The UN carbon fiasco
New book calls for reform of climate agency
The slow death rattle of the United Nation’s climate-change apparatus grew a little louder yesterday as thousands of delegates descended on Tianjin, China, for a five-day negotiating session. It’s the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s last chance to reach a global carbon-emission agreement before a final meeting in Cancun, Mexico, in December.
The hopelessness of it all was captured by Christina Figueres, executive secretary of t he UNFCCC, at yesterday’s opening event. “As you know, a concrete outcome in Cancun is urgently needed a) to restore the faith in the ability of Parties to take the process forward; b) to prevent multilateralism from being perceived as a never-ending road; c) to prevent continued disagreements from resulting in unacceptable inaction; and, most importantly, d) to prevent climatechange impacts from reversing development gains that have been painstakingly achieved over the past few decades.”
For anyone wondering about what the final outcome will look like in Cancun, the answer is: None of the above. That the UN climate-control effort, following the disaster at Copenhagen last year, is today heading for another calamity in Cancun is no surprise to Roger Pielke Jr., author of a new devastating book on the monumental folly that has become the UN’s attempt to forge a global climate agreement. “International climate policy has yet to fully come to terms with the failure at Copenhagen last year,” Prof. Pielke said in an interview yesterday. “While some think that the international negotiations can simply be restarted, the reality is that a Plan B is needed. The UN Climate Convention is untenable.”
In his book, The Climate Fix: What Scientists and Politicians Won’t Tell You About Global Warming, Prof. Pielke argues that the whole UN climate machine needs to be revamped, restructured and refocused. Prof. Pielke, a prolific blogger on climate issues, is a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado who is often associated with climate skeptics. But he is no climate-science denier. Science plays a small part in his book, mostly in an opening chapter in which he declares that “even with uncertainties about the future, there is ample evidence, broadly accepted, that humans are influencing the global Earth system.”
The issue is not the science but how to approach policy in view of the deep uncertainties surrounding the accepted science. The basic science issue may have been settled, in Prof. Pielke’s view, but not much else is. How much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is too much: 350 parts per million or 550? What’s the threshold at which destabilizing disaster is triggered? Prof. Pielke’s point is that “no one knows if or when there might be a threshold effect.” Nor does anyone know whether by holding the carbon level of the atmosphere at 450 parts per million — a current target — would achieve the claimed result of preventing global temperatures from rising by more than two degrees Celsius.
While Prof. Pielke’s review of the science uncertainties is deft and convincing, and accessible to any reader, the real value in The Climate Fix is its exposé of the disastrous interface between science and political policy as orchestrated by the United Nations. The impact of that mix of science and policy has created a global policy environment that is politicized, absurd, insane, economically unreal, technologically ignorant and ultimately doomed.
At the root of the disaster, and a core reason for the looming fiascos
Failure is built into the UN policy structure Reform would fund new carbon-removal technology
in Tianjin and Cancun, is a clause (Article 2) in the charter of the UN Framework Climate Convention. The objective, it says, is the “stabilization of greenhouse-gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous atmospheric interference with the climate system.”
In Prof. Pielke’s view, this is a one-way ticket to today’s gridlock. By definition, it assumes humans are the only cause of climate change, and therefore the only way to avoid disaster is to radically control human emissions and alter human behaviour. The objective also creates impossible objectives for scientists, who are now called on to determine, among other things, what is “dangerous” in a system that may well be beyond human understanding. Danger can also be relative, since new flooding in a coastal area of India might be offset by extended agricultural opportunities in Russia.
Such political sparring, with scientists playing bizarre roles as arbiters of social standards and economic wellbeing, is now at the center of the UN’s institutional meltdown over climate. It’s built into the structure. “The terms of the Climate Convention force political combatants to assert certainty about the climate future (dangerous or not?) when in reality uncertainty may be irreductible.”
The implication of Prof. Pielke’s analysis is that failure is built into the UN system. Continuing with the current UN approach of trying again with the same strategies makes no sense. “To me,” he writes, “ that seems like insanity. It is time to rethink fundamentally our approach to climate change.”
The Climate Fix makes its way through these and other complex topics effectively and in a clear style. Average readers will learn much, but more important is that it should alert experts and policy wonks to the impossible policy structure that has been imposed on the world’s economy. Especially alarming should be his review of the various policy options and initiatives that have become part of our everyday conversation about climate issues: cap and trade, carbon capture, alternative fuels, decarbonization, national targets, Kyoto Protocols — all are reduced to unachievable pipe-dreams.
The major assumption of the policymakers, a product of the UN push for climate results, is that it is economically and politically possible to orchestrate a massive reduction in global carbon emissions over a relatively short period of time. Through a combination of drastic reductions in energy consumption and technological fixes that border on magic, the world can be saved from disaster.
None of this can work, says Prof. Pielke. Attempts to use carbon taxes and cap and trade systems to force people to turn away from fossil fuels run up against what Prof. Pielke’s describes as “the iron law of climate policy,” which holds that the people of the world — of all countries — will not give up economic growth in exchange for a purported climate fix (see excerpt nearby). “This deeply held global and ideological commitment to economic growth means that for the foreseeable future, efforts to reduce emissions through a willful contraction of economic activity are simply not in the cards.”
Alternatives to fossil fuels are also impractical and unrealistic with current technology. Prof. Pielke documents the consistent failure of self-promoting politicians — from Japan, Australia, China, Europe and Britain — who routinely make fools of themselves trying to contravene Prof. Pielke’s iron law and then fail to come even close to meeting carbon-emission targets. He also does a fine job outlining the technical and practical impossibility of meeting decarbonization targets using current technology.
Coincidentally, next Sunday, Oct. 10, 2010, is 10-10-10 day, when green activists around the world push to cut carbon emissions by 10% a year for years to come — as if that were even remotely possible. The target of cutting world carbon emissions by 50% below 1990 levels by 2050 would require the construction of 12,000 nuclear power stations. “How many nuclear power stations is 12,000? It is, in round numbers, about the same as one new plant coming online every day between now and 2050.”
Having argued effectively that the current UN climate-policy regime is essentially a foolish and impractical experiment in global policy, what are the alternatives? Rather than focus on attempting to force the world to cut carbon emissions and fossil-fuel consumption — using growth-killing schemes that cannot work — Prof. Pielke proposes a major global push toward innovation, with governments providing neutral incentives for research into new technologies.
Massive government incentives for innovation, funded by a modest US$5-a-tonne carbon tax — so as not to punish consumers and reduce growth — would aim to find the non-carbon energy sources of the future. One of Prof. Pielke’s models for this is the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, which in the mid-20th century took up the task of creating the “green revolution” in agriculture. CIGAR was founded in part at the behest of an international development commission, headed by former Canadian prime minister Lester B. Pearson, to undertake “intensive international effort” to support “research specializing in food supplies and tropical agriculture.”
To the degree that the CIGAR model worked for global agriculture — Prof. Pielke doesn’t explore its record — maybe it can also work to decarbonize the global economy. Some of the ideas for the plan, using a US$5 carbon tax, were developed by Isabel Galiana and McGill economics professor Chris Green as part of Bjorn Lomborg’s Copenhagen Consensus. Prof. Pielke adds that “the important thing is to not pick winners in advance.”
While there is reason for doubt about entrusting US$150-billion a year to governments to set global innovation agendas, it’s a policy option that’s got to be a lot better than the current UN fiasco.
Meanwhile, it’s too bad the thousands of UN delegates in China today don’t have The Climate Fix in their briefcases. The futility of their efforts would become apparent. Prof. Pielke boldly promises that, if he has succeeded in his mission, readers will “never see the climate debate in the same way again.” He has succeeded, I think. There’s still time to get the message out before Cancun.