The Climate Show #31: Doha! Doha! Doha!

It’s the run up to Christmas, and the annual ritual repeats. Diplomats gather in Doha to discuss and debate action on climate change, so Glenn and Gareth talk to their correspondent on the spot, New Zealand climate media strategist Cindy Baxter to find out what’s happening in the oil kingdom’s echoing halls. At the Fall AGU meeting in San Francisco, NOAA has published its 2012 Arctic Report Card (grim reading, it has to be said). Plus Gareth talks about truffles as a bellwether for Europe’s changing climate, and the boys get all enthusiastic about nanophotonics and steampunk.

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Doha notes: Random thoughts from the Middle East


Shelob/Maman lurks over Doha delegates.

Every time I walk into a press conference it seems there’s more ‘cheery’ news. Yesterday it was UNEP releasing a science report on melting permafrost. Scary stuff. So scary that The Age in Melbourne gave it most of the front page and even some on the back page. (Meanwhile the NZ media was all about Hobbits).

According to the report, if the permafrost keeps melting like it has been, the gases it releases will make up 39% of emissions in 2100 (a combination of release of trapped methane and C02 from decomposing matter).

Then today it was the World Meteorological Organisation’s State of the Climate provisional report. 2012 was no exception to the trend of rising temperatures. “Global warming isn’t a future threat: it’s happening now,” intoned the official, pointing to this year’s Arctic melt as evidence.

These organisations save this stuff up for the climate talks, but sometimes one has to wonder why. I heard a UN official telling a newbie to the process that none of this would have any effect on the delegates at the talks. “They’re in a bubble – they’re totally immune to this stuff,” he said. And he’s right.

Some of these officials have been coming to the climate talks for more than 20 years and they don’t see anything beyond their negotiating tables. What might have an impact would be if they get home and their kids, having seen the permafrost or WMO stories, start giving them hell about it. I hope they do.

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Don’t look back in anger

cindy.jpgWith the Bonn meeting over and a huge amount of negotiating still to do, Hot Topic’s woman at the table, Cindy Baxter, gives her impression of the state of play — and she’s not a happy bunny…

I’m getting angry now.

I’ve just spent nearly two weeks in Bonn watching the train wreck of the climate negotiations as delegations stuck in their corners, most especially the officials from the industrialised world.

At one point, in a developing country move led by the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), there was some great draft text for the Kyoto Protocol parties — calling for developed countries to cut emissions by an aggregate of at least 45% by 2020 which might (might) keep the carbon loading in the atmosphere below 350 ppm. Might I say because even that’s not for sure at all. The text was supported by almost every member of the 130-strong developing country “G77” + China, with the notable exception of a few OPEC countries. It simply “noted” that this was what had to be done – and that figures like this need to be on the table.

But in the end even this note went west, with the NZ delegation joining the fight against it, and the result was agreement to discuss the developed country aggregate target next time, in June. Erm, that’s what they were supposed to do this time. So much for our concern in this part of the world for our pacific neighbours.

The only real numbers in the entire meeting were the calculations on the current aggregate 2020 target, based on submissions or announcements made by the developed world to date. Greenpeace crunched the figures and it wasn’t pretty. 4% to 14% by 2020 at 1990 levels. That’s it. Pathetic. New Zealand, of course, didn’t have any targets at all to contribute to the table, but you can rest assured it would fall in the lower half.

New Zealand kept bleating about its problems — I had a conversation with one NZ delegate who was terribly pleased with himself about the adoption of a 450 ppm carbon loading limit. What, I asked, would NZ do to keep us to this? Certainly removing any reference to a strong aggregate target would be counterproductive to that. He went into a rant about how the whole world has to act together. The old “you first” charade. Never mind that the western world is historical responsibility for causing this problem in the first place.

What has to happen to move it forward? Clearly massive ice shelf break ups in the Antarctic won’t do it. We need real leadership and it ain’t gonna come from our lot, any time soon. These officials, who’ll all be back in Bonn in 6 weeks time, need very clear direction from their bosses, from the world’s leaders.

Obama wants an end to our dependence on fossil fuels. That sort of statement is a good start — although the weirdness of the US system means that he can’t introduce his own legislation and has to rely on a difficult congress to make it happen. As Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned scientists told journalists one day at a press conference “let’s call the US target a moving target. And it’s moving in the right direction.”

Leaders have to step up and direct these officials to move — and move faster. We can’t glue the Wilkins ice shelf back on. We can’t make it rain in Australia, or anywhere else for that matter. But we can change the politics. These guys need to feel the heat. Otherwise we all will.


Contention city

cindy.jpgOne of Hot Topic’s regular readers, the estimable Cindy Baxter, is in the Greenpeace team in Bonn keeping a weather eye on the latest round of negotiations to find a successor to the Kyoto Protocol. Here’s her first guest blog: an insider’s view of events so far.

Bryan’s quoted Stern’s speech at length — I won’t bang on about it, but it’s still worth a mention. Stern’s not known for his charisma — the rumours going round here are that Obama’s speechwriter may have been involved. It was certainly in that league. Pressed all the right buttons.

After so many years of witnessing the Bush delegation’s wrecking ball, it was quite a moment to hear the US say:   “You will not hear anyone on my team cast doubt upon or downplay the threat of global climate change. The science is clear, and the threat is real. The facts on the ground are outstripping the worst case scenarios. The costs of inaction—or inadequate actions—are unacceptable.”

It brought extended applause from the whole room; an audible sigh of relief. Some were in tears.

We Kiwis noted with glee the reference to anyone planning a high carbon economy being “losers” — wondering what Mr Brownlee thinks about that.

Yet on a more sober note, Waxman’s bill in Congress, released today, is a mixed bag. Sure, 7-8% by 2020 (at 1990 levels) is better than Obama’s 0% – but certainly nowhere near what we need from the US. The offsetting provisions (2bn US tons) would mean the fossil fuel industry could continue to pump out C02 for the next 20 years. But it’s early days and there may be another, better bill tabled before long.

Meanwhile back in Bonn, as Stern wowed his new fans, Bush’s former climate delegation leader Harlan Watson (originally recommended by ExxonMobil to work with the Bushies on climate) sat on the balcony of the plenary, headphones on, pretending he was typing. He’s here with a US congressional delegation, working for Republican sceptic Sensenbrenner. Why don’t I find that surprising?

He may have been coaching the OPECs. My top quote of the week so far was from Kuwait: “Let’s get real. We all need C02”.  

Meanwhile the whole negotiations go along at a snail-like pace. Have they made progress? Not yet. Are they likely to? Debatable. The developed world’s focus seems to be on process – anything that means they can avoid the hard discussion on narrowing down the Chair’s proposal to resemble anything like the negotiating text that needs to be legally tabled by 17 June if we want to get a deal in Copenhagen.

The developing world is, meanwhile, still waiting for the action they were promised in – erm – 1992…