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Why Copenhagen will, and should, fail

Dec 3, 2009 - Kevin Krajick - The Earth Institute

This is the sixth of a continuing series of essays and interviews from Earth Institute scientists on the prospects for a global climate-change treaty. Check with us daily for news and perspectives, and to make comments, as events unfold throughout the Copenhagen meetings.

James HansenOne of the main scientists who convinced world leaders to take note of climate change says that the Copenhagen talks are so flawed, it would be better if they collapse so the process can resume from scratch.  James Hansen, director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies (an Earth Institute affiliate) told The Guardian newspaper, “The approach that’s being talked about is so fundamentally wrong that it’s better to reassess. … it’s just as well that we not have substantive treaty. I would rather it not happen if people accept that as being the right track, because it’s a disaster track.”

Hansen has been a central figure in tracking the upward rise of manmade carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. He was the first major scientist to warn Congress of the issue, starting in the 1980s, and during the Bush administration, he sparred publicly with officials who tried to suppress his work.

Hansen told the London-based newspaper that  the current thrust toward setting targets for carbon emissions and then fighting over the mechanisms to achieve them will probably produce no more than past treaties. He also attacked proposals to set up markets  for trading carbon offsets, in which businesses and nations would buy and sell permits to pollute—a cornerstone of proposed policy in the United States and elsewhere.

“If it’s going to be a Kyoto-type thing, people will agree to that,” he said of the upcoming summit. “Then they will spend years trying to determine exactly what that means. The whole idea that you have goals that you’re supposed to meet and that you have outs, with offsets, it means that it’s an attempt to continue business as usual.”  Hansen is critical of both U.S. president Barack Obama and former vice president Al Gore, for not going far enough. “This is analogous to the issue of slavery faced by Abraham Lincoln or the issue of Nazism faced by Winston Churchill,” he said. “On those kinds of issues you cannot compromise. You can’t say let’s reduce slavery, let’s find a compromise and reduce it 50% or reduce it 40%.

Hansen says that serious warming is now already coming whatever happens, but that the consequences  can still be reduced with strong, immediate action. He says use of coal, a major source of carbon, must be phased out altogether, and calls for a direct tax on carbon emissions—moves that most leaders have resisted so far. “It may be that we have already committed to a future sea-level rise of a meter or more, but that doesn’t mean you give up,” he told the Guardian. “What are you thinking: that we are going to abandon the planet? You want to minimize the damage.”