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UN climate talks stumble as scientists raise alarm

University of Chicago professor Raymond Pierrehumbert traced global warming theory back to its roots in the late nineteenth century during a keynote lecture at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting in San Francisco, California, this week. Starting with Svante Arrenhius’s initial calculation of the warming that could be expected from increased carbon dioxide levels in 1896, he moved through the “dark ages” of the early twentieth century and into the modern era of climate science, beginning in the 1950s. Decades of work since then has refined and advanced the science, but the early results stand up remarkably well today. “We in climate science have earned a right to be listened to,” Pierrehumbert said. “The question is, ‘Is anyone actually listening?’”

As he spoke, halfway around the world in Doha, Qatar, United Nations (UN) negotiators remained mired in a geopolitical dispute that dates back more than two decades. The talks wrapped up on Saturday, producing an agreement that will by most accounts do little to advance the global-warming effort, aside from keeping the diplomatic process alive. It is yet another frustrating outcome for scientists such as Pierrehumbert, as well as legions of environmentalists, who look to countless peer-reviewed studies and reports underscoring the need for rapid action.

“The fact that it was so hard to achieve even Doha’s modest steps underscores how tough it will be to deliver a truly meaningful accord in three years,” Elliot Diringer, executive vice-president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions in Arlington, Virginia, said in a prepared statement. Diringer said that Doha also serves as a reminder that the UN process will not be enough unless countries have implemented domestic policies that allow them to deliver on their promises. “Putting those policies in place remains the highest priority.”

The talks in Doha were marked by a long and acrimonious debate over political ambition, financial aid from developed countries and a new drive by developing countries seeking compensation for damages sustained as a result of global warming. The final text resolved little but continued last year’s commitment to conclude a new climate treaty by 2015; even the deforestation talks, which have been a bright spot in the negotiations in recent years, got dragged into the mire and made little progress. The agreement will also keep the Kyoto Protocol alive, but, as discussed in our earlier coverage, this will accomplish little given that it only covers 15% of global emissions.

All of this is evidence that better science does not necessarily translate into political results, particularly when that science is focused on the global picture. But there are some indications that mounting evidence of real-world impacts at the regional level — on full display throughout the week at the AGU meeting — is beginning to sink in at the national, sub-national and local level. Early results of an upcoming analysis by the Global Legislators Organization (GLOBE) and the Grantham Institute at the London School of Economics suggest that significant policies are being adopted at the national level, driven by an increasing recognition of the potential impacts and risks of inaction. This has yet to translate into political ambition and deal-making within the UN, GLOBE argues, but it might be crucial to both in the future.

For his part, Pierrehumbert laid out two paths forward. The “hard landing” ends with archaeologists of the future sifting through the remains of the modern world in an effort to understand where things went wrong. At the other end of the spectrum, the world steps up to the challenge. He cited President Barack Obama’s commitment to address global warming. “I hope the leader of the free world will lead the world into the future,” he said, “and that we can write the happy ending.”

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