Lies, damned lies and brutal storms

Hot off the wires: Hot Topic’s Durban correspondent Cindy Baxter posts her first insider’s view from COP 17.

As thousands of people poured into Durban’s massive conference building yesterday morning for the start of the 17th session of climate talks, we heard news that the extraordinary storm we’d gotten soaked in on Sunday night had actually killed eight people in this very city.

It was a chilling start to the two-week talks and a stark reminder to us all as to what is at stake, just a week after the IPCC warned us that extreme weather events are going to get more frequent.

Also over the weekend weekend we saw the start of a story that is playing out in the corridors. It seems that the big developing country emitters: China, Brazil and India, have joined the US and others in saying there will be no new legally binding agreement on climate change until at least 2020.

The first day of these meetings is a marathon of PR, a dueling of statements from the world’s biggest and smallest trying to attract the attention of the press. A delay in action to 2020 would be “a betrayal not just of small island nations, many of whom would be destined for extinction, but a betrayal of all humanity,” Grenada Ambassador Dessima Williams told the meeting on behalf of AOSIS (the Alliance of Small Island States).

“There are no plausible technical, economic or legal impediments for not taking the actions required by science – we need to act now.”

I then had the pleasure of sitting through the EU and US press conferences – in retrospect a bad move in terms of my abilities to retain the will to live. They lined up against the Kyoto Protocol (too little, not enough countries, etc). They assured us they were pouring billions into funds for developing countries (when I’ve seen much bigger sums being poured into the fossil fuel industry).

But, for now, I won’t dwell on Kyoto. Because again, the US press briefing took my breath away. Jonathan Pershing, head of the US delegation, was quite something.

Nobody, he said, had even considered increasing the pledges that they made in Copenhagen and confirmed in Cancun. Everybody would be far too busy implementing those pledges all the way up to 2020 to look at how to increase them before that. Never mind that the IPCC’s fifth assessment is likely to give us even stronger warnings in 2014 than it did in ’07.

But Dr Pershing’s last comment was the best. He was asked how did he equate his statement (that the US firmly believed in climate science and that the Copenhagen pledges wouldn’t be increased until 2020) – with the IPCC’s recommendations that to keep below 2ºC of warming, the industrialized world would need to cut emissions by 25-40% by 2020 and emissions needed to peak by 2015?

Oh, he said, I was a lead author of that report (he was). And, I can tell you, there are many emissions pathways where you could keep temperature rise below 2ºC based on not really doing much else except the Copenhagen pledges until 2020.



So I’ve spent the last couple of days talking with scientists about it. I even met Rajendra Pachauri, head of the IPCC and put it to him. They tell me that there are pathways where you could do the most work after 2020. But they are the ones that would see economies crashing under the weight of the massive cuts in energy that would have to happen virtually overnight in order to get under that curve.

The UNEP “Bridging the Emissions Gap” report 2011 assessed the scientific literature to look for technologically and economically feasible emissions pathways that can limit temperature to below 2ºC. In layman’s terms, I’ve now got a very broad brush idea of what some of those “many pathways” might look like.

The current pledges on the table don’t give any sort of a price signal or incentive to stop our reliance on fossil fuels and start the switch to renewable energy. The pledges are tiny, but they’re going to keep the US pretty busy for a few years (4% cut at 1990 levels by 2020). But on our way to Dr Pershing’s bright and easy 2020 world, we’d carry on building coal-fired power stations and all the other fossil-powered infrastructure that our Governments continue to subsidise. And all those other things we do that pumps CO2 into the atmosphere.

According to the IEA’s World Energy Outlook projections, by 2017, we’d be using a lot more energy and pumping out a lot more CO2. Indeed, if we want to keep below 2ºC, essentially, we’d pretty much have to stop that CO2 at source around then. We’d have used up our “carbon budget”.

So what happens then? Well, by 2020, we’ve have a whole new generation of brand new coal-fired power stations that haven’t reached the end of their economic life. Those would be the ones we’d have to turn off.

From there, if we’re really serious about this two degrees thing (and Dr Pershing keeps assuring us that the US is serious about keeping this promise), we have a couple of choices:

We could turn off the coal-fired power stations. Shut ’em down. Our Copenhagen promises made nearly 20 years ago have meant we don’t have enough renewable capacity to swap over to. Can you imagine that? The screaming by the electricity companies? Governments breaking electricity supply contracts? A corporate lawyer’s dream.

The other option is to carry on pumping CO2 out there and start a massive takeup of technology to suck the CO2 back out and get rid of it somehow –  technology that we haven’t invented yet.

Can you imagine the US doing either of the above?  Pershing seems to think is a perfectly acceptable scenario.

There’s so much else going on here: Kyoto dead or alive? Monckton’s antics1 . But I’m still a bit stuck on what Pershing was able to say, with a perfectly straight face, to the world’s media, then say he had no time to take more questions before he walked out of the room.

More to come, especially on all things Kyoto, as I can bring myself to think about that situation even less.

  1. Details, please! Ed. []

16 thoughts on “Lies, damned lies and brutal storms”

  1. “I’m certainly very serious, very serious and concerned indeed, about deferring any non-token action on this problem until I’m no longer in a position of reponsibility.”

    The Endless Growth Monster (with added Communists!) versus Sole Habitable Planet.

    My Re-election (or Re-appointment) Prospects versus, well, Forever…

    If you were forced to bet the house on how it would go wouldn’t you just have to pick, um, ‘Stupid’ every time?…

    Look – why not go the whole hog?! Just put off doing anything until 2050, promptly impose martial law to enforce mind-bogglingly stringent carbon rationing, and then slaughter, what? 1/4? 1/3rd? 1/2? of the population over half-a-century in the ensuing climatic chaos and intra and inter-national conflict! It’s probably going to happen anyway…

  2. Brilliant, Bill. Feels like the “world’s leading democracy” would be happy to go along with that. What gets me is that Pershing is a climate scientist himself. He also claimed US leadership in Kyoto, Copenhagen and Cancun.

    I did mean to post a link to Richard Black’s article – here.

    "Brazil wants the period 2012-15 to be a "reflection phase", while India suggested it should be a "technical/scientific period"

    Because we’ve all got time for reflection when it comes to acting on climate change!

      1. … and belong to a country where the democratically elected president and government kept it a secret – until now – that they loaned not only a miserly 700 Billion US$ but actually more like 7 Trillion US$ at 0.1% interest to the six biggest US banks to remedy their silly investment failures after the onset of the age of crisis in 2008, all stitched up by the Bush administration in their last days (virtually) in office and kept secret even form their own Congress until the Supreme Court allowed it to be made public just now!
        7 Trillion, thats 1/2 of the entire GDP of the USA…

        “Fed had committed $7.77 trillion as of March 2009 to rescuing the financial system, more than half the value of everything produced in the U.S. that year. ”

        Even Bloomberg, the company who’s journalists discovered it finds it so hard to swallow that they garnish the news with the URL talking about some 13 Billion in pocket change, but then cut to the meat in the text.
        A small fraction of 7 Trillion US$ would have gone a long way to kick start the alternative energy R&D wartime effort we need now….

  3. It worries me that I can find almost nobody in normal life who either believes in climate change or is the least bit interested. This is reflected in Durban where most countries are there to work out how to gain an advantage by dodging controls and not spend money on conversion.
    The Americans, who provide much of the science and technology, turn up with a bunch of lawyers to do a deal that sounds good but is ‘business as usual ‘.

    1. The frog in the pot on the fire comes to mind. Apparently if you rise the temperature slowly enough, he will not jump out but prefer to just sit there and eventually cook to death….

      “in one experiment the temperature was raised at a rate of 0.002°C per second, and the frog was found dead at the end of 2½ hours without having moved.”

      On humanities gravestone they shall inscribe: The temperature climbed to slowly…. bugger…

    1. Ha! The Saudis are cool. At least they unashamedly hold out their hand. And I guess we all will concede that every of the many princes of the house of Saud will want what one of them now has:

      A private A380 Super Jumbo, complete with concert hall, steam room, well being room with pool….

      The excesses have no end. The chef of these planes orders every day a whole load of the finest fresh 5 star++ food to the tune of $xx,xxx each day, just in case it takes to the air that day, only to discard it at the end of that day into the bin…. day in, day out….

      Meanwhile the 99% of the rest of us….

  4. Mr F
    yes, the Saudis are extremely creative. This lovely “response measures” is quite something. They don’t actually have press conferences as they would probably get hammered. But they are adept at delaying any part of the agenda that looks like it might be progressing.

    They’ve done this for 20 years now – indeed, in 1992 there was a moment in New York in May 1992 where governments were agreeing the final wording on the Framework Convention on Climate Change.

    The Chair said “do we have a concensus” – and looked around. The Saudi flag was going up (indicating they wanted to speak AGAIN) but the whole room stood up and starting cheering. For once, they were ignored.

    But I’m not going to dedicate a blog to them – can’t bring myself to do that.

  5. (hmm, free of persistent trolls for the moment… safe to comment again… for now)

    Just to note, Cindy, Pershing is by no stretch a climate scientist, nor for many years now even a (working) scientist. He started out as a geologist working on faults/plate tectonics (a few early papers) then by the mid-90s switched over to policy. (GS search results.) By itself that’s fine, as the subject matter of WG III requires the involvement of lots of non-climate scientists, and non-scientists for that matter (WG II as well, to a lesser degree). The question becomes, as somebody who is certainly aware of what the science says, is he more attached to it or to his career.

    Skimming a paper of his from 2003, I happened to spot this concluding passage:

    A long-term target is a tool, one of many that could be employed in the effort against climate change. Ultimately, though, the vigor and success of any such effort rests less on our choice of tools than on our willingness to act. Climate change will be effectively addressed only if there is sufficient political will. If the process of developing a long-term target helps to generate political will – if it indeed serves as a catalyst for action – then it may be worth undertaking even if in the end there is no agreed outcome. If, on the other hand, the search for a long-term target diverts what political will exists into a fractious and fruitless exercise, it winds up serving not as a lever for action, but an excuse for inaction.

    Prescient, even, except that now the inaction extends far beyond any sort of long-term target into any meaningful action whatsoever. And Jonathan Pershing is happy (enough) to continue his career while facilitating the inaction. Meh.

Leave a Reply