climate policy and climate science inhabit parallel worlds

The mask slips : Nature : Nature Publishing Group.

It says a lot about the outcome of the UN climate talks in South Africa at the weekend that most of the immediate reports focused on the wrangling that led to an agreement of sorts, rather than the contents and implications of the agreement itself. Late-night talks, later-night arguments and early-morning pacts between battling negotiators with the apparent fate of the world resting on their shoulders give the process a melodrama that is hard to resist, particularly for those who experienced it first hand in the chaos of the Durban meeting (see page 299).

Such late finishes are becoming the norm at these summits. Only as nations abandon their original negotiating positions and reveal their true demands — throwing international differences into stark relief — does a sense of urgency develop and serious negotiation take place. Combined with the consensus nature of the talks, which demands that everyone agrees to everything, the result is usually a cobbled-together compromise that allows as many countries as possible to claim victory and, most importantly, provides them with a mandate to reconvene in 12 months’ time.

So it was this time. In the search for a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, we now have the Durban Platform, which comes on the heels of the Bali Road Map and the Copenhagen Accord.

It takes a certain kind of optimism — or an outbreak of collective Stockholm syndrome — to see the Durban outcome as a significant breakthrough on global warming, as many are claiming. Outside Europe — which has set itself binding emissions goals over the short and long term beyond what it will inherit under its stated plan to carry on with unilateral cuts under an extended Kyoto — there will be no obligation for any nation to reduce soaring greenhouse-gas emissions much before the end of the decade. And that is assuming that all flows smoothly in future UN talks, and that a global deal with binding commitments proves easier to find in talks due to start in 2015 than it has so far.

The Durban deal may mark a success in the political process to tackle climate change, but for the climate itself, it is an unqualified disaster. It is clear that the science of climate change and the politics of climate change, which claims to represent it, now inhabit parallel worlds.

This has always been true up to a point, but surely the mask of political rhetoric has now slipped so far, to reveal the ugly political reality underneath, that it can never be replaced. How can politicians talk now with a straight face of limiting global warming to 2 °C? How will campaigners frame this result as leaving yet another ‘last chance’ to save the planet?

That does not make the political process redundant — far from it. Introducing policies to curb emissions was never about saving the planet or not, or stopping global warming or not. It is about damage limitation — the 3 °C or 4 °C of average warming the planet could experience in the long term, according to some analyses of the Durban outcome doing the rounds, is clearly much worse than the 2 °C used as shorthand for dangerous at present. But it is preferable to the 5 °C or 6 °C that science suggests is possible if emissions continue to rise unabated.

To prevent that outcome will be just as difficult politically as was the now abandoned attempt to find a global successor in time to follow Kyoto. But it remains possible — and there were at least encouraging signs in Durban that previously obstinate countries recognize that it is necessary, even if it is delayed. Those, including this journal, who have long argued the scientific case for the need to control greenhouse-gas emissions should back this new political mood to the hilt. But as the Durban Platform crowds with politicians, the climate train they wait for has left the station.

Comments

  1. 2011-12-14 02:05 AM

    Report this comment #34028

    Jeffrey Thaler said:
    Well written editorial, and unfortunately too accurate. There is a theme arising out of Durban on the limits of legal-political processes, as well as the growing gap between scientific and political “realities”. How to bridge that gap, so we are not just mitigating significant harms to the world our children inherit, is the still-to-be-resolved challenge that requires work outside of the big conference halls. Time and growing GHG emissions are not waiting for any of us.

  2. 2011-12-14 03:13 AM

    Report this comment #34039

    Fred Singer said:
    The Nature editorial (Dec 15; The Mask Slips) talks about science and policy in parallel universes. Quite correct ? if you mean ?separate? and ?disconnected.? COP 17 was never about climate, let alone science. It was all about money: (1) How to assure continuing government careers for 200 delegations, with annual vacations paid by taxpayers. (2) How to transfer $100 billion a year from industrialized nations to LDCs (or more precisely, to their kleptocratic rulers), using ?climate justice? or ?climate guilt? (depending on who is doing the talking). (3) How to gain a national advantage by setting differential emission limits.

    By now it should be obvious that (1) the enshrined temperature limit of +2degC is based on fiction and has no scientific basis. As an annual global average, climate models tell us, it will mean warmer winter nights in Siberia and Canada; perhaps -35deg instead of -40; and little warming in the tropics. (2) It should also be obvious that even strenuous and economy-killing efforts at mitigation, will have little effect on atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, let alone on climate. If a demonstration is needed, just look at the lack of warming since 1998, in spite of rapidly rising levels of greenhouse gases.

    So, yes, I would agree with the editorial, if properly expanded.

  3. 2011-12-14 05:18 AM

    Report this comment #34049

    Kevin Matthews said:
    Yes, great editorial. Coming from the world’s leading scientific journal (which of course would prefer not to have to say such things) one would hope that authorities and media around the world take significant notice.

    Thinking about the whole UN climate negotiation process, and how complex and cumbersome it is to seek unanimous agreement from 194 countries….

    Then comparing what has come out of the COP17 cycle – significant and landmark progress, even if still sharply insufficient to the urgency of need – to what has come out of the U.S. Congress over the last several months or more, with its supposedly streamlined and results-oriented binary democracy approach – practically nothing.

    And suddenly – surprise! – consensus (in this entirely limited comparison) looks pretty darn effective – just from a simple results-accomplished perspective.

    For which differential, there is, in turn, good scientific reason.

  4. 2011-12-15 05:14 AM

    Report this comment #34107

    John Wheelahan said:
    No, there are no parallel worlds – the science and politics of AGW share the same scam. Spare us the crap about 6 degree C temperature rise , when you know that this is a lie. No temperature rise for a decade!
    The science and politics are about money – the greatest swindle since the South Sea Bubble. Hundreds of billions of dollars are to be given to African despots, conmen, swindlers and bankers for a scientific fanatsy. These beneficiaries will live in luxury in their Mediteranean villas while the poor of the third world countries and developed countries will be the sufferers, and pay the price. Please get real, Nature Editor.

  5. 2011-12-15 07:21 AM

    Report this comment #34146

    Patrik D’haeseleer said:
    I think it is very clear that the “global consensus” approach to dealing with climate change has failed.

    I may be time for those countries who are willing to do something about it to band together and go it alone. And then start charging tariffs on any goods imported from countries not part of the coalition, proportional to the amount CO2 pollution caused by those countries.

    If we can get Europe, Africa and the island nations on board, I don’t think it would take too long for China and India to follow suit.

  6. 2011-12-15 11:35 AM

    Report this comment #34154

    Michael Lerman said:
    I do not subscribe to the concept of global warming induced by human activities. About a 1,000 years ago Greenland was green and cows brought by the Vikings polluted the clean Arctic air. Instead of global warming Greenland got frozen till today. I often go to The Canadian Arctic and indeed can testify that the mean temperatures in July are higher than previously (~10 years ago), and though my Inuit friends blame the US government, I argue and try to persuade them their view is wrong. Michael Lerman, Ph.D., M.D.

  7. 2011-12-18 06:28 AM

    Report this comment #34314

    Karin Green said:
    I find this comment in the article troubling: “Those, including this journal, who have long argued the scientific case for the need to control greenhouse-gas emissions should back this new political mood to the hilt”, especially when you say something like ” there were at least encouraging signs in Durban that previously obstinate countries recognize that it is necessary, even if it is delayed”.

    To me, this bodes ill for an open minded and unbiased editorial policy!

  8. 2011-12-19 06:47 AM

    Report this comment #34516

    Jeffrey Eric Grant said:
    The COP people have been at it for a long time! I would think that if the science is solid, then the arguements would have moved foreward, at least a little. Instead, we are still talking about the evidence of global warming, and how to mitigate against it.
    AGW is all based on atmospheric rise in CO2 that was put there by human activity.So, now we have closed the talks in Durban, still with no agreement on the cause of the increased CO2 that will, someday, maybe, eventually, turn the world temperatures a little warmer. Not in my lifetime; maybe not even in yours!
    I challenge anyone on this thread to answer either of the following two questions:
    1) direct me to a recent empirical scientific study that concludes that increased atmospheric CO2 caused the inclease in atmospheric temperatures more than about 2C/100yr?, or
    2) Since water retains less CO2 when it is heated, how can the worlds oceans be both warmer and more acidic at the same time?

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