Adam Welz's Weblog

Reality and Copenhagen: 18 December 2009

Posted in ALL BLOG POSTS, ALL PUBLISHED WORK, nature & environment by adamwelz on December 18, 2009

Hi All

here is an op-ed I wrote for this week’s Mail & Guardian (South Africa).


On the outskirts of Copenhagen, in a massive, featureless exhibition centre next to a single giant, iconic wind turbine, the future of the world is being decided. Or so we’re told.

The Bella Center is the heart of the 15th Conference of the Parties, or COP15, the climate conference where an international deal on curbing the output of greenhouse gases – and the vast amount of money that will be needed to accomplish that – is supposed to be decided.

COP15 at Bella fits the image of a large, but ordinary, conference or trade show.

And the negotiations going on inside are very large, but otherwise ordinary. There’s an alphabet soup of negotiating blocs – the LDC bloc, the G20, the G77 + China, AOSIS, EU and so on. Each bloc tries to hold together, big countries bully small ones, small ones fight back. There are prolonged arguments over single lines of text and a lot of repressed emotion.

Washing over the whole show is a river of ever more impressive numbers – how many millon hectares of forest are burned annually, how many gigatons of carbon are emitted, how many hundreds billions of dollars will be needed to save us and how many heads of state are coming into town – is it 129 or 130?

It all looks and sounds very important.

But only two very simple numbers really matter here, and only two parties really need to be negotiated with.

The first number is the number of degrees Celsius the atmosphere is going to warm. The second is the atmospheric greenhouse gas concentration – in parts per million — that will determine those degrees C of warming.

The negotiating parties that can’t be avoided are two very experienced, battle-hardened bruisers called Physics and Chemistry.

The tough thing about Physics and Chemistry is that they don’t actually negotiate. They tell you what you can do, where you can stand, whether you’re going to live or die and that’s that. Discussions with Physics and Chemistry are over before they’ve begun.

Atmospheric science institutes have spent hundreds of millions of dollars figuring out what the physics and chemistry of global warming are, and what this means for the planet’s ecology and us. After all, if your opponent wins every time, it’s wise to figure out the rules by which she operates so you can arrange your life accordingly.

The scientific understanding of global warming, like that of everything else, is constantly progressing.

A few years ago, when the last Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report was released, an atmospheric carbon concentration of 450 parts per million (ppm) was considered the safe upper limit. This would lead to two degrees C of warming above pre-industrial levels averaged out over the whole globe.

A note in the report* says that 2 degrees C of warming averaged over the whole globe means between 3 and 4 degrees C for much of Africa, a vastly changed climate to the one we’ve adapted our agricultural and living systems to. In short, a disaster (hardly anyone picked that up).

The latest climate science tells a grimmer tale. Many top climate scientists now believe that an atmospheric carbon concentration above 350ppm (which will likely lead to 1.5 degrees C of average global warming) will get the whole planet into the danger zone.

We’re currently at 390ppm, already over the limit, and need to drop greenhouse gas output extremely fast.

Somehow 350ppm and 1.5 degrees C – the targets our best scientists say we should be aiming at – are becoming lost in the torrent of numbers gushing though the Bella Center. On the table is a 2 degrees C maximum warming goal, but the offers of carbon emission reductions being put forward will actually lead an astonishing 770ppm atmospheric carbon and 3.9 degrees C global warming by 2100 according to MIT scientists tracking the Copenhagen talks.

Because the Bella negotiators think they’re negotiating with each other, not with Physics and Chemistry, they’re approaching these climate talks the same way as talks about trade tariffs on steel or suspender belts. They think it’s all about compromise; after they’ve argued like hell and exhausted themselves, they cut a halfway deal and go home.

Reality, in other words, has left the building. The parties at COP15 are negotiating as if the atmosphere is a mere concept on a draft policy paper.

The good news is that reality is living outside. We’re seeing the rapid growth of huge global alliances of people standing up for climate science and justice. Groups like the one I’m currently working for,, are supporting countries that understand the gravity of the situation, and growing our voice in the media.

It’s going to be a long, hard fight, and we might (all) lose. But if Africa is to survive and prosper, we have to get involved. ENDS

*REFERENCE: Contribution of Working Group I to the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, Chapter 11, Regional Climate Projections, page 866-867

6 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Claire said, on December 18, 2009 at 6:57 pm

    Excellent piece Adam. Keep at it for all our sakes!

  2. Lizza said, on December 20, 2009 at 2:40 am

    Hi Adam, by now the talks are over and I’m struggling to find out what the actual deal is. It seems America is not going to cut their emissions at all, while expecting developing countries to do so. What is happening with Europe? Who else has placed themselves ‘above the law’ and what effect has that had on others?

    • adamwelz said, on December 21, 2009 at 7:36 am

      No-one really knows what the actual status of the deal is, or they didn’t yesterday. The US was claiming that it was an agreed-to deal, but the submissions on the floor of the COP on Saturday made it clear that many countries were only taking note of it (the language adopted by the whole COP is that the Copenhagen Accord is ‘noted’, which the US interprets as ‘agreed-to’ and many other countries interpret as ‘we acknowledge its existence’).

      Most journalists writing on this subject don’t seem to have a clue that the legal status of the deal is unclear.


  3. Lizza said, on December 20, 2009 at 5:58 am

    Dear Adam


    America’s position has made it clear what we are up against: in advertising speak it’s a campaign for the hearts and minds of mainstream Americans, fought out in a media war between groups like and corporate interests.

    I think would do well to think about this mainstream, and how to access them. In my view, their current campaign style is not going to do it, as they have positioned themselves as a fringe group.

    Advertising theory may be evil but it works, and it has made careful studies of who its target groups are and how to reach them. I really suggest acquaints itself with some advertising theory. Activists often fail to realise that the mainstream is an entirely different animal to the activist community, and cannot be appealed to through the means that would appeal to activists.

    The mainstream are very conformist, and will spurn appeals to individuality.
    I think the only way activists can really reach them, in America and anywhere else influenced by American culture, is through the very base kinds of appeals one finds in vague ideas like patriotism. Americans need to be flattered, showered with sugary garbage about their children in soft-focus images of cornflowers and sunsets. They need not to get too much information too quickly, and they need to be appealed to at the level of emotion rather than intellect. Tear-jerking schmaltz, adaptations of their crappy myths of freedom… these are things that are needed.

    I think thus far anyone with a conscience has instinctively recoiled from this kind of media, but perhaps now is the time to begin trying it. So far I have seen only one ad made in the language of commercial media that addresses climate change. It’s Canadian and still way too hip for America, but it’s a start.

  4. […] Crucially, no date was set for a peak in carbon emissions, no date was set for any of it to become legally binding, nor were any international emissions targets defined. However much activism and pressure was placed upon world leaders to reach a deal, could we really have expected anything more in just two weeks? Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband are now insistent that the procedural process for the talks must change, as negotiations involving 193 separate countries made for a diplomatic nightmare. […]

  5. Jim Dahl said, on October 28, 2010 at 9:21 pm

    Yeah, Adam….as you know we are intelligent idiots as a lot.

    Maybe we will survive, if we get off this rock.

    You buddy in Ketchikan, Alaska. jrd

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: