I was flicking through the channels on the Sky box last night — the 10-30pm news was too depressing to endure — and I stumbled on this amazing programme on the Living Channel. Originally broadcast by the BBC last December, it’s a special edition of science show Bang Goes The Theory, called The Human Power Station. Premise: show just how many energy slaves (in this case, cyclists with dynamos attached to the rear wheels of their bikes) it takes to power a family of four through an ordinary Sunday’s power use. The answer? 70, when Dad takes a shower — see the excerpt above. Oddly compulsive viewing, and informative about energy use, even if one of the presenters can resist expressing energy in units of chocolate digestive biscuits. I can’t find a repeat in the Living Channel schedules, and it’s no longer available on the BBC’s iPlayer, but keep an eye out — it’s well worth watching if you get the chance.
Calls for a radical re-framing of policies to deal with climate change are intuitively attractive — after all, current national and international policies don’t seem to be doing much to curb rising emissions. The latest effort comes from a group of developed world academics brought together by London School of Economics professor Gwyn Prins, and takes the form of The Hartwell Paper [PDF] — a document based on discussions held in February at the English country houseof the same name. It suggests ditching Kyoto and all its structures, and instead tackling climate change with policies that approach the problem more obliquely. The authors claim:
…it is not possible to have a ‘climate policy’ that has emissions reductions as the all encompassing goal. However, there are many other reasons why the decarbonisation of the global economy is highly desirable. Therefore, the Paper advocates a radical reframing – an inverting – of approach: accepting that decarbonisation will only be achieved successfully as a benefit contingent upon other goals which are politically attractive and relentlessly pragmatic.
Sounds reasonable enough at first reading, but my suspicions were roused when I read beyond the executive summary.
Prins et al derive the need for their new approach from what they describe as two watersheds that were crossed in late 2009: the failure of COP15 in Copenhagen to deliver on its promise of a global deal to follow Kyoto, and what they call “an accelerated erosion of public trust [in climate science] following the posting […] of more than a 1,000 emails from the University of East Anglia Climatic Research Unit” last November. Copenhagen clearly did not live up to expectations, and the UN-mediated policy process may well have lost impetus, but the authors go on to assert that the CRU email theft, and the subsequent press furore and investigations means that “the legitimacy of the institutions of climate policy and science are no longer assured”. That, it seems to me, is a very long bow to draw. To see the Hartwell take on the emails applauded by Steve McIntyre and that they approvingly reference Andrew (Bishop Hill) Montford’s book The Hockey Stick Illusion suggests to me that the authors are coming at the issue with their own set of preconceptions — a framing they want to impose on the issue. A look at the author list (Roger Pielke Jr, Nordhaus and Shellenburger from the US think tank The Breakthrough Institute, amongst others) hardly dispels that notion…
When they consider the underlying science, they are at pains to misrepresent what’s going on:
Climate change was brought to the attention of policy-makers by scientists. From the outset, these scientists also brought their preferred solutions to the table in US Congressional hearings and other policy forums, all bundled. The proposition that ‘science’ somehow dictated particular policy responses, encouraged – indeed instructed – those who found those particular strategies unattractive to argue about the science. So, a distinctive characteristic of the climate change debate has been of scientists claiming with the authority of their position that their results dictated particular policies; of policy makers claiming that their preferred choices were dictated by science, and both acting as if ‘science’ and ‘policy’ were simply and rigidly linked as if it were a matter of escaping from the path of an oncoming tornado.
If “the science” has been unhelpful, then this misrepresentation of the message is even more so. The basic message from “the science” is clear enough. There’s too much carbon in the atmosphere, and adding more is going to make life very uncomfortable — all life, not just human beings — in the not too far distant future. Did scientists really bundle this message with “particular policy responses”? Only if reducing carbon emissions can be considered a policy response — but that’s the very response Prins et al seems to want to dance around. Decarbonisation they can countenance, but not now, not quantified. They want to ignore the quantification of the size of the problem we face because it might be inconvenient:
We share the common view that it would be prudent to accelerate the historical trend of reducing the carbon intensity of our economies, which has been a by-product of innovation since the late eighteenth century. However, we do not recommend doing so by processes that injure economic growth, which we think – and the history of climate policy demonstrates – is politically impossible with informed democratic consent.
What if political impossibility is confronting the harsh impact of physical reality? The Hartwell Paper assumes that we have the luxury of time, that we can step away from the progress made over the last 20 years , and somehow recast international policy according to a wishlist of interventions that might (if we’re lucky) set us on the right path. They imply that we need not face reality now, that we should take the Capability Brown approach to a country house, up a winding path that yields carefully framed glimpses of our goal, rather than march straight towards a target defined by our understanding of physical reality.
There is some good analysis of The Hartwell Paper at the Economist (with nice Eno reference), and by Richard Black at the BBC. Both writers suggest that whatever the merit of the Paper’s recommendations, the authors cannot ignore where we are now. We may not want to start from where we are, but we have no choice. In a wider perspective, the Paper is arguing for a bottom up approach to carbon reductions, looking for the low hanging fruit — efficiencies, black carbon reduction — while the Kyoto approach is top-down, starting (with luck) from an informed appreciation of what we would do well to avoid. It seems obvious to me that we need both approaches, at a national as well as international level. Setting a 40% target for emissions reduction by 2020 is just as valid as mandating the use of low energy lightbulbs, or encouraging the adoption of electric vehicles.
Prins, Pielke Jr et al prefer to ignore what we really know about the climate system and the one-way nature of the changes we’re imposing on it (who can put a species back after it’s gone, or reconstruct a coal seam?), adopting instead a high-minded but ultimately wishy-washy stew of policies that look a lot more like sticking plasters than a remedy. And, being a cynic, I can’t resist asking the cui bono question… who might benefit most from the policy mix they propose? I leave the answer as an exercise for the reader.
“We are very worried because we have no water. Half the people of this community have already left. Those who remain are struggling with the lack of water.”
Those are the words of a villager in a small Bolivian village called Khapi which is suffering from the effects of retreating glaciers in the Andes. A BBC news report explains how it is for the villagers. Over the past 10 or 15 years, changing weather patterns have led to irregular water flows – the streams become torrents or dwindle to just trickles. “Our crops are dry now, our animals are dying; we want to cry.”
There are only 40 families in the village, but they’re ready to take their case to international forums. One of their leaders is Alivio Aruquipa (pictured):
“For the past two decades, we, the people from the Andean regions have been suffering because of the greenhouse emissions from the developed countries. If they don’t stop our glaciers will disappear soon. We want those countries to compensate us for all the damage they have done to nature…
“We don’t know how to calculate the compensation because we are not professionals, we are simply farmers. But we would like assistance, and then to receive some money and, with that money, to build dykes to store the water, improve the water canals.”
Hot Topic carried a post last November on the necessity of adaptation in Bolivia, following an Oxfam report. The BBC news item is another example of the increasing body of evidence which bears out predictions of likely impacts of climate change. It will be discounted by some as anecdotal but there comes a point where the sheer volume of converging stories means they deserve credence.
The call for compensation is a just one, and rightly part of the price we should pay to assist poorer people already suffering the effects of human-caused climate change. In some respects it is in lieu of the price we ought to have put on carbon some years back. It’s a call which the Bolivian government is pushing. They would like to see an international environmental court where compensation claims can be made.
Bolivia is right now hosting its own international conference on climate change, the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth. It’s attended by a mixture of NGOs and government representatives, and in some respects it’s an attempt to recover the ground Bolivia considered was lost at Copenhagen when the Accord was put together by a small group of larger countries. Pablo Solon, Bolivia’s UN ambassador, who has been prominent in the organising of the conference says:
“The only way to get climate negotiations back on track, not just for Bolivia or other countries, but for all of life, biodiversity, our Mother Earth, is to put civil society back into the process. The only thing that can save mankind from a [climate] tragedy is the exercise of global democracy.”
Robert Eshelman describes the conference in the Huffington Post:
“…participants [include] Bill McKibben, NASA scientist Jim Hansen, Martin Khor, G77 + China negotiator Lumumba Di Aping, and Vandana Shiva. Throughout the conference, seventeen working groups will convene to discuss issues ranging from deforestation and climate migrants to the rights of indigenous peoples and developing technologies for poor and low-lying nations to adapt to the impacts of climate change.”
He sees divergence from the kind of path the US is wanting to follow:
“While the U.S. will use the Major Economies Forum and the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas to spotlight how small group and bilateral discussions among leading economies, rather than the 192-nation U.N. process, is the best way forward on climate negotiations, participants at the Bolivian conference argue that the conversation about, and the process for, developing strategies to address climate change needs to be expanded, not narrowed, bringing more voices into the debate around climate change.”
Hopefully this needn’t indicate stalemate, but both paths can be pursued. If they’re not there is real danger of the poorest nations suffering the injustice of neglect.
It’s a bit like reading the runes — trawling through reactions to the events of the last couple of weeks, trying to work out what the Copenhagen Accord means. I don’t mean a parsing of the words, though translating the language of diplomacy is never trivial, but what the various parties to the Accord, and the rest of the world, think it means — and crucially, what that implies for future action to reduce emissions.
For background, read this excellent BBC analysis of Copenhagen, and Joe Romm’s interesting take at Climate Progress (which refers to Bill McKibben’s reactions at Grist, plus there’s a more considered McKibben article at e360), but the article that really helped to crystallise my thoughts is Mark Lynas’ insider’s account of the final phases of negotiations: