Reality and Copenhagen: 18 December 2009
here is an op-ed I wrote for this week’s Mail & Guardian (South Africa).
REALITY AND COPENHAGEN
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, 350.org, 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