One of the defining issues of the first decade of the century has been climate change. The IPCC, set up to “… assess on a comprehensive, objective, open and transparent basis the scientific, technical and socio-economic information relevant to understanding the scientific basis of risk of human-induced climate change, its potential impacts and options for adaptation and mitigation” produced its 3rd and 4th Assessment Reports in 2001 and 2007.
Although some of the earlier more extreme projections for temperature rises and negative impacts were revised downwards in the most recent report, the certainty of the panel’s conclusions on the human impact on climate has increased:
“….Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic GHG concentrations. It is likely that there has been significant anthropogenic warming over the past 50 years averaged over each continent (except Antarctica )…..”
But we should not forget that the evidence for this is essentially circumstantial. The logic which gets the IPCC to this conclusion is
* There has been a general rise in averaged measured surface temperatures over the past century.
* At the same time, atmospheric concentrations of so-called ‘greenhouse’ gases, particularly carbon dioxide, have been rising. All the evidence points to the net increase being caused largely by burning fossil fuels.
* Computer models of the climate (General Circulation Models) cannot account for the temperature changes on the basis of known natural variability in climate.
* Therefore, the additional ‘anthropogenic’ carbon dioxide must be the primary driver of this change.
On this unproven argument, a whole climate change industry has been built; academic researchers, civil servants, carbon traders, environmental and development NGOs, taxpayer-subsidised renewable energy companies and, of course, UN agencies beaver away in the shared assumption that this logic is compelling and demands concerted action.
Fittingly, the last month of the decade saw this effort culminate in the event which had, until recently, been billed as the last chance to save the world from a climatic disaster: the Copenhagen summit, or 15th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, to give it its full name. As we now know, it failed to produce anything of substance. While thousands of registered delegates were unable to get into the venue – a spectacular breakdown of planning by the Danish government – ill-tempered and undiplomatic exchanges were taking place behind closed doors, particularly between China and the USA.
Despite the hype, despite the pressure exerted from so many quarters, this key summit, – marking the end of what might come to be seen as the decade of climate change – exposed the deep rifts between the countries of the world. Far from being united to fight a single crucial problem, each country looked after its own interests and there was no way that the final accord could be spun as diplomatic coup.
The failure to reach agreement was not because of lack of effort. Neither was there insufficient top-level commitment: far more heads of state and government attended the closing sessions than originally expected. With so much political capital and personal credibility at stake, it is difficult to see any other factors which could have led to an agreement. For the same reason, allowing more time to translate the aspirational accord into a binding agreement in Mexico or elsewhere is not likely to increase the chances of success.
The secondary issue of possible disruption to marine life because of ocean acidification is also unlikely to tip the balance in favour of drastic emissions cuts. As the nightmare scenarios of 4 or 6 degree temperature rises painted by activists depend on hypothetical and undemonstrated positive feedback mechanisms, so a breakdown of oceanic food chains is based on one interpretation of an incomplete knowledge of mixing and buffering in seawater. If the prospect of catastrophic floods and droughts has not been enough to get an agreement, it is hardly likely that the possible effects on sea life will be decisive.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this marks the end of the first phase of the climate change story. Whatever the rhetoric – and virtually no mainstream national politician has so far been willing to express public doubts about the official IPCC line – key policymakers have ultimately placed their national interests above the need for immediate, concerted action to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
For the climate change issue, the new decade looks like being one of realpolitik rather than the idealism which was aspired to until Copenhagen. Having failed to reach the binding agreement which they claimed was essential, politicians will have to look hard at what is possible.
In democratic societies, governments will only be able to go as far as electorates will tolerate. This is currently very clear in the USA where members of both houses of Congress are heavily influenced by what their own constituents find acceptable. But the same influences are at work in Europe and even the behaviour of China’s leaders, who are unlikely to be worried about the ballot box for many years to come, is heavily dependent on delivering continued rapid growth for their citizens.
The failure of Copenhagen will not see the issue of climate change fade from view. Even if, as some predict, the world continues to cool rather than warm, any long-term trend will still be difficult to define by 2020. Supercomputers will by then be capable of modelling the Earth’s atmosphere at a much finer scale, but the output will still be meaningless unless the underlying processes and drivers of weather patterns and climate are properly understood. Large uncertainties will still remain, and there will almost certainly still be a body of opinion calling for precautionary reductions in emissions.
But politicians will continue to put national and regional interests first, and energy and food security will be top of their list. Any action to reduce carbon intensity will not be at the expense of these. The first decade of the 21st Century has been defined by the world obsession with climate change; the second is likely to see the focus shift to energy security.