Two weeks in Warsaw: Damage control

home made radio studio in the media centre
home made radio studio in the media centre

Another year, another climate COP, and a few more faltering baby steps toward trying to limit global climate change. But this time coal was in charge and it showed. I’ve been to enough of these meetings to know that there isn’t going to be One Big Event that will Suddenly Save the Climate, Just Like That. This was the problem with Copenhagen, a meeting that, frankly, was never going to do the job and where expectations were too high.

But every year, as emissions accumulate in the atmosphere and new, fossil-fuel-fired infrastructure is built, and new scientific discoveries are made, the more important these meetings get.

While Warsaw wasn’t going to get a Big Deal, it was an extremely important stepping stone toward the 2015 agreement which will be the closest thing to the One Big Event we’ll have seen in at least a decade, if not longer (since Kyoto?).

As one colleague said to me on the night the talks ended: “we got some things, and we lost less than we thought we would. But it wasn’t a major breakthrough, not with the amount of damage control we had to do.”

So what did we get at the end of those frenetic two weeks?

While Governments did agree a workplan for getting to a 2015 global climate deal, a backdown in the final hours meant that everyone will only have to consider “contributions” rather than the much stronger “commitments” on cutting emissions.

Some of you may find the full paragraph interesting. It is a reflection of a 20-year dance between developed and developing country governments, with nobody prepared to put any firm commitment or legally binding anything on the table before anyone else. It’s a veritable forest of get-out clauses, committing nobody to anything:

“To invite all Parties to initiate or intensify domestic preparations for their intended nationally determined contributions, without prejudice to the legal nature of the contributions, in the context of adopting a protocol, another legal instrument, or an agreed legal outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties towards achieving the objective of the Convention as set out in its Article 2 and to communicate them well in advance of the 21st session by the 1st quarter of 2015 by those Parties ready to do so, in a manner that facilitates the clarity, transparency and understanding of the intended contributions.”

The late date for these “contributions” to be put on the table bring a whole heap of uncertainty to progress in the rest of the negotiations.

And they fully backed away from anything like strong decisions for increasing cuts in emissions before 2020, instead calling for expert input and analysis as to how the world might close the Emissions Gap. [Hint: close down coal fired power stations, switch to renewables, cut oil use – you know, those things some of us have been saying for years. We don’t need any more expert analysis. We know what to do].


On Finance, while there were some essentially procedural decisions made on how the Green Climate Fund would be set up, there’s still no sign of that money desperately needed by developing countries to adapt to climate change, get ready for more and move to a clean energy system – nor any idea of how it could be upscaled to the $100bn a year promised by 2020. Over in the Adaptation Fund Governments barely managed to scrape enough money together ($100 million) to keep the thing going, let alone start paying out the massive figures needed to help countries start adapting to the inevitable impacts.

Loss & Damage

They fudged the Loss and Damage decision, agreeing to a new mechanism to deal with this pressing issue. But the US absolutely refused to allow this to be a brand new instrument, instead insisting that it come under the Adaptation Fund set up in Cancun. At the last minute on Saturday afternoon, they agreed to make this a temporary thing, and to re-visit the decision in 2016, after the Paris meeting and, perhaps not coincidentally, after the US elections.

There is a difference between adapting to the expected impacts of climate change, and having to cope with the lasting damage caused by extreme weather events, droughts, or sea level rise it is already causing. Damage like loss of land, loss of cultures (which may well happen in the Pacific) and loss of loved ones. This is why it can’t be part of the “adaptation” framework.

Loss and Damage is about paying for the damage caused by historical emissions. I can see why the US doesn’t like it, but seriously, if the US hadn’t spend 20 years prevaricating over this issue, listening to the oil industry and climate deniers, and actually taken action, we could have been in a very different position today.

Lastly, and very much not least, the Russians managed to block any agreement on some key decisions around the Kyoto Protocol rules, decisions that mean there’s going to be another year before anyone who signed up to the second commitment period can do that.

At the beginning of these talks, I called out the coal industry and called this meeting a “Carbon COP,” and it certainly lived up to its name. We risk having such weak climate action to 2020 that coal could actually make a comeback.

50 thoughts on “Two weeks in Warsaw: Damage control”

  1. I think the slow progress on combating climate change is because you have climate change denialism. Climate scientists have done very well on the science, but have been invisible on television or in newspapers to counter this materal from the sceptics.

    Its time mainstream climate scientists fronted up very visibly in the media, as they are the only people the public would take seriously. They need to firmly rebut the key sceptical nonsense in simple terms.

    1. I don’t think it’s denialism – I think it’s the same issue as everywhere else: that the incentives are to wait till others do something. Basically people everywhere are following the predictable response, given the options they think are in front of them. Depressing, but rational (in the “rational actor” sense).

      As for combating denialism – I come back to the point I made recently in another thread: as a country NZ just doesn’t invest in the fundamental science skills most relevant to climate change: climate physics, climate dynamics, numerical modelling, etc. It’s no surprise you struggle to see socially-relevant physical climate science in the papers when there are less than 2 climate modellers under 40 in the whole country. [To the best of my knowledge – I may be missing someone.]

        1. I wasn’t coming at it from a deficit model angle – I was just highlighting one factor in why climate scientists are pretty invisible in NZ: there aren’t many of us. There are plenty of folks from proximate disciplines (such as ecosystem folks and geologists interested in past climates) but in terms of the core science disciplines that make up the bulk of what IPCC WGI covers (say) there are very few of us. So when Nigelj argues that “Its time mainstream climate scientists fronted up very visibly in the media, as they are the only people the public would take seriously” I think it’s relevant to point out that the set of people he’s talking about is smaller than he might think.

          I don’t think my point implies a deficit model of science communication, though his might – in any case it’s a separate question entirely as to whether he’s right. I’m just making a narrower point about numbers/capability.

          1. *stumbles back into Hot Topic after marathon journey home. Thanks Gareth for posting – this would have been a lot more coherent, this blog, but wrote it on the way home, at airports*

            “…why climate scientists are pretty invisible in NZ: there aren’t many of us.”

            I wonder. I think you climate scientists are reasonably vocal. Our public scientists are trapped in a public/private pull which stops them from speaking out as well, which makes the pool even smaller. Both Jims have been able to be more vocal since leaving NIWA.

            I think it’s also got a lot to do with the media here as well Dave. NZ media have a strong “he-said-she-said” training (I’ve discussed with NZ journalism school people) which they wrongly apply to climate change and they get all caught up in being hammered by deniers when they run a climate story.

            Also, the environment/science round is usually the lowest of the low in most NZ newsrooms – given to cub reporters. There’s very few senior journalists with any interest in the issue, except Brian Fallow and Rod Oram.

            I was quite shocked to find so little coverage of the 400ppm milestone, for example. One AP story on stuff and Jim Salinger’s Op Ed that the Herald “balanced” with a piece of factually incorrect tripe by de Freitas.

            1. Hi Cindy, I agree the NZ media often do a lousy job of covering both environment and science. It makes NZ coverage of the issue look very weird by international standards. The lack of international context means people discuss NZ impacts (eg SLR on the Kapiti Coast) in isolation, as though these same issues weren’t being discussed around the world.

              But being able to fit all NZ’s climate modellers around a fairly standard-sized restaurant table strikes me as a bit of a supply-side problem, too, as far as professional expertise goes. (Plus, someone visiting the table would see a lot of grey hair…)

            2. “someone visiting the table would see a lot of grey hair…”

              One could also say that about the deniers… globally that is.

              I am always amazed when I got to international climate talks and find all these senior journalists focussing on science, who have been doing so for years. Why don’t our media have similar – something I’ve always asked myself. Is it our culture, that we don’t consider science important?

            3. Cindy wrote: “Is it our culture, that we don’t consider science important?”

              I think that’s exactly the issue. The rest of the OECD has twigged to the fact that highly skilled science work (STEM subjects) are actually a great thing for your long-term economic prospects. Around the same time they were finding that, NZ universities and govts were disincentivising those same skills by rapidly bringing in a loan scheme and structuring the fees in such a way that made science less attractive than other subjects.

              Plus we’ve never had science as a valued part of the national culture – the experience of moving overseas as a scientist is actually really liberating and satisfying, since you feel you’re valued as a worker/member of society. People think you’re useful.

      1. Dave I understand your points and appreciate the difficulties. However like many things its probably a combination of both. In other words people dont want to move until other countries move, but the people calling the shots are politicians and bureaucrats, and its a fact many of these are susceptible to sceptical argument.

        Look at the comments of some of our own MPS. They listen to talkback and read Chris de Freitas like anyone else, sadly.

        And Im not sure the mainstream climate community is responding vigorously enough and visibly enough in the popular media. While they need to be be strictly honest, polite, aand rational sometimes you also need to be rather blunt about certain sceptical issues. Theres a certain note you need to hit to get through to the public.

        Agreed NZ doesnt have many climate research scientists, but related experts would do, someone with some scientific credibility. If there is a vacuum the sceptics will fill it.

        That fellow from NIWA, I cant recall his name but he makes some good comments in the media on how NZs climate has changed, but he hasnt specifically tackled the sceptical arguments. This is whats lacking.

  2. I agree with Dave in one respect – denial amongst the general population isn’t what is holding back progress. But scientific denial amongst politicians probably is. A number of the scientific illiterati amongst the National Party, such as Gerry Brownlee, have essentially outed themselves. Nevermind, history will judge them as the buffoons they are. One can only pity their descendants.

    As for public opinion, centuries of history have taught us one thing; public opinion is extremely malleable and prone to sudden shifts. Sure it’s too late to stop many tragic events from unfolding (large-scale loss of the world’s coral reefs for instance), but it’s possible (likely?) that people will start to take notice when the climate we took for granted becomes a thing of the past. When enough people demand action we will get it. Better late than never?

    1. Unfortunately, Rob, George Monbiot doesn’t like your odds.

      Although surrender is not an option – ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’ and all that – our own planet is giving a more reasonable explanation of the Fermi paradox with every passing year… 😉

      1. Bill, the implicit assumption in Monbiot’s article is that civilization will carry on as it has in recent times. I don’t accept that. People in rich countries may be comfortable and thus easily distracted now, but that will not last. Attitudes can change very quickly when one is no longer comfortable. But he is of course entitled to his opinion.

        1. Well, if we’re lucky, yes.

          But I think a great deal of what’s happened in Australia in the 21st Century can be explained by the the great housing inflation (and all these double-brick property mausoleums filling with glitzy crap) causing a very large chunk of the population to think they’ve ‘made it’ now, and adopt the concomitant attitudes. The land where Jack was as good as his master became the land of the Jack principle instead.

          Leastways it’s a good counter to all the Lomborgian crap about all growing so rich we can tackle the problem at our leisure at some point that always recedes further down the road…

    2. Rob I think another big jump in temperature like 1998 may wake up both the public and decision makers. Maybe if the evidence refuting the so called pause filters through, this will also influence people.

      And maybe not, but not because the public are too slow to respond as others suggest. Maybe because the sceptics will always muddy the waters on causation.

      There needs to be a defining argument that CO2 is the cause. Right now you climate experts have multiple lines of evidence that clearly show we are altering the climate, but this goes over the heads of people, and is confusing from the publics point of view, and is also open to multiple lines of attack. The cheap shot type of sceptical attack.

      It needs a more singular, clear cut argument, now obviously you cant put the planet in the lab, but I suggest you think of something!

      1. Interesting comment Nigel . It starts out well :-

        “There needs to be a defining argument that CO2 is the cause. ”

        And then reverts to name-calling:-

        “The cheap shot type of sceptical attack.”


        1. Yes, how beastly of him. Such untoward use of language certainly undermines the cause of science. Nanny will be cross.

          What a ludicrous piece of tone-trolling.

      2. Rob I think another big jump in temperature like 1998 may wake up both the public and decision makers

        Communicating climate-relevant issues would certainly help. You allude to the 1997/1998 El Nino (El Nino temporarily raises global surface temperatures), but the next El Nino is only a small part of the near-term problem. When the wind-driven ocean circulation weakens (the positive, or warm, phase of the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation [IPO]), all that heat being transported poleward at the ocean surface, and downward in the sub-tropical ocean gyres, will accumulate in the tropical oceans. It is likely to drive global surface temperatures sharply upwards as it did from 1976-1999 when the IPO was positive (warm).

        This is likely to have quite dramatic consequences; mass coral bleaching will return with a vengeance, sea level will rise faster (reduced water storage on the continents and reduced cabbeling), the Amazon rainforest will endure extreme once-in-a-century droughts, the US mid/southwest (currently experiencing extreme droughts) will enter a very wet period, and a large fraction of Australia will enter a period of prolonged drought. The list goes on.

        Being forewarned of these (probable) near-term consequences would not only help planning, but increase buy-in to climate policy when they unfold.

        1. I agree Rob. I think the warming phenomenon proceeds rather like a staircase with a big el nino ratchetting things up to a new level. Look at the past records. I think its possible that warmer oceans are altering the el nino / la nina cycle as well to enhance this pattern furthur.

  3. It’s very encouraging to read the comments above; a note of realism seems to entering , to the extent that genuine dialogue between “environmentalists” may yet become possible at Hot Topic.
    That would mean of course that the name-calling would stop, and science would prevail.

    In the meantime , it is money that rules ; not coal as the first paragraph suggested.
    Subsidy is the issue. Is government funding of pure research ever a subsidy? I don’t think so.
    Should “economic development/growth” ever be subsidised, or would we be better off with no subsidies at all? Ever?

    1. Biofarmer, your link discusses the difficulties of wind power in Great Britain. Great Britain is not NZ. Wind power is more feasable in NZ and is economically quite competitive.

      I do agree with you in so far as there are challenges balancing the grid, and we dont want pie in the sky schemes, but you also have to experiment at some point, and pull back if its doesnt work. But as I say wind farms do quite well here.

      NZ is lucky, we can get most of our power from renewables in an economically feasible way, from wind, geothermal and hydro so we dont have to tackle difficult options like massive use of coal or nuclear. Add in tidal power in the future possibly.

      This is on simple logic and economics, without needing to take a political or ideological position on anything.

      Subsidies make sense where you have market failures and negative externalities, and this does apply to certain things like basic research, and maybe renewables. The environmental costs of coal arent fully factored in.

      What do you biofarm?

    2. Leaving aside your choice of Joannenova for informed comment on wind power, Government funding of pure research that benefits a sector is a subsidy. If Government did not fund it, that sector would either not benefit or would have to pay for it itself.
      As nigelj notes, GB and UK power sectors are different. GB has an excess of generation. If you own a gas generator and build a wind farm, the wind farm undercuts the gas powered generation including your own so you have invested to cut your revenue. Incentives like Renewable Obligation Certificates go a little way to addressing the market failures of the power sector.
      In NZ, you do not have such a large buffer of generation capacity against predicted demand, so need more capacity built. As you know, wind power manages to compete very well against fossil fuel even without any effort to address externalities.

      1. ” Government funding of pure research that benefits a sector is a subsidy.”

        I think you meant to say ” Government funding of pure research that benefits only one sector is a subsidy.”
        But I wonder if it is possible to restrict the benefits to one sector of an economy. Surely it would be to the benefit of the overall economy?
        How would you prevent the benefit from spilling over into other areas , such as the environment?

      1. You misunderstood. I referred only to media spin on the report; I said nothing about the report itself.
        That is the problem ; what was reported did not reflect the report.
        I linked to Stuff , but there were plenty of others to choose from . . . all equally pseudo-scientific.

    1. Sorry, biofarmer, water quality is off topic in this thread – but would be OK in an open thread. We haven’t had one of those for a while, sorry, but I might post one later this week…

        1. Well, start your own blog, post your own commentary, and we can all ignore it at out lesuire. As will everyone else.

          You’re a good fit with Jo Nova, I suggest you try to fit your bits into their ‘overarching crankery’ editorial policy instead. I mean, aren’t you also worried about the purity of gold bullion?

      1. Ooo yes please. We could have a look at the problems of organic farming when it comes to nutrient pollution. Stems from the Organic sector’s failure/refusal to have evidence based policies. In the UK the Soil Association (biggest organic accrediting organisation) recommends Homoeopathic treatments.
        However good your intentions, you should not put ideology and good intentions ahead of evidence.

        1. ” We could have a look at the problems of organic farming when it comes to nutrient pollution.”
          That sounds really interesting but runs the risk of confusion over what “organic farming” covers.

          According to our former Ministry of Agriculture (MAF Policy) it is a form of sustainable agriculture, and their may be other forms of sustainable agriculture that are not ” organic”.

          So if sustainable agriculture is not necessarily ” organic” (whatever you think that means ), then it seems reasonable to ask :- “what has organic got to do with it?”.

          It might simply be a specification/ traceability system that provides a certain group of consumers with quality assurance. I don’t see that ideology is necessarily a feature . Do you?

            1. Can you , in anticipation of such a discussion , explain why such a decision might have relevance, especially to the question of what is sustainable or not? I’m not sure what you mean. Useful for what?

  4. I’d suggest here that organic farming is a topic best destined for an open thread, and not this one, which is about the outcomes of Warsaw and global climate action. Oh, and coal.

    1. That’s true , but sustainability is a very broad church. Climate might be just a subset or faction within that, as would be food production , pollution, population etc.

      It’s very rare to see such a discussion anywhere.

    2. If it is true that China burns about half of the world’s coal , and that China’s emissions will not peak until about 2025, then it is clear that China and its economic prospects will be a major influence in reaching agreement (or not).

  5. It is being reported here that the failure of the talks resulted from disagreements about money :-

    “Another stumbling block in the negotiations is sharing the future emissions curbs, as developing nations want to create a UN body charged with compensating for environmental damage.

    “Developed countries need to do more… now, and not transfer all the burden of climate change to the poor of the world after 2020,” said Natarajan.

    Washington has opposed the position saying that a deal under which “the developed countries would be treated in one way, in one section of the agreement, and developing countries in a different part of the agreement” was a “non-starter”, US negotiator Todd Stern said. ”

    Cindy , is this really what happened to cause the walkout?

    1. The walkout was over the Loss and Damage conversation in a smallish room – the Australians were being particularly obnoxious and rude and not negotiating in good faith at all.

      They did walk back in, though, unlike the NGO’s who were protesting at the way the fossil fuel interests were driving the talks (ie Australia, Japan, the US, etc).

        1. Not as simple as that.
          First, the problem is targets and failure of everyone to put anything on the table.
          Second, industrialised countries like Japan and Australia watering down their targets
          Third, after having promised $100bn a year by 2020 in climate finance to help smallest adapt and mitigate, there’s absolutely nothing on the table – even the Adaptation fund struggled to get $100m to just keep it going.
          Fourth: The issue of Loss and Damage – failure to agree that a separate mechanism for compensation for stuff that can’t be adapted to – ie the damage already caused by the industrialised world failing to act.

          So it’s not only about money it’s about failure to take action.

          1. I’m not saying that it’s only about the money; I think that if there is no agreement on the money, then there will be no agreement on anything . That is the state of the world isn’t it? Economy , as defined by the powers that be , rules?

          2. Cindy, I think thats a fair list of points but they all boil down maybe not to money, but certainly to economic considerations.

            Everything we do has an economic value to us that we calculate on the basis of probabilities. This is a powerful force in negotiations. We even put a value on pleasure or being respected, as well as more tangible things.

            People dont want to set clear climate goals, this is also economic. What doesnt help is some politicians in denial about the science which skews decisions away from committing to goals.

            People make tradeoffs so America resents paying to help developing countries, but will eventually realise that might actually be in their economic interest longer term, if they want a peaceful world. Peace has an economic value.

            So does being respected as a decent global citizen.

            1. Yes peace has an economic value but in the case of the USA there are powerful interests who are doing very well out of warfare , which also has an economic value.
              And the U.S. is not the only one deriving economic benefit from conflict.

              And then there is the “Kissinger Insight” which holds that the U.S. is not bound by the normal conventions such as being a decent global citizen.
              It’s really cool to follow your Manifest Destiny ; the rest can go to hell.

  6. ” there’s still no sign of that money desperately needed by developing countries to adapt to climate change, get ready for more and move to a clean energy system”
    That’s because that is not an agreed goal, and likely never will be .

    An alternative goal , easily agreed , would be the development of cheap, clean and (relatively) sustainable energy for all.
    That is where we have to get to anyway , isn’t it?

    “You never change things by fighting the existing reality.
    To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete”
    R. Buckminster Fuller

    I don’t see that the benefits of government -funded pure research directed towards such a goal would not benefit everybody on the planet.
    I doubt that a single sector could capture most , or even much , of the benefit of such “subsidy” if that is what one wishes to call such research funding.

    1. “That’s because that is not an agreed goal, and likely never will be.”

      Actually, you’re wrong. Agreed in Copenhagen and confirmed in Cancun: industrialised countries promised $100bn a year by 2020 for the Green Climate Fund to help the smallest and most vulnerable countries adapt to climate change, stop deforestation and put in mitigation measures. They also agreed to a $30bn “Fast Start Finance” provision 2009-2012 which has been paid.

      So all they’re trying to do is hold these countries to what they promised. In writing. In both Copenhagen and Cancun.

      1. Do you know how much N.Z. “promised” to pay?
        And are governments free to change their positions in the light of further developments?
        What are the “promises” of politicians worth at the best of time?

  7. NZ paid its fair share for the Fast Start Finance period, I gather, although there’s a bit of a debate about what’s “new and additional” (which was the promise) vs normal aid they’d have given anyway. We paid USD $70 million which, in the scheme of things, was about right, although most of it in mitigation and much less for adaptation.

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