What Would Failure at Copenhagen Mean for Climate Change?
The planet's quickening pace toward irreversible climate change grows far more dire if world leaders fail to find a way to stem emissions this December, experts warn.
Nov 10, 2009 - Douglas Fischer - Scientific American
DIPLOMACY OR DROUGHT?: The destiny of our planet depends on successful talks at Copenhagen.
This is the consequence of failure at Copenhagen: A marked shift in scientific effort from solving global warming to adapting to its consequences, a hodge-podge of uncoordinated local efforts to trim emissions - none of which deliver the necessary cuts - and an altered climate.
Climate experts, scientists and negotiators say that, absent international agreement, the children and grandchildren of those living today will negotiate a world where planetary geo-engineering is a part of daily life, sea-walls defend coastal cities, the world's poor are hammered by drought, floods and famine and our planet is heading toward conditions unseen for the last 100 million years.
The December talks are, in other words, the last, best chance to change course before chaos descends.
"The choice facing the present generation is an awesome one," said former Vice President Al Gore during a speech before the Society of Environmental Journalists last month. "Never before has a single generation been asked to make such difficult and consequential decisions that will have implications for all succeeding generations."
Failure, Gore added, would be "catastrophic" - not only given the urgency of changes already underway, but because it challenges the efficacy of the rule of law as "an instrument of redemption."
Collapse in Copenhagen could not just become an obstacle to further progress, however. It also might force society to confront choices and decisions few in the scientific and policy world want to face.
"Copenhagen is mitigation," said Guy Brasseur, director of the Climate Service Center in Hamburg, Germany. "If that fails, we move to adaptation and geo-engineering."
Adaptation will require hundreds of billions of dollars on the low end. It will force a vast transfer of wealth, technology and aid from industrialized counties to developing ones. That buys no more than a Band-aid for those most at risk, said Saleemul Huq, head of the climate change group at the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development.
"We've failed our primary task of preventing harm," said Huq, lead author of the adaptation and mitigation chapter of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's fourth assessment report. "Now we are going to be tasked with protecting those most vulnerable to harm. And soon we are going to be confronted with globally catastrophic harm."
"There really is nothing to do but adapt today."
That's where Copenhagen comes in.
The diplomatic gathering, from Dec. 7 to 18, has one goal: create an "ambitious global agreement incorporating all the countries of the world" to succeed the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012.
It will be the 16th in a line of negotiations extending back 20 years, some more successful than others, all aimed at curbing humanity's appetite for fossil fuel.
There is deep pessimism that it will succeed. Deep divides on how best to tackle the problem exist between developed countries. Even deeper divides separate developed from developing worlds.
But there have been surprises before.
At the 2007 talks in Bali, all signs pointed to failure until delegates awoke the day after the talks were to end and discovered key players had worked through the night to reach an agreement.
"You don't know the answer before you actually get there, and very often you don't know the answer before the last couple of days," said Doug Boucher, a climate expert for the Union of Concerned Scientists who has participated at several international talks.
"It's really the extreme pressure of the final deadline that gets countries to make the compromises, make the bargains necessary to get to the final agreement."
And there will be pressure.
Previous negotiations all pointed to 2009 as the year to draw a line in the sand, but it's more than just a diplomatic deadline. By virtually every metric - emissions, deforestation, fuel use, land development, economic growth - business-as-usual projections point to catastrophe.
"Civilization will experience the greatest disruption in its history," said Jeffrey Kiehl, a senior scientist at NCAR's climate change research program. "We're applying a forcing to the planet that it hasn't seen for tens to hundreds of millions of years, ... when there was no ice at either pole."
"I don't think we want to go down that path."
The effect of those forcings is a matter of much speculation and study. What has become increasingly clear is that many of the most sophisticated climate models have underestimated the earth's capacity for abrupt and radical shifts - swings that make many of the worst-case economic and climate forecasts from just a few years ago look almost rosy.
A recent report by the United Nation Environment Programme found many upper-range predictions deemed probable over the long term by its climate change panel two years ago are already occurring.
Author and reporter Dianne Dumanoski noted in her recent book, "The End of the Long Summer," that the only thing certain about the coming century is "its immense uncertainty."
"It will take conscious effort to resist taking refuge either in despair - in the conviction that 'it's too late' - or in the alternative, to bask in groundless, sunny optimism that 'we'll figure out something, because science always does.' "
Addressing this planetary emergency will require a new map, Dumanoski said - a rethinking, in effect, of civilization itself. Social systems must be retooled to withstand severe disruption. Climate change must be seen as far more than just an "environmental" dilemma or even an energy issue. Indeed, she added, humanity must come to see that seemingly small, inconsequential choices in every aspect of modern society can have - and are having - a profound and deleterious impact on the planetary system.
"There is no hope for accommodation in the current path," she said.
Efforts to change all this are already falling far short of what many analysts consider necessary, said David Victor, a professor at the University of California, San Diego's Laboratory on International Law and Regulation who studies climate policy. These failings, he wrote in an essay published in the Oxford Review of Economic Policy, arise from "a political logic that will soon be difficult to rectify." Deep cuts are costly. They are difficult to sustain, require radical change, and will, for many countries, be hard to administer.
Hence the need, many experts agree, for the pressure of a global agreement.
The status quo isn't working, they add: Countries and companies are eyeing each other warily, floating proposals for tepid cuts with the promise of steeper reductions if the rest of the world antes up as well. Australia in August tried to commit to the globe's most aggressive reduction scheme: a modest 5 percent cut in emissions from 2000 levels by 2020 with a promise of a 25 percent cut if other developed nations went along. It never got out of the country's Senate.
In Washington, D.C., climate legislation has been eclipsed by the health care debate, and key Democratic lawmakers say a far-reaching House bill should be sharply scaled back. California's progressive efforts to reduce emissions have been swamped by budget crisis.
"Countries need to have a sense that other main contributors to the problem ... are moving together toward a solution," said Jennifer Morgan, director of climate and energy policy for the World Resources Institute. "Countries will likely not go to the outer edges of what's possible."
But what's possible? The list of chores is daunting.
Scientists say greenhouse gas emissions must be cut 80 percent from 1990 levels by 2050 to avoid the worst disruption. By comparison, the maligned Kyoto Protocol called for the industrialized world to trim emissions between 6 and 8 percent from 1990 levels by 2012.
Emissions from the 40 industrialized nations agreeing to binding cuts are down five percent - on target to meet Kyoto. But that's only because the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent economic decline of much of the Eastern Europe that has sent emissions in those countries plummeting.
Take out those countries and add developing nations, and global emissions have jumped 10 percent since 1990, according to the United Nations.
What's more, by 2050 the world population is expected to near 9 billion. That's the equivalent of adding 10 more United States to the globe - along with all the roads, fast food joints, sewage treatment plants, factories and power plants, homes and stores that accompany growth.
Indeed, it's the growth that's the problem, most climate experts argue. America's average per-capita carbon footprint is about 20 tons of planet-warming emissions a year. A typical European's is 10 or 12 tons. In China, 4 tons and growing. But some three billion people worldwide emit less than a ton a year. (A sustainable global per-capita footprint - one that avoids the worst warming - is about 4 tons per person, scientists figure.)
Those three billion are the poorest of the poor: they heat with wood, cook with dung, have little or no access to electricity or clean water.
How to let them partake in a First World economy without cooking the planet is another major stumbling block awaiting delegates in Copenhagen.
For the scientists, their job in some ways is done. Climate disruption is now a political question, an economics issue, a security threat.
"Clearly it's hard to think how we could better present the case," said Brasseur, the Climate Service Center director. "The science has been very clear."
"It is now up for society to decide."
And signs do suggest society is starting to decide: China is talking with the U.S. on emissions reductions and has launched a Green Revolution with the goal of catching Europe by 2020. Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt of Sweden, who assumed the EU presidency in July, has called on European nations to tax carbon emissions regardless of global negotiations.
There is time, Brasseur said, but not much: If delegates cannot seal the deal in Copenhagen but can make sufficient progress to deliver an agreement within five years, the talks can be considered successful.
WRI's Morgan, who has spent a decade playing key roles at UN climate talks, takes a harder line. After December, there is not enough time to get a treaty ratified and in place by 2012, when Kyoto expires, she said. Countries and industries need to know what market mechanisms and signals will be in place post-Kyoto.
Amid the contention, there is one bright spot: Industrialized countries have realized they have an obligation to help the world's poor, said Huq, the London-based adaptation expert.
Of the many pieces to the climate treaty puzzle, this is the area closest to agreement, Huq said. He is confident Copenhagen will produce some consensus on this point.
"There is simply no way (delegates) can look themselves in the mirror and not do anything about it," he said. "This now is no longer disputed territory."
In some ways, that's the great irony of climate change. So many of the initial impacts from a carbon-intensive lifestyle are first hitting those who use the least amount of carbon: Drought in the Sahel, floods in Bangladesh, changing agriculture patterns in India, parts of Asia and Africa, increased water stress for millions living downslope of the Andes and Himalaya.
That will change, scientists predict, and discussion over how to adapt will move quickly from the Third World to the First.
Soon - absent steep cuts and the pressure of a global treaty - politicians across the United States will confront questions that make budget woes and health care costs seem downright quaint, said Brasseur.
"Where will I get my water? What is my strategy (for adaptation)? .... How am I going to have enough food to feed all of California?" he said, rattling off a hypothetical list.
By then the solutions may carry a frightful cost.
"The later we take action, the more we have (climate) impact," Brasseur said.
"And that impact is going to be irreversible."
This article originally appeared at The Daily Climate, the climate change news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.