not just on the economics governing renewal but, more telling, on our imaginations. Enough of us have to be able, first and foremost, to imagine the coming age. We need to do it in detail and then make those details reality. It’s a bottom up kind of deal, really, and we are all “interested parties”. It’s what keeps the ground shifting.
Report #3: December 8th through 10th, Lima, Peru
Commentary on some events from Days 6 through 8 of the UN climate summit.
If rhetoric were effective action, the world would indeed have been saved on day seven of the 2014 UN climate change COP 20. This was officially the first day of the High Level negotiations and it was peppered, after a brilliantly staged Cirque de Soleil-like Peruvian dance confection, by brief impassioned speeches from leaders of many nations, especially smaller ones. Collectively, these leaders or delegates lay down a thick coat of language–the unique palaver of climate change consultation–urging that the leaders of the world struggle to achieve ambitious targets in the final product that will be issued here sometime this coming weekend and will be forwarded on to Paris for COP21 next December.
All day long, dimly heard words and sentence fragments gurgled and ran brook-like from distant microphones or numerous monitors placed throughout this transitory campus. In the contemporary architectural style for huge convention or conference level-venues, pretty much the whole edifice that holds or walls off the parts of this event from others, and its numerous plenary halls, conference rooms, cafeterias or booths are made of fabric, poster board or varieties of plastic that can be easily reorganized or differently configured to meet the needs of the next event. It definitely loans the whole scene the feeling of the provisional or even makeshift, the pre- engineered. Climate politics as Dumbshow? One hopes not, but there is a backlog of past experience.
If at past COPs there has been a puppet master at work here, a wizard behind the screen pulling levers, shifting realities in the name of quiet but ultimate control, it is the United States, personified by Special Envoy, Todd Stern, Chief of the U.S. negotiating team
Mr. Stern should not be confused with Lord Nicholas Stern, widely lauded economist with the London School of Economics, who played a dubious role here yesterday (Dec. 8th) apparently shilling for the coal industry. He was a panelist at an event organized by the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) a bastion of commercial wishful thinking that perennially pitches a few tricky capitalist curve balls at these COPs. Lord Stern yesterday was one of five panelists, including a top level Shell executive and the CEO of a large Canadian energy corporation. Together, they made a case for a low-carbon, as opposed to a no-carbon, future. Stern’s title for his contribution was “Why be Satisfied with a No-Carbon Energy System in the Future When You Can Have a Low Carbon System Now?” The curve ball in this conceptualization is that it only works in conjunction with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). This technology has not yet proved itself out and no one has any idea of the unintended consequences of pumping vast amounts of gas down old oil wells or coal shafts. It just doesn’t sound healthy or lasting or dare I suggest, ecologically sound. In fact, it comes perilously close to that Strangelovian category of techno-fix known as Geo-engineering. This category is composed of very large, fabulously costly solutions like de-acidifying the ocean chemically or shooting salt crystals from giant cannons into the stratosphere above the arctic to refract the hot sunlight. Clean Coal really means: “Put your dirt in the hole! Millions and millions of tons of it.” Oil leases are going to be commercially viable again for their carbon storage space, new life for an old dog!
Mr. Todd Stern is another cup of tea altogether, a man seemingly capable in the past of sticking a knife in the back of climate hope with the subtlety and deftness of a trained assassin. His ability to turn phrases with bad news buried in them approaches the poetic. Todd’s long, sepulchrally grey visage, so thin it could slice cheese, seems to be increasingly at odds with his tone, which is not exactly light and folksy but over the years has developed a slight, not unpleasing hoarseness, a mildly soothing burr. As the years role by, Stern’s press conferences have evolved from being outright maddening to overt yawners from which less and less is expected except by those who know the pleasures of parsing Stern’s lines for their cryptic gems.
This time, on Tuesday, Stern’s and the U.S.’s first press conference of the COP was par for the course. The Japanese last week had already provided the gold standard for evasiveness and disinformation when six members of their delegation sat before a crowd of reporters who asked pointed questions–a few about why their country had applied to the new Green Climate Fund to help finance construction of new coal burning plants in Indonesia. When word reached the UN climate secretariat, denials of prior knowledge flew hot and heavy.
The leader of the Japanese delegation was a stony-faced character named Hideaki Mizukoshi, Deputy Director General for Global Issues at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs whose English challenged listeners and whose terse responses were close to insulting. One wonders how tinny is the Japanese ear or are they just hiding behind age-old cultural barriers? Comparatively, old-hand Stern was a river of clarity. He claimed, with some accuracy, that the U.S. position going into the negotiations was strong after Obama’s announcement last month of a bilateral deal with China. This act in which the US promised to reduce its CO2 emissions 26 to 28% from 2005 levels by 2025 and China promised it’s emissions would peak by 2030 has been widely lauded as a crucial step towards trust and effective action.
Mathematically speaking, this in itself is too little, too late but many serious climate hands are quietly sympathetic with the deal. It at least is somewhat disarming for the political right in the US which has always held up China’s secrecy and reluctance to commit as reason why the US should, in turn, avoid significant commitments to cut emissions. In light of the unseemly adolescent rush to the bottom that too often ensues, one is glad that China has thrown in and bilaterally with the US to boot.
At Tuesday’s press conference, Stern’s most controversial suggestion was that the old Annex I and Annex 2 breakdowns, in which the wealthy nations are expected to throw more into the collective pot, were antiquated. Established in l991, the basic breakdown has been the basis of the Common but Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR) distinctions made since. It’s “time to move along” Stern suggested, but qualified that statement with the suggestion that “we (the US) are for differentiation”, meaning he understands that there are indeed different responsibilities for the rich and poor countries.
Later in the high-ministerial second week of the UNFCCC conference it became apparent that the US and Japan were fighting together in the all-important ADP (Ad hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action)dialogue to exclude any mention or consideration of “adaptation” or “loss and damages”, two categories being discussed at the highest level that developing nations urgently want and need funded.
Today, US Secretary of State, John Kerry shows up to add weight and offer guidance, briefly, to the US delegation’s position. Officially he will pontificate on the subject of “Climate Change, A Test of Global Leadership.” Who knows where this might lead?
COP Overview Report (#4)
Winter Solstice, 2014
Recently returned from the desert shoreline of sub-equatorial Peru where it rarely rains, we arrived back to the deep green of a North Coast rainy season wet enough in its first half to put our part of California’s record drought at least temporarily at bay. Lima was the scene for the first two weeks in December of humankind’s–or at least civilizations’–annual stab at answering the gravest question ever put to it. How can we slow accelerating climate change enough to assure our societies will survive?
The mission of the United Nations’ climate secretariat, called the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), is to organize negotiations between 196 nations around this question. The annual two week discussions known as the Conferences of the Parties or COPs, was initiated in l995. This COP, held at a huge park-like military preserve—the Pentagonito–in the middle of Lima, was the 20th.
The COP process seems on the surface an ornate, measured dance between cooperating countries or “Parties”. Not far beneath, though, the guise of civility wears thin. It is there that fault lines related to a history of colonialism, exploitation and market competition begin to shift and the inequities inherent in the playing out of imbalanced national self-interests come to dominate relationships between countries.
The foundation for this event was, as usual, the science. The science of climate change and the human role in it are no longer in question in any circles where the earth is recognized as round. The UN’s science component, the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change, released its fifth “Assessment Report” of its 25 year existence just before COP 20. The news was indeed grim; 2014 was proving to be the warmest year since recordkeeping began in 1880. World average temperatures are currently on a trajectory to rise high above the already questionable 2 ° C increase that had been officially accepted by the UNFCCC at COP 17 as the greatest extent of heating that can be tolerated by society. (1.5° C is on the verge of becoming the new universal target as the severe impacts of only a 1° F rise (.55° C) in world average temperatures have already been cruelly felt.)
Many of us can utter by heart litanies of recent climate-related disasters—massive storms, vast landscapes altered by drought, melting sea ice and glaciers, species disappearing and on. We know less clearly, however, what to do in response. We seem to be at war with ourselves, caught between the desire for more development–including development that would reduce crushing poverty–and the need to avoid super-heating the atmosphere. Must we all lose for the winning?
Given this accelerated time-frame of planetary loss, how do we scale up our still-puny efforts at survival? Organizing an administrative path so that these questions could ostensibly be answered in Paris next December was the mission of the Lima COP. It is in Paris that the essential task of establishing the goals and targets of a new emissions reduction period will be completed. Many scientists and long-time activists believe that this is the make-or-break moment for the species, the last opportunity to substantially challenge climate change. And they are the optimists!
One crucial term frequently heard discussed in Lima was the “carbon bubble”. If all of the known reserves of fossil fuel are burned, resulting CO2 emissions would cause the atmosphere to be warmed far in excess of the perceived maximum survivable world temperature rise—the 1.5 or 2°C. Avoiding such disaster requires that we keep almost 80% of these reserves in the ground. Reserves, of course, which form the basis of value for the fossil fuel industries. If they are to be “stranded”–made unusable by regulations intended to keep within targeted temperature levels–the stock value of these mega-corporations could decline radically; thus the bubble.
The fact that the Bank of England recently launched a study to determine whether or not fossil fuels represent a major threat to the world economy emphasizes how close we may be to a momentous turning point. The fossil fuel corporations deny how close to the edge we are, of course, but the situation seems to be starkly simple. Either we allow the burning of fossil fuels to further destroy the health and productivity of the planet or we transcend the need for those fuels altogether. This would require that we pinch our noses and leap whole hog into a commitment to achieve a 0 carbon energy future as quickly as we can.
There was practically no one in attendance in Lima who did not credit the idea that the 0 carbon economy was coming at some point. The only real question was when. There were 0 carbon energy supporters in some numbers who insisted that we are much closer to being able to transfer our energy production to clean sources than we are allowed to think. Others feel themselves to be more hard-headed and aware of the distances we must travel and the rock-hard challenges along the road.
Knowing, though, that we are on the approach to a zero carbon economy is essential in several respects. One of the gravest threats we face carbon-wise comes through that urgent need for development in poorer countries to help their populations climb out of brutalizing poverty. Their valid demands for a large share of the remaining space in the atmosphere for emissions could push us all over the edge unless these societies are able to leap beyond fossil fuel-based infrastructure development and move immediately toward renewables. This they can only do with a great amount of assistance.
The UNFCCC process, unfortunately, seems resistant to ambition. It seems to amble without haste toward a middle ground–the safer alternative of a “low carbon future”. This “future” itself arrives via two different routes, both beset with problems. Either we fall back on a combination of lower-carbon fuels and those that are carbon-free but still dangerous or we go on using conventional fuels rendered less carbon intensive through application of new, unproven technologies.
Coal still dominates world energy production but is the dirtiest fuel. Nuclear power has proven to present its own grave existential threat. The other major coal-replacing fuel, natural gas, or methane, burns cleaner but incidentally releases methane into the atmosphere. Methane is second only to CO2 as a dangerous greenhouse gas. More important, natural gas production on the scale this model needs requires widespread fracking and all that goes with it.
The second potential route toward the low carbon model still relies on burning oil and especially coal, but this time the industry claims it is “low-carbon”. They claim to be able to achieve this on a gigantic scale through a technology called Carbon Capture and Storage or CCS.
CCS is the new white knight riding in to save the industry. It requires pumping carbon emissions, either in gaseous form or liquid, into cavernous holes in the ground many of which were depleted oil or even coal reservoirs. Both getting it to the holes and guaranteeing that the gas or liquid stays there far into the future requires technological competence on a scale we’ve never yet achieved. Like “spent” but still lethal nuclear fuels, these CO2 storage vaults will require constant monitoring in a temporal frame that has no discernible end point, i.e. forever.
CCS might be better lumped into the category of “Geo engineering”. This is the Strangelovian sub-group of climate solutions that are distinguished by their gargantuan size, uncertain outcome and massive expense; using giant cannons, for instance, to shoot ice crystals into the polar stratosphere in order to deflect sunlight, or salting the ocean with basic compounds on the scale necessary to counter increasing acidity.
The CCS promoters, struggling to perpetuate their dominance, say little about unintended consequences. They admit, though, that even if it all worked, somehow, the percentage of savings over plain old “dirty” coal-fired plants would be a maximum of 17 %–not insignificant, certainly, but not nearly enough.
Thus without easy access to natural gas, without being haunted by a constant nuclear menace or without the application of highly unlikely mega-technologies to clean up dirty old King Coal, the industrial revolution that created modern society will draw quickly to a close. Though the rapidly growing divestiture movement might prod them closer to the edge, it will be the internal contradictions of fossil fuel burning as the foundation for civilization that finally propels the coal, oil and gas industries over the precipice. Any threat of new regulation or curtailment of subsidies to fossil fuel producers has the capacity to send the market spinning into dithering insecurity.
As one might suspect, these industries are not prepared simply to relinquish their enormous power and have already launched a new PR campaign. Only through the burning of coal and/or natural gas, their argument now goes, will we be able to sustain the continued rise of the world’s poor into the new global middle class. In one quick hop, the same companies that have famously despoiled ecosystems and ruined indigenous or land-based communities in places like the Niger River Delta, Appalachia, the Ecuadorean Amazon or even the Gulf of Mexico are now asking us to accept a new vision of themselves as principled enablers of the march out of poverty.
Scheduled to be completed at the end of the day on Friday, COP 20 ran into early Sunday morning before an agreement was cobbled together. In it, vital concerns of developing countries were paid only lip-service. Actions favored by the powerful had higher priority. Overall, a sense of the urgency which the science clearly calls for was sorely lacking.
Leadership dealt with this void by once again, as in past COPs, giving the document that wrapped up the “accomplishments” of the event a high-sounding title: “The Lima Call to Climate Action”. Finally, they congratulated themselves warmly and did what by that time they really wanted to do– go home, however more vulnerable their homes had become because of the job left undone. Large segments in the fabric of the climate enterprise were left unsewn and the questions science so fervently asked went unanswered. As if they had all the time in the world.
As for the US, it’s hard to accept the testimony of your senses. In a passionate speech two days before the conclusion of the event Secretary of State John Kerry gave a laudably impassioned and informed speech about climate change. Among other statements was this, “An ambitious agreement in Paris is not an option, it’s an urgent necessity.”
During the next two days, when his State Department negotiating team became an obstacle to the COP closing with anything resembling an ambitious statement or plan, one could easily feel unmoored. There was an obvious and large disconnect. Was Kerry not really in charge of Special Envoy Todd Stern and the US negotiating team? If not, who was? Perhaps Kerry was manifesting a political culture whose primary mode was strong speeches with no compulsion to follow up with action. Was I just naïve or had politics in the Obama era slipped ever deeper into a new kind of ethical void?
It was hard not to recall Hilary Clinton in the same State position, same UNFCCC press conference but this time in Copenhagen 2009 when she pronounced with the certainty of unassailable power that the US was taking part in establishing a global climate fund. This fund would bring 100 billion dollars per year to poor countries to help them adapt to climate change or install clean energy technology by 2020. At this date, five COP’s later, the “Green Climate” Fund has a total of 13 billion in it, all in one-time donations, only three billion from the US.
What of the UN? If there was corruption or lack of ambition among nations that slowed negotiations without any assignment of responsibility for the damage that the delays might cause, was the UN complicit? Was it putting the world at ever graver risk by letting the nations get away with very bad behavior? Or was it buffaloed too by the big energy corporations?
The Nations! Sometimes they seem in this process little more than loosely conglomerated hunting packs, private interests with a token government adjunct, their original insufficient regard for real natural and cultural boundaries limiting their capacity for right action from the start.
Beneath a diplomatic veneer, the nations were engaged in a free-for-all as the climate steamroller bears down on them all: the well-off work to preserve prerogatives without appearing to be bullies or deniers; the poor struggle just to keep their noses above water; and the new in-betweeners—like China, India and Brazil with their rapidly rising middle classes seem determined to maintain a position which allows them the benefits of both definitions, rich and poor, developing and developed. Vulnerable sovereignties constantly jockey for position against easily bruised dignities while the truly powerful among them claim the most “territory”, both atmospheric and market-wise. The UN with its limited authority could only dash around like a harried matron aunt without much power in the family trying to cajole a bunch of surly teenaged siblings to stop their brawling and take care of business.
The ultimate duplicity, in my estimate, was reserved for the one Lord amongst us, Lord Nicholas Stern, famed British climate economist who has a provenance of epic dimension that begins with the London School of Economics. He led off a seminar in Lima at the pavilion of the IETA, International Emissions Trading Association. These are the same old carbon traders who seem to provide annually a cozy little den where jocular corporate hardballers and private enterprise acolytes take refuge from a convention campus dominated by straight-laced public sector types.
Led by amiable salesman Dirke Forrister, former chairman of Clinton’s Climate Change Task Force, IETA carries a lot of water for corporate forces. The panel discussion, in addition to Stern, included Shell’s chief environmental officer, the current CEO of SaskPower, a large Canadian energy producer and several other high level energy corporation managers. The subject at hand was originally encapsulated in a long title, “Why wait to implement a Zero Carbon economy in the future when we can have a low carbon economy right now.”
Stern’s brief talk led off what was basically an oil company love fest by paying tribute to the advent of CCS, the new holy grail of the carbon masters. As one after another of the speakers followed suit, the implication was that CCS was a done deal, an effectively functioning technology that would extend the life of coal-burning power production. Just how important this almost mythical process was to the industry became quite clear.
It was Lord Stern’s choice of words in a press release issued right after COP 20 closed that struck one dumb. After lauding the conference, its summary statement and its Peruvian organizers, he concluded, “However, it is already clear that the scale of action to control and reduce annual emissions of greenhouse gases will collectively not be consistent with a pathway that will mean a reasonable chance of avoiding dangerous global warming of more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels.”
In other words, we’re on a roll toward disaster. But thank God there is one elastic element, Time. And what is buying us that Time?
CCS or maybe the possibility that we might be able to cannonade climate change out of existence with a big enough gun?
Stern went on, “That means countries must continue to explore opportunities to increase emissions cuts. And they must build into the Paris agreement arrangements for moving purposefully thereafter to increase the scale of action.” The thereafter is what really hurts. Why thereafter in Paris in December? Why not thereafter that very moment in Lima ? Why hadn’t it been thereafter in Copenhagen or even Kyoto? What have we been doing for the past twenty years? Cutting enough emissions had been the ‘purpose’ of the whole thing from the start, right?
Or had it? Why was it that Stern and company seemed quite content to concede defeat before the battle? Why concede imminent, short-term defeat unless of course there was more benefit, i.e. profit, in the delay? Otherwise why even pretend to fight? What does it take to light a fire of real urgency under these people? So many questions.
In face of the one unquestionable element, the science, a message to take away from Lima is that lack of urgency is another form of climate denial and potentially just as fatal as the brand Senator Inhoff is still trying to sell.
Negotiations are scheduled to resume on a smaller scale in Geneva in February and then Bonn in March in preparation for COP 21 in Paris in December. The UN has just established a registry for Paris in which each country is expected to enter their Intended Nationally Determined Commitment for voluntary, as opposed to mandatory, emissions reductions and assistance to developing countries. Questions of equity and Common but Differentiated Responsibilities—who owes who to pay for what—will be answered…or not.
Directives after Lima
What specific guidelines or functional wisdom might we in Northern California draw from the experience and current state of the UNFCCC process? A few things suggest themselves. One is to keep doing what we’re doing. Local public and private clean energy, conservation and ecosystem restoration initiatives can and do play out positively for our economy and the environment. We need to step up the level of activity and define new areas where progress might be made especially in light of the State of California’s emerging new energy initiatives. We also need to move past our individual comfort zones and be willing to challenge misinformation about climate science when it pops up.
All this should not be interpreted as an abandonment of the highest level of societal organizing, the Federal government and the United Nations. The enormous march in New York last September rang a lot of bells. Massive public expressions of our desire to survive must be thrown up against the remaining walls of ignorance in government and industry and against progress-killing lack of ambition. How big do the storms have to get, how deep the droughts?