Realism and risk: waiting for the bus

Climate Change Minister Tim Groser gave a substantial and intelligently argued speech recently to an informal meeting in Auckland of international climate negotiators met to discuss the  way forward to a new agreement in 2020. Groser makes the case for political realism in climate negotiation. He records his sense after attending a COP conference at Poznam a year before Copenhagen that the negotiation was not on track and that if more reality did not prevail Copenhagen might be a train wreck. It was, and he says that it was only some superb political leadership by the Mexican hosts at Cancun which got the UNFCCC process back on the tracks. “My conclusion is simple: negotiating scenarios which are developed without any political realism behind them cause great and unhelpful friction.”

The claim to political realism is always difficult to argue against, particularly with someone who has spent literally decades in difficult international trade negotiations, as Groser has. But those of us who aren’t negotiators or politicians can’t allow the question to be arbitrated only by those who are.

To be fair to Groser he doesn’t push political realism to the point of helplessness in addressing the problem:

“Our objective must be to aim for a high quality comprehensive agreement that actually deals with the problem of global emissions, not finds a political fix to a diplomatic problem.”

“Fresh thinking is possible.”

“As we look towards the task of delivering a long-term comprehensive agreement that might actually deal with global, not regional, emissions, the first order requirement is around participation. And by ‘participation’ I mean mitigation — the ultimate and agreed objective of the Convention. I am convinced this can be achieved within the framework of the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.”

He also stresses that the eight-year transition period between now and when the new agreement is timed to come into effect should not be treated as of little consequence:

“Well, my strong view is that ‘the transition’ is not a vacuum, and the way that we all shape our actions, the way we report them, and the way we are held accountable for them — now and over the next few years — will be critical to whether we can succeed in building a new global agreement.”

To turn to his argument for political realism. At its heart is the notion that we must first get everyone on board the mitigation bus before we worry about picking up speed:

“In political language — ie, not to professional negotiators — I have often talked about the importance of ‘getting people on the bus’, rather than worrying about the speed limit. If we get more and more countries on the mitigation bus, doing what they can to drive towards a lower carbon future for their own country, we can later look at the speed limit, or pace of adjustment. The logic of this is straightforward: we are trying to get lower carbon economic strategies embedded administratively and politically. There is huge resistance to this, for a variety of reasons. Look at the debate over comprehensive carbon pricing proposals in any number of countries if you are in any doubt. It is still unsettled in many countries.”

It sounds sensible enough, but it founders because it doesn’t properly reckon with the urgency now required. Groser’s reply to that objection is clumsy and overlooks not a political reality but a scientific reality:

“I know the counter-argument. It starts by taking the most extreme of the IPCC scenarios of future climate change and arguing that ‘nothing less’ than immediate and drastic action will suffice.”

It’s significant that he goes on to make a slight acknowledgment that the scenario issue may be a little more complicated than that, while at the same time affirming that even if it is, the political reality is not affected and that “later” is the time to consider a more serious economic response.

“What I know is that there is a range of scientific views about the time dimension of the risk and which scenario is the more probable. But the one thing that will absolutely guarantee failure to develop a meaningful response to this global challenge is if we do not get most of the large emitters, plus a large number of small emitters like New Zealand who are absolutely prepared to join in genuine collective action, on board the mitigation bus. It is a global problem; only global action or something close to it, can work.

“Further, at this stage in the evolution of a global response, you are more likely to persuade countries, where climate change policies are very immature, to get on board the bus if they can persuade their political masters that the commitments are realistic and doable. Later, when lower carbon strategies are more deeply embedded, then we need to return to the matter to the pace of adjustment and the development of a global carbon price.”

That is too complacent about the level of risk. Groser’s use of the word “extreme” in relation to some scenarios carries the suggestion of exaggeration, of pushing something further than is necessary. As I understand the projections of climate science, though they cover a range of possibilities none of them are fanciful and it is not safe to dismiss any of them on the grounds that they must be extreme. As George Monbiot wrote in in his column on the same day that I read Groser’s speech:

“As I’ve warned repeatedly, but to little effect, the IPCC’s assessments tend to be conservative. This is unsurprising when you see how many people have to approve them before they are published.”

Groser’s appeal to political realism needs to far more disturbed than it appears to be by the magnitude of the threat that climate change is already disclosing. His wide experience of international negotiations is not as relevant as he appears to think.  Monbiot again:

“There are no comparisons to be made. This is not like war or plague or a stockmarket crash. We are ill-equipped, historically and psychologically, to understand it, which is one of the reasons why so many refuse to accept that it is happening.

“What we are seeing, here and now, is the transformation of the atmospheric physics of this planet. Three weeks before the likely minimum, the melting of Arctic sea ice has already broken the record set in 2007. The daily rate of loss is now 50% higher than it was that year.”

Or from our own climate scientist James Renwick, who describes the break-up of Arctic sea ice as “just jaw-dropping”:

“This event unfolding in the Arctic Ocean right now should be a wake-up call to governments world-wide, that climate change is a serious threat, and it is not distant menace, it is on our doorstep today.”

Groser’s claims about political realism do not seem to have been exposed to the full impact of scientific realism. He does not say that human society is in grave danger. I have not heard that from any government Minister. Maybe the political realities will remain problematic even when that is said, but we would have more confidence in our negotiators if we knew that our government was fully cognisant of what climate change is threatening.  We would also expect such cognisance to put a dampener on the government enthusiasm for an increase in fossil fuel exploration and mining which sits very ill with the claim that we are attempting to persuade others to get on the mitigation bus.

In the eight years before the new international agreement we should not just be sitting on the bus waiting for it to fill up with passengers. We should be acting vigorously on our own account with serious mitigation measures because we understand the great danger of climate change.

[The Hollies]

10 thoughts on “Realism and risk: waiting for the bus”

  1. Long before 2020 rolls around the game is going to change beyond recognition. Economic meltdown is just around the corner, and the effects of climate change are starting to open the most deluded of minds – even in the US.

    Even so, it’s too late to avoid dreadful turmoil for our grandchildren. The laws of physics—particularly the exponential function—will not take a holiday just because we ignore them.

    The real estate bubble will burst, and burst again. By 2100 there won’t be enough people to buy even half the available housing.

    Fiddle on Nero.

  2. Fascinating post. A key question though is “who’s on the bus?”, not just “how many?”. If the bus has all the low emitters on it, and its travelling slowly, is there any point at all, while the big emitters are waving the bus on?

    You have to speak to each country’s interests to get them on the bus, and that is where the realism comes into it.

    For some countries, merely letting them on cheaply is enough. Other countries will only get on if their friends are getting on. Some countries will require they actually be the driver, at least for a little while. You have to talk to each country on their own terms, on their own political realities.

    That’s why the US can win at this sort of business: they have the resources to do that. New Zealand, I’m afraid, we all too often just wait for our friends (CANZ, WEOG)…

  3. I have just received a letter from Nick Smith , in it he says
    “ New Zealand is going to need to make the change over the next fifty years of shifting to a low carbon economy”
    Fifty years!!
    Clearly no sense of urgency there!

  4. Perhaps NZ would like to make an unconditional pledge, instead of making all our pledges to cut emissions entirely conditional. That’s what I’d call being “on the bus”.

    Right now, the bus has a destination on the front of it that reads “limit global warming to 2degC”.

    But while the bus waits until 2020 for everyone to get on it, so that it’s full up and ready to go, it’ll have a problem. It won’t know where it is going. The road to its 2degC destination will have disappeared.

    Those on the bus will have to think up a new destination, a destination that has some “tipping point” stops along the way. Because of those tipping point stops along its route, its final destination will be constantly changing.

    Wouldn’t it be better to have a few mini-vans filling up and heading off first?

    1. Yes, 2 degrees is long gone and 4 degrees is looking likely this century, as has been known in the climate policy analysis community for some time now. Funny we don’t hear that said at the government level.

      Wouldn’t it be great if the political community actually grew up and took on the responsibility that’s staring us all in the face? Wouldn’t NZ do well if we had real investment in low-carbon technology, if we really were clean and green? That really would be jaw-dropping!

  5. @ Cindy,
    I fear that the road to 2 degrees has already disappeared. And you only have to look to the Arctic melt to see a tipping point evolving before your eyes.

    The people who’re making the decisions aren’t the politicians. They’re in thrall to Wall Street, the Seven Sisters, et al.

    Obama is a case in point. Mr “Yes we can” had appointed the worst offenders in the creation economic meltdown—Bernanke, Geithner, Paulson and others—as his top finance people before he even took office.

    The real decisions are being made by people like Exxon’s CEO tillerson who said some frightening things recently:

    The only good thing about Obama is that he’s not Romney. We’re in it deep and we need to hope for the best, fight for fundamental political change, agitate for world-wide economic reform, and prepare your family for the worst.

    1. Hear! Hear!

      I totally agree, the 2 degree target the governments of the world set themselves has long past, and is now in the bus’s rear view vision mirror.

      Bryan’s post above refers to our Minister for Climate Change. The sad fact is that although Groser can make all these fine sounding platitudes, the reality is that the “government” of which he is a member has done everything in its power to diminish NZ’s response to Carbon Emissions, indeed almost everything it does, is to encourage the further burning of fossil fuels. They are little more than barefaced liars of the most despicable kind. (Sorry Gareth / Bryan but that is how I feel about this bunch of hypocrites. Delete that last sentence if you feel you must.)

      1. Look at this way my friend; when the really bad stuff starts to unfold, people are going to question why nothing was done. Indeed, not only that, but why the suffering was further inflamed. I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes – no siree!

  6. If we think we’ve reached the point where a war effort might save the planet from too much climate change, then consider how it was when Great Britain was in extremis. Dan Todman is a British historian. In this quote he describes how difficult it was for British leaders, even after WWII began, to start doing what was required to deal with the crisis:

    “So they misjudge how the war is going to be fought. But they’re not alone in doing that. I mean there’s a widespread misconception amongst the whole population. And the limits on their freedom of action are not just conceptual. Its not that Chamberlain and members of his Cabinet want to continue with business as usual because they are somehow bad people, or that because they believe that always, business must come before national survival. Its really more that they are trapped in a situation, where they can’t gain compliance on the part of the population…. So really the Chamberlain government is trapped in a circumstance where it can’t generate the national will that’s necessary to fight a more total war, even as it becomes more and more convinced as it gets into the spring of 1940 that that is what it has to do. And really it is not until the circumstances change, until the fall of France, and this great threat to Britain that emotionally mobilizes the population, that ANY government can start to do that. And it has to be said that even when the Churchill government comes in in 1940 it takes a far more hesitant approach to the mobilization of domestic efforts than is often assumed. May to June 1940 is not as great and decisive a shift as we sometimes think in terms of things like rationing, and the conscription of women, those are events that take place much later in the war. And they’re very concerned, the Churchill coalition, to stay behind the demand curve, really, they’re operating inside the same set of limits as their predecessors, but they’re doing so in a drastically changed international circumstance.”

    Its preposterous for Groser to pretend that what they tried to put on the table at Copenhagen was thought by scientists to be in any way “extreme”.

    Schellnhuber, principal climate advisor to Chancellor Merkel of Germany at the time, was in Australia right at the height of the carbon tax debate and he publicly noted that the politicians were avoiding him like the plague.

    They don’t want to get that close to someone who actually knows what the science is.

    Schellnhuber was deeply involved with originating and getting the 2 degree target onto the negotiating table. He says the science says it should be less. They thought it should be less when they came up with it, but worse than that, the perception that it is far less “safe” than anyone originally thought has deepened in the scientific community ever since.

    No one would agree to live next to a nuclear reactor that the engineers who built it said had a 25% chance of melting down and destroying the neighbourhood, he says, but that’s what he says the odds of civilization surviving if it manages to limit global warming to 2 degrees are. No one knows of course. Hence the wiggle room for Groser. But this picture Schellnhuber has in his mind is what the thousands of studies carried out over the decades add up to. Its goodbye to the Great Barrier Reef before the planet warms up 2 degrees. That is a very bad thing, he agrees, but he thinks there is far worse in store beyond 2 degrees.

    Schellnhuber coordinated the Proceedings of the National Academy special feature on planetary tipping points. The problem, if you go beyond 2 degrees, he says, is tipping points in the planetary system. They came up with what he calls the 2 degree “guardrail” as a political compromise they thought civilization might buy into. Although it was far beyond the kind of risk a mother would expose her child to, who would risk civilization at worse odds than Russian Roulette?

    So the negotiations failed and civilization drifts. Don’t give us this the target was too extreme.

    I’d say what you have in Groser is an experienced diplomat sent out to be the front man for his country in an effort where hardly anyone appreciates what the problem is or how to deal with it, in a way very similar to the early days of WWII in Britain.

  7. To be fair, Groser probably gets advice from scientists like David Frame, so it’s little wonder he has no real clue about the likely consequences of global warming – he only gets unrealistic optimism.

    But, you know, with the rather alarming collapse of Arctic summer sea ice still ongoing, and with another extreme drought possibly brewing for the Amazon next year (El Nino & anomalously warm tropical Atlantic surface water taking shape) one hopes it might cause him to go….. “mmmm!!??”

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