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Countdown to Copenhagen

Keith Kloor

A week ago, prospects for an international climate agreement were fading fast. Now, with only days to go before the Copenhagen summit gets underway, recent developments in China and the U.S. have renewed hopes for a “breakthrough” deal.

The sudden optimism owes to the recent news that President Obama will be attending the Copenhagen conference on Dec 9 and that the U.S. will offer a provisional target for its own greenhouse gas reductions. As John Broder in the NYT reports, this represents:

“the first time in more than a decade that an American administration has offered even a tentative promise to reduce production of climate-altering gases.”

Not to be outdone, China has just announced that it’s premier,Wen Jiabao, will also attend the climate summit, and the country plans to reduce its own “carbon intensity” over the coming decades. As Juliet Eilperrin writes in the Washington Post:

“The move by the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter to announce a near-term target of a 40 to 45 percent reduction, coming a day after President Obama set U.S. climate goals for the talks, suggests a possible breakthrough in Denmark next month in the long-stalled climate negotiations.”

But it’s not just the recent U.S. and China actions that are propelling momentum. Connie Hedegaard, Danish minister for the climate conference tells the Washington Post:

“One by one, governments from all over the world are delivering before the climate conference next month. Last week, we saw concrete targets from Brazil and South Korea, and Russia improved its bid. All across the globe, things are moving.”

Just how concrete are those targets in the U.S. and China, though? Byrony Worthington in the Guardian takes a closer look at the numbers:

“Because economic forecasts already predict that China’s economy will become less carbon intensive in the next decade, the country’s pledge actually only amounts to a cut of between zero and 12% off business as usual emissions in 2020 (depending on what version of the future you choose to compare it with). That is roughly a 40% increase in CO2 emissions on current levels.”

As for the U.S., she writes, the 17 percent below 2005 levels it has pledged by 2020 “amounts to only a 4% cut in emissions compared with 1990 levels.”

Still, Alan Wang of the Natural Resources Defence Council tells the Times of London that these opening targets put forward from Beijing and Washington have symbolic heft:

“This is setting the stage for a successful meeting [in Copenhagen].”

Meanwhile, the controversy over CRU’s hacked emails shows no signs of abating. In an open letter, Judith Curry, a climate scientist with the Georgia Institute of Technology writes:

“What has been noticeably absent so far in the ClimateGate discussion is a public reaffirmation by climate researchers of our basic research values: the rigors of the scientific method (including reproducibility), research integrity and ethics, open minds, and critical thinking. Under no circumstances should we ever sacrifice any of these values; the CRU emails, however, appear to violate them.”

Also at Dot Earth, Mike Hulme, a climate scientist at the University of East Anglia, weighs in:

“This event might signal a crack that allows for processes of re-structuring scientific knowledge about climate change. It is possible that some areas of climate science has become sclerotic. It is possible that climate science has become too partisan, too centralized. The tribalism that some of the leaked emails display is something more usually associated with social organization within primitive cultures; it is not attractive when we find it at work inside science.”

Hulme goes on to suggest that the “Iintergovernmental Panel on Climate Change may have run its course.” Because of “its structural tendency to politicize climate change science,” he writes that the IPCC:

“has perhaps helped to foster a more authoritarian and exclusive form of knowledge production – just at a time when a globalizing and wired cosmopolitan culture is demanding of science something much more open and inclusive.”

Finally, the University of Colorado’s Roger Pielke Jr. suggests there are larger lessons to be gleaned from ClimateGate:

“The sustainability of climate science depends upon on our ability to distinguish the health of the scientific enterprise from the politics of climate change. The need to respond to climate change (which I support) does not justify sacrificing standards of scientific integrity for political ends. In fact, as the events of the past week show, when standards of scientific integrity are compromised, the political consequences can be double edged.”


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