Sunday, 6 December 2009

Here’s how to gauge success at Copenhagen

Charles Clover

You’d think climate scientists had made fools of themselves enough already. Then up pops the grandaddy of them all, James Hansen of Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, he who started the global warming bandwagon rolling in 1988 by telling Congress that the US drought had a human explanation.
Last week he said it would be better for this week’s Copenhagen climate talks to fail because the solutions on offer aren’t going to solve the problem. Bonkers, absolutely bonkers, I thought, until I realised that he has a book out.
Hansen has clearly led a sheltered life when it comes to politics and history. He argues that dealing with climate change is like dealing with slavery — and that Copenhagen is our last chance to tackle global warming. “On those kinds of issues, you can’t compromise,” he says. “You can’t say, ‘Let’s reduce slavery, let’s find a compromise and reduce it 50% or reduce it 40%’.”
He conveniently forgets that his hero, Abraham Lincoln, compromised repeatedly with the slave states in an attempt to stave off secession from the Union. Hansen also argues that if you really wanted to solve the problem of climate change, you wouldn’t start with Copenhagen. Presumably, if he had been around at the time of Dunkirk, he’d have advocated ending the war and starting again from scratch.
Bonkers. Just as bonkers, in fact, as Lord Lawson, who told us recently Copenhagen would fail, which would be a good thing because it will cost poor countries a fortune if they have to use expensive renewable energy instead of cheap fossil fuels.
You would have thought that a former chancellor would know that global warming comes with costs attached, too. You don’t have to accept Lord Stern’s calculation that the costs of the effects of catastrophic climate change are five times those of mitigating climate change. If last week’s reports about the melt-rate of the West Antarctic ice sheet are correct, it is obvious that a lot of expensive sea walls will have to be built.
As often happens in politics, there is a curious similarity between the dogmatists on one side, such as Hansen and Friends of the Earth, and Lawson and the Republican sceptics on the other. Both sides hate carbon trading — the European emissions trading scheme or the cap-and-trade scheme that President Barack Obama is trying to get through the Senate — and both would like an international carbon tax to be levied. They should get real: carbon trading, set up by the Kyoto treaty, may have its drawbacks but it is one of the few things to have cut greenhouse gases since the world first promised to do so in 1992.
As Hansen seems not to grasp, politics never starts from where you want it to and it delivers results incrementally. For that reason it would be foolish to speak of the failure of Copenhagen before it has started. Nobody yet knows if it will be the historic turning point that Yvo de Boer, the United Nations’ climate chief, says it will be. The players haven’t started negotiating. Tomorrow the curtains open. Theatre begins. The unexpected will happen. I have a vivid recollection of bumping into a bleary-eyed John Prescott in a Kyoto corridor at 3am and telling him Al Gore had gone off to ring Bill Clinton because America was being drawn beyond its negotiating position. Under pressure from the conference hall, Gore promised a cut in carbon dioxide emissions that proved too much for the Senate to stomach.
The Senate may yet veto Copenhagen as it did Kyoto. That would be the real disaster because, this time, the parties involved are persuaded that man-made global warming is highly probable — not certain, there are no certainties in science — and too much of a risk to be ignored. But how do you judge success? Will developed countries pledge the 25%-40% cut in carbon dioxide emissions said to be needed to prevent the world warming more than 2C? Will developing countries pledge cuts for the first time?
Realistically, what must emerge is a treaty. If it doesn’t, sensible arrangements for transferring money into new technology around the world will collapse when Kyoto expires in 2012. And if Copenhagen collapses, none of the good things on offer this month, such as an overdue agreement on saving tropical forests, will get funded. If the United States enters the global carbon market, there will be more money available to save rainforests. Demand for such projects will rise and with it the price of a ton of carbon saved, which will drive green innovation. But if a climate bill does not pass through the US Senate by May — a month before an international meeting to tie up any treaty that emerges over the next two weeks in Denmark — Copenhagen will fail. This is going to be close.
We will, no doubt, spend the next two weeks reflecting that vast conferences with many thousands of participants aren’t very good at achieving deep precautionary cuts in emissions. But they’re all we’ve got. We may find that the Copenhagen circus leaves us with a lowest-common-denominator kind of deal that leaves a lot of work to be done. We may have to do more at a country level, such as taxing polluters for things such as sea walls and new bridges in Cumbria built to withstand the higher rainfall predicted in future. That is not failure and it is a lot better than having no treaty at all, whatever James Hansen says.