The UN car­bon fi­asco

New book calls for re­form of cli­mate agency

National Post (Latest Edition) - - FP COMMENT -

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.

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