"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Monday, March 16, 2009

Guest blogger: Paul Baer re: Copenhagen

I just posted Paul Baer's transcription of the closing plenary of the IARU meeting at Copenhagen to a static web page. Unfortunately it was so long as to be unwieldy for the Blogger format. Paul also sends along these thoughts, which motivated him taking the time to do the transcription.

I'd like to add that Paul has become both a good friend and a close collaborator in the time since I first reported on his essay the Worth of an Ice Sheet, here. I'm pleased and honored to be associated with him. 

I had the good fortune to be invited to co-chair a session at the “Climate Change Congress” held in Copenhagen, Denmark last week. It was an impressive meeting, frankly overwhelming in its density, with far too many sessions to choose from and people to speak with. There were many interesting presentations of all kinds, and I could write about the meeting for far longer than I actually spent there.

What fascinates me – and frustrates me – is the complexity of the process by which a very diverse community of scientists is trying to find how to wield a collective voice in the political process. I focus here on only one very important question: the question of “targets.”

In the closing plenary, five prominent academics and the Danish Prime Minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, all spoke to the conference’s “key messages.” One of the academics who is actually a climate scientist, Stefan Rahmstorf of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impacts Research, said in his response to the prime minister that “2ºC is not safe.” Rasmussen in turn asked pointedly whether he and his fellow policymakers should abandon the 2ºC target, and the “at least 50% below 1990 levels in 2050” long term goal that has also been embraced by the EU and elsewhere.

If you read the exchange, you’ll find that Rahmstorf tries to say that the 2ºC target should be considered an upper limit, not as “we’ll take fifty fifty odds of staying below it,” while Dan Kammen of UC Berkeley explicitly argues for an 80% below 1990 level in 2050 to achieve a lower risk – on the order of 15-30% - of staying below 2ºC. Will Steffen of ANU, somewhat in contrast says that 2ºC is a “reasonable” goal for the Copenhagen meeting, but stresses the need to take an “adaptive management” approach which allows for subsequent revision.

But when Rasmussen has his final comments, all that he seems to take away, is yes, the 2ºC target and the 50% below 1990 in 2050 is still good enough. Worse, he stresses that he needs fixed numbers, not the kind of nuance and hedging that proper science always produces. In this realm, there was no possible argument that could have prevailed that would have justified a lower target. Or so it feels…

If you don’t wish to read the whole transcript, start from where Katherine Richardson of the University of Copenhagen, the Chair of the session and the whole conference, introduces Rasmussen with “Mr. Prime Minister”.


Update: There's some interesting discussion over at Stoat's.


Michael Tobis said...

Well, since nobody else is picking up this thread, I'll challenge you myself.

Paul, what did you expect? If all our politicians went as far as Rasmussen, we'd be in much better shape. Did you expect him to actually converse with the scientists in public at the open plenary?

It's simply the case that political speech by politicians is almost entirely ceremonial. It represents decisions already made and strategies already decided upon to support those decisions. Anything new that might have been said at the closing was going to be ignored by any politician.

I wonder when the last time was that a representative's position was changed by another representative's speech in any parliament. It must be very rare if it happens at all.

What would you rather Rasmussen had said? "Thanks guys. We know we're in deep shit. I needed y'all to come out here and give me some cover. Now I'm going out as far on a limb as I can based on political constraints. Of course, you know that when it all shakes out we won't even get anywhere near as much as I'm saying I'll support. So we better pray you guys are overstating the case because otherwise we're so hosed you can't even think about it."

That would have been a shade truer. But would it have been more constructive?

Arthur said...

Seems to me you can't just tell the politicians their current choice "is not safe", or not sufficient, or whatever, you have to have an alternative couched in implementable policy terms.

Will Steffen's "adaptive management" is clearly the right sort of thing: as knowledge and experience improve, we'll have a better idea what the limits are, but for now we have to make best guesses, and realize they're subject to future revision.

So a specific mechanism for introducing such future revision is needed. Maybe Steffen or somebody else there had something along those lines? As long as there's an expectation that the targets may have to be moved, and perhaps a schedule for re-setting them, people shouldn't be too upset by that.

David B. Benson said...

Mr. Politician, did you watch "The Hunt for Red October"? Recall Peter Lorie's last Lines, "You just killed us."?

Good, because you, along with everyone else's actions are killing us. Take action now. Put people to work planting tens of billions of trees.

Anonymous said...

Based on the russian roulette analogy, wouldn't it be fairly easy to say that:
a) 2°C rise has a significant chance of massive catastrophe
b) Target X has a significant chance of hitting 2 degrees.
c) therefor chance of catastrophe from target X is roughly a*b plus or minus error margins,

d) if a*b PLUS the error margin is too high a risk (ie. ask an insurance risk expert or something), then no, it's not good enough.
e) Choose another (lower) target
f) Repeat steps d-c until risk is acceptable.

We're still being told that decreasing Australia's emissions by 60% by 2050 is going to be enough. Not only that, but that a 15% decrease by 2020 would actually be a 30% decrease, due to population increase (ie per-capita emissions). Politics is seedy.

captcha: joystoks

tidal said...

Sorry, mt - this is a little off-topic (on a good topic!)...

Anyhoo, this recent video - "Our Little World" - seemed an interesting complement to your Grist essay of approximately the same title. Kind of the "reverse take" on the problem, but arriving at similar conclusions. Both do a good job of relating our current footprints to what is sustainable with simple mental pictures, but from different frames of reference.

Keep up the great work. Keen to hear what develops in your current "search".

tidal said...

New Scientist has an article an editorial on this topic.
Did climate conference just confuse the politicians?
We need another kind of scientist to save the world
"There are ways out of the deadlock. As the major climate negotiations in December approach, scientists need to be able to take off their labcoats sometimes and speak as concerned citizens. Some may feel uncomfortable with blurring the line between science and activism, but they should be aware that no one understands the risks better than they do and no one is better placed to give informed opinions.

"Politicians, for their part, should stop begging climatologists for easy answers. What they need instead is a new breed of advisers to descend from the ivory towers of academia and join the climate fray - people who are willing and able to weigh up the risks, costs and benefits of various degrees of action. Risk managers, step up to the plate."