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Compromising with our planet: We Need to Make Progress in Climate Negotiations


Nature, Science and Politics – Not the Same Thing

There is an old saying, “Nature does not negotiate.” It is based on the fact that there are fundamental truths such as that pure water freezes at 0oC when at normal atmospheric pressure. Even if you desperately believe that water should freeze at 50C, and argue that point eloquently, with sound logic and solid (but flawed) science, you still won’t get Nature to budge. Even if you convince the overwhelming majority of water scientists that you are right, you won’t get Nature to budge. Water will continue to freeze at 0oC. Nature is not politics.

Science is one of the ways in which humans seek to understand the fundamental truths governing the behavior of Nature. In my view, science is one of the best ways we have for understanding nature. Science does not give us ‘truth’ about the natural world, because Nature does not have a spokesperson who is there to tell us the facts. Science is a process whereby we use our abilities to observe, to measure, to infer and deduce, all in an orderly approach that builds a model (a concept, an equation, a specific statement or description) of the rules governing the behavior of Nature. Science should have nothing to do with our beliefs and everything to do with observable information. Over time, better observations, measurements and experiments permit us to refine our models to become ever closer to the ‘truth’, accurate descriptions of how Nature behaves. ‘Ever closer to’ emphasizes an essential difference between science and some other ways of discerning the rules governing Nature – science is a process that leads to continual refinement and improvement of our understanding, and therefore of the accuracy of our models of reality. A scientist never knows absolutely what Nature’s rules are, but with sufficient time and investigation, his or her knowledge becomes very close to absolute and makes it possible to make such statements as ‘water freezes at 0oC’ with virtually complete confidence that they are correct. When scientific knowledge is less complete, such as in fields that are very new or little attended to, there will be differences among particular studies and among scientists. In such cases, additional investigation is necessary to resolve such differences, and relying on authority (Dr. Smith is world-famous and he said…), or seeking a compromise between apparently dissenting views are not appropriate ways to reach an agreed conclusion. Science is not religion, not mysticism, and certainly not politics.

Politics is different. Politicians are expected to discuss issues from multiple viewpoints, and then reach a compromise. This ideal, which seems so rare in several modern legislatures, is believed to yield the best outcome, meaning the outcome that will come closest to fulfilling the needs and wishes of each party. This is the same approach used in the marketplace and in business negotiations. It is when questions about Nature get muddled up in politics that we get into real difficulties – because Nature does not compromise; it does not even negotiate. Nature behaves the way it does, because that is the way it behaves.

Scientists and politicians work and think differently.
Cartoon © John Ditchburn

The Special Nature of Climate Negotiations

Our growing power to disturb nature has brought Nature and politics together like never before. Consider the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The IPCC process is an inherently political process because it is, in the end, a process whereby the great majority of countries around the world will reach a negotiated agreement concerning anthropogenic climate change. Or at least, the hope is that, in the end, such an agreement, a compromise, will be reached. But the IPCC process also deals with the science of climate change, and the science is our attempt to understand, or decipher, the immutable rules that govern the behavior of our planet, and thereby explain what happens when we substantially increase the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and heat the planet up.

Our scientists do not have total understanding of how our planet works, but the understanding is growing – they are grasping at the immutable rules that govern Nature’s behavior. The IPCC process seeks to build a global consensus agreement (an agreed model) among scientists about what the rules appear to be that govern the myriad components of the very complicated response of the planet to our additions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. The scientists have a broad range of expertise, because the myriad components are just that – myriad: there are processes in the atmosphere, in the oceans, between the atmosphere and the landscape, in the Arctic, the Antarctic and the Tropics, biological, chemical, and physical processes affecting all parts of the biosphere, and of the planet itself. The scientists have differing skill levels, different capabilities, different training and experience, and these differences as well as the fact that they are human mean that they do not all agree on the significance of every finding, every analysis, every model projection. But, so far as I know, they approach the task before them as scientists: always attempting to decipher the rules by which nature functions. They seek to understand the rules, not find a compromise between nature’s rules and their own wishes or the wishes of communities or nations to which they belong.

The results of the scientists’ deliberations are conveyed to the politicians in the series of IPCC Assessment Reports to provide a sound, agreed understanding of Nature and our impacts. The underlying assumption governing the IPCC process is that when negotiating international treaties governing human activities that affect climate, availability of sound, up-to-date scientific understanding should help achieve best possible results. But in this transfer from scientists to politicians we move from an arena where Nature operates under certain imperfectly known rules to an arena where nations negotiate seeking the most optimal outcome from each national perspective. Suddenly the growing, but not yet perfect, certainty of the scientists is replaced by the flexibility of negotiation among competing viewpoints.

As a scientist, I find it difficult to comprehend the mental gymnastics that permit a belief that a compromise view is not only a satisfactory outcome to a political process, but usually a superior outcome to any other. When the political process involves an issue centering on the behavior of Nature, I find the assumption that the compromise view is the one to aim for mysterious in the extreme. Let me illustrate with a simple but hypothetical example. Imagine a world consisting of a number of small low-lying countries that lack fossil fuel resources, and a number of larger, wealthier, more mountainous countries that do have abundant fossil fuel reserves. Imagine that economies of all countries are powered by fossil fuels and the CO2 emitted is causing the climate to warm and sea level to rise. The scientist in me says that sea level will continue to rise unless we reduce CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere. We can do this by replacing our fossil fuels with alternatives, or by introducing technology that prevents the emitted CO2 from reaching the atmosphere or removes it once there. Now imagine that there is no technology available to sequester CO2 that is not enormously expensive. Given these circumstances, I do not see a negotiated compromise yielding a satisfactory outcome.

Eliminating use of fossil fuels substantially impacts economies in the mountainous countries. Putting effective CO2 sequestration in place impacts the economies of all countries, and substantially the mountainous ones which gain no benefit from whatever share of the cost they cover. Continuing to use fossil fuels leaves the low-lying countries disappearing beneath the seas, or forced to embark on extensive dike-building programs to survive. Any compromise – some reduction in use and some slowing in the rate of submersion from a rising sea level – between large countries not troubled by sea level rise and small nations risking total submersion would be harmful to both groups and likely more harmful to the smaller (and weaker) low-lying nations.

For me, the correct solution is to agree to stop emissions of CO2 and equitably share the cost of that action. This is a solution that recognizes the inability of Nature to compromise, and therefore seeks to remove the human activities that have caused the problem with sea level. But the political process among nations of differing wealth, power, and investment in the fossil fuel industries seems to me very unlikely to reach that solution, because it is precisely the wealthy and powerful nations that would have to absorb the economic loss.

climate negotiations small
It is perhaps not surprising that the climate conferences have made so little progress. All parties argue to preserve their own vested interests and it’s the powerful countries that have the biggest stake in fossil fuel and other current technologies. Image © Diplo

The real world we live in is not all that different to the one I just imagined. The ramifications of anthropogenic climate change are more far-reaching than just an effect on sea level, and nations are not easily divided into the rich and mountainous vs the weak and low-lying. But the differences among nations in the extent of the impact on current economic and way-of-life norms are considerable, and the politicians will approach the negotiations in the way they always do – seeking compromise that preserves their own benefits to the maximum extent possible. Inevitably, the stronger countries will get more of what they want and the weaker countries will lose. Little wonder that the IPCC has been in existence since 1988 and we still do not have a substantive climate change agreement in place.

Making the Negotiations Work

On July 12th I commented on an article by social scientists Marco Grasso and Timmins Roberts in Nature Climate Change. They sought to resolve the current lack of progress on climate change by redefining the terms of the negotiation, specifically by seeking agreement first among the largest CO2 emitters, the 13 members of the Major Economies Forum, that account for over 80% of cumulative global CO2 emissions. Once these major emitters reached agreement, that agreement would be taken to the larger group. Not being a social scientist, I do not know if this two-step process will help us move forward, but it seems logical and worth a try.

I am far less comfortable with an article by two other social scientists, Oliver Geden and Silke Beck, which appeared in the September issue of Nature Climate Change. Geden is at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Berlin, and Beck is at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, Leipzig. Their article is titled “Renegotiating the global climate stabilization target.” That target is the familiar 2oC maximum increase in average global temperature (or an atmospheric concentration of 450 ppm CO2) that IPCC members have agreed should not be breached. As Geden and Beck note in their introduction, that target was formulated through a dialogue between climate scientists and policy advisors, and was formally adopted by policymakers at the 2010 UN climate change conference in Cancun. They note the concept of a temperature target had been suggested as early as the mid-1990s; certainly, the idea of 2oC as a reasonable limit on temperate rise (one that left the world with manageable climate change) was clear by the time of the 4th Assessment Report in 2007. It is also clear, as Geden and Beck note, that the chance of achieving agreement on policy in time to remain within this limit has been growing dimmer with every year that has passed without substantive progress.

Geden and Beck argue that the IPCC process must not move forward with the 2oC limit in place if the world is going to fail to remain within it. In their words,

“For national governments that take climate policy seriously, it is unthinkable to continue pursuing political goals that are patently unachievable. This will make it necessary to modify the 2 °C target in some way.”

They leave no doubt that by ‘in some way’ they mean ‘upwards’. As a scientist I find this reasoning staggering, although I also see it as logical given the negotiation/compromise nature of the political process that has to take place. I also see in it a repeat of the process the UN has recently gone through with many of its Millenium Development Goals.

A message for IPCC and for Geden and Beck; it’s OK to fail, suck it up and try harder. Changing the negotiation rules so failure won’t happen is not exactly grappling with the issue of climate change. Image © Quotepedia

The MDGs were put in place by 2001 after nearly a decade of discussion and negotiation; they were intended to be achieved by 2015 (an interesting history is here). Some of the targets specified for the MDGs have already been, or will be reached by 2015, but a number of other targets will not be met. Beginning as early as 2010, discussion about the effectiveness of the MDGs focused on the failure to set achievable targets and on items of good news from many countries: some goals are being met in some countries so let’s cheer these accomplishments, and some goals were too difficult (at least in some countries). Apparently it is preferable to pay attention to the items of good news, and find reasons to explain away the bad news instead of stating forthrightly ‘we believed these targets were achievable by 2015 but they have not all been met; we failed’. Beginning about the same time, discussions explored what could replace the MDGs after 2015. Retaining the goals that had not been met was considered less palatable than coming up with a somewhat similar group of new Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs. Those SDGs are now being rolled out with much fanfare. My point here is not to condemn the effort to provide a list of clear, quantitative goals to be met within an agreed timeframe, or to suggest the MDGs were a wasted effort. They were not. My point is that the negotiation process took a long time, with lots of little retreats to come up with an initial set of MDGs that, at the time, were believed reachable, and when it became clear that many would not be reached excuses were invented and discussion shifted to the generation of a whole new set of goals. Failure seems to be a word that is avoided at all costs.

Back to the 2oC emissions target. Now that it is becoming apparent that the world is in grave danger of not meeting it, Geden and Beck argue that it is time to soften the target, because it would be ‘unthinkable’ to have a target which was not reached. I think it is worth pointing out here that even as early as 2007 when the 2oC target was first being floated, there were many environmental and climate scientists who warned that 2oC could well be too high to avoid profound climate change and the environmental and human stresses that would cause. Those working on coral reefs were quick to recommend 1.5oC, or a CO2 concentration in the atmosphere of 350 ppm, an amount of CO2 last seen in the early 1980s. A number of other environmental scientists have expressed support for this safer level. Indeed, as knowledge of the ramifying effects of warming, and the environmental responses to them, has grown, support for a more conservative target than 2oC has grown among the scientific community. The report from Working Group II that forms part of the IPCC 5th Assessment being rolled out this year shows this growing conservatism in its many references to warming ‘between 1o and 2oC’, however it also introduces the concept of managing risk and illustrates how mitigation decisions can increase or decrease environmental resilience which is key to ultimate success. The report from Working Group I sticks with the 2oC limit for the most part but does talk about targets lower than this. So does the report from Working Group III.

I suggest that the scientists participating in the IPCC process during the period prior to 2010 never held that the 2oC limit was an absolute threshold below which all would be well and above which there would be climate disaster. Nothing in the 4th Assessment documents suggests this. It was the policy experts interested in creating conditions favoring an effective international negotiation process who turned it into a firm target. From the perspective of the scientists, a firm target was preferable to no target at all in a negotiation process that did not appear to be being taken very seriously. While scientists have become increasingly concerned over the possibility of sudden environmental changes due to so-called tipping points, they recognize that specifying the future temperature at which a tipping point will occur is either fortune telling or educated guesswork but certainly not science. A target of 2oC was a reasonable one, and therefore one the science community could work with. For the 5th Assessment, the discussion of risk management by Working Group II seems to me an attempt by the science community to suggest to the policy negotiators that any specific temperature target will be shorthand for negotiations that ultimately lead to consensus on the amount of risk that will be tolerated that actions to be taken will ensure the future climate will be manageable. The Synthesis of their report includes a figure that makes clear how the choices among alternative actions made over time can lead to a broad range of end results, from a very good world with high environmental resilience to a much poorer world with little environmental resilience. I also accept what Geden and Beck imply; that political negotiators will find it far easier to negotiate with reference to a specific temperature target than using something as complex as a risk management strategy to achieve a best possible outcome for the planet. In their words, “even a sensible approach, such as establishing a three tiered risk-management framework … has little chance of being seriously considered before 2016.”

IPCC WGII 5th Assess Report SPM 9
While the 2014 IPCC WG II report, supporting the 5th Assessment, speaks in terms of temperature targets, it also discusses risk management. Figure SPM9 shows how a series of choices over time between more difficult and less difficult actions can lead to a broad range of futures that differ in the resilience of the planetary environment. Working to achieve a challenging target should lead to better futures. Figure © IPCC

When the scientists, with their improved models of how the planet’s climate system works, continue to warn about unacceptable climate impacts if CO2 concentrations rise much above 450 ppm and a 2oC temperature rise, and even talk about targets more conservative than this, I find it ‘unthinkable’ that Geden and Beck would advocate raising the target above 2oC simply to ease the negotiation process. They are putting the ease of political negotiators ahead of the improved understanding of the rules under which Nature operates.

The insistence by policy experts and by politicians that a climate treaty be negotiated among nations as if it were a treaty on trade or security misses one crucial point. Climate negotiations are not the same as trade negotiations. The issue centers on how much, if at all, we should restrict the ability of humanity to affect the climate of the planet. Nature, which is governed by immutable natural laws, is not at the negotiating table, and nobody else is there to speak on Nature’s behalf. We have only the scientists’ improving, but not yet perfect understanding of Nature’s laws to guide us. That understanding should not, and cannot be treated as just one more starting position to be modified by compromise in reaching decisions. In other words, the negotiation around climate is not comparable to the negotiations around trade or security because all negotiating parties are more or less on one side of the struggle and no party represents the opposing view. All nations would prefer to retain their freedom to manage their activities in ways that best serve their immediate economic or other needs. Few if any will be altruistic enough to voluntarily step back, curtailing practices seen as globally damaging but locally and immediately economically beneficial. The only force moving parties towards a compromise that involves any repression of national freedom to act according to immediate self-interest is an appeal to be team players on a global scale. People in leadership positions, political or economic, seldom put good sportsmanship ahead of economic self-interest, and shaming so far has not been very effective. Changing the already agreed 2oC target to something warmer, simply to ease these negotiations seems to me a very bad step.

I suggest that the IPCC science community, having worked to build consensus on how human activities modify the planet, and having used this consensus view to build projections of likely and less likely futures under different sets of political decisions between now and then, must go one step further. The scientists must articulate in clear, understandable language, the likely planetary consequences for every set of proposed actions that the policy and political participants come up with. Rather than the present linear process of IPCC scientists delivering detailed Assessment reports that then guide climate negotiations, there needs to be a parallel process in which negotiators use the latest Assessment data to guide their negotiations while teams of scientists take alternative negotiating positions and generate projections into the future of the likely consequences of such actions, reporting their results back to the negotiators. The participating scientists would retain their scientific credibility because they would not be advocating for or against any particular proposal; they would be reporting their best assessments of the future consequences of adopting each proposal under consideration.

The IPCC Assessment process already goes a lot of the way towards achieving this. The 5th Assessment includes abundant projections of future consequences of adopting different broad policies. What is needed now is a more effective roll-out of these projections so that people understand the scale and timeframe of likely changes, and a mechanism for real-time interaction between an apolitical science team that runs projections and an international political negotiation group that develops and then compromises among proposals for action. As for the 2oC target; let’s keep it as a fixed goalpost while we struggle for a collective solution to this existential problem.

Why the IPCC Process Need Some Successes Now

That we need to get moving on efforts to lower CO2 emissions is shown by another new paper, this one by Steven Davies of Univ. of California at Irvine and Robert Socolow of Princeton University, published in Environmental Research Letters on 26th August. It is open access so accessible to all. What Davies and Socolow have done is to calculate the extent of committed releases of CO2 globally from the operation of electricity generation plants. By ‘committed’ releases, they refer to the CO2 that will be emitted by each generator during its remaining lifetime. Committed releases for a single generator are highest the day it goes into operation and then decrease as it operates, reaching zero on the day it is decommissioned. Davies and Socolow argue that by calculating the global committed releases every year for the electricity generation industry they provide a new way of documenting the extent of the contribution to climate change from this source. In a world in which the amount of electricity being generated from use of fossil fuels is thought to be going down, global committed emissions will fall year by year.

The results they present, from 1950 to 2012 do not suggest anything like that rosy picture. Global committed emissions of CO2 have risen continuously since 1950. Initially that was due to construction of new generating capacity in the US and Europe, but in recent years it has been caused by the rapid increases in capacity in China, India and some other developing countries. The overall pattern through the years has been driven primarily by the emissions from coal-fired power plants. Even today, coal remains the primary fuel used for electricity generation. All told, the committed emissions due to electricity generation were 307 gigatonnes CO2 in 2012, and this committed amount was increasing at about 6.5 gigatonnes CO2 per year. Not only have we not been reducing our use of fossil fuels in the electricity generation field, we continue to increase this use, and predominantly we use coal.

Figure 5 [Remaining Commitments, Changes, Ratio].eps
Parts A and B of Figure 5, Davies and Socolow, showing the continuing accumulation of committed CO2 emissions to 2012. In A, the commitments are partitioned among nations; in B among fuels. Figure © Envir. Res. Lett.

A September 7th article by Stephen Leahy drew my attention to one particularly concerning consequence of Davies and Socolow’s work. The 2014 IPCC Working Group 1Report included a number of simulations to determine the cumulative CO2 emissions that would be allowable for various target temperature increases. In other words, if we decide on a specific temperature target, how much more CO2 can we emit and still get there? If we do decide to work to limit the temperature increase to 2oC, the allowable future anthropogenic emissions of amount to about 990 gigatonnes CO2 between now and 2100. More than this, and we overshoot the 2o C target. Now electricity generation is currently responsible for about 40% of total CO2 emissions, and 307 gigatonnes is about 30% of 990 gigatonnes, which means that either we are going to have to drastically curtail all our other sources of CO2 emissions, or we are going to have to stop building new fossil fuel power plants within the next couple of years, even to replace ones that are coming to the end of their lives.

Let me say that a different way. The set of power generation plants now in action on this planet will, in the remainder of their lives before decommissioning, emit virtually all the CO2 that our budget allows for if we want to keep to a target of no more than 2oC temperature rise, and want to continue our other activities, chiefly to do with land use, that emit CO2. There is essentially no wiggle room left. We have so greatly increased the rate at which we emit CO2 that we now have in place enough capacity to emit all the CO2 we will be permitted to emit if we want to keep the global temperature reasonable. Surely that fact is one that might help spur on the negotiations on climate?

climate t shirt cop16-cancun-0261
A message the climate negotiators need to hear. Far better than the message that the target is being eased to make the task easier.