Thursday, November 22, 2012

Doha, Duh - COP18 and the Climate Change Business

Next week thousands will descends on Doha, Qatar, for the eighteens conference of the parties (COP18) - the supreme United Nations supported body governing the treaties and international agreements related to climate change. Building on the decisions at COP16 in 2010, they hope to move towards the final details of an agreement to succeed Kyoto to come into orce in 2015 and to settle the mechanisms by which the $100 billion annual fund by 2020  for climate mitigation will be both collected and distributed. The ultimate purpose is to keep climate change to below 2C by the end of the century. The meetings begin on 26th November and are due to end on December 7th. This is the third similar meeting this year - preliminary meetings involving the one hundred and ninety five countries were held earlier in Bonn and Bangkok.

So far, the results of these mammoth meetings are that CO2 emissions continue to rise, despite various Governments adopting unilateral and multilateral positions on climate related policies. While some agreements have been reached, for example with respect to the worlds forests, various groups of nations cannot agree on the basics of a deal - they keep "kicking the can" down the road.

The good news is that climate change remains a modest challenge for the world. In the last one hundred years, there has been warming of around 0.75C. Yet between 1998 and 2008, the earths climate remained stable and the earth cooled in 2011. Despite dire warnings, sea levels are rising modestly and the frequency of extreme weather events and droughts is declining. While we are seeing sea ice extent declining in the Arctic, we have complex explanations connected to wind and currents rather than just the CO2 is rising argument - a difficult argument to make, since Antarctic ice is expanding.

The fundamental purpose of these meetings is political. The focus is on government action, governance of global institutions and the transfer of wealth from developed to developing nations. The meetings have little or nothing to do with climate change - this is the veneer used to explore other matters.

Let us understand the political context. The Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) - the part of the UN behind COP18 - talked this earlier this month about the work of COP18. Christina Figueres language focused on the need for "guided transformation from a centralized policy perspective". Her argument was that there needs to be global governance for policy and that this should be acceptable because it is "based on science". She wants to affect the lives of everyone because "science tells us to".

Science tells us nothing of the sort. The science of climate change is in its infancy and we have a limited understanding of how climate actually works. Some of what we thought we knew is wrong and some of what is said to be known is also wrong. For example, in the lead up to Doha several of the key players at COP18, who are government representatives, not scientists, made a link between Hurricane Sandy and Climate Change. The UN's own so-called authoritative body can find no such link between extreme weather events and climate change and those who have spent their professional scientific career studying such matters also are unable to make this connection. In fact, hurricanes in the US are less frequent than they used to be and drought occurs no more frequently than it did sixty years ago.

What Susan Figueres should have said, so we would know, is that "carefully selected science" which supports the policies governments wish to pursue, both nationally and globally, will be used to inform policy". Put simply: "we are in favour of policy driven evidence produced by science".

This too is a strecth. A great many of the references in the 2007 International Panel on Climate Change assessment were not scientific publications in peer reviewed journals. They were unpublished articles, magazine articles, pamphlets from environmental campaign organizations. So the term "science" should be modified too - perhaps "kind of scientific-ish" would be more accurate.

We should not expect much to come from the Doha COP18. In the last several COP meetings, it has been backroom deals at the "last minute" which has made the COP appear successful, when in fact in each case they have delayed, postponed or kicked into the sidelines, the issues they are dealing with. While occassionally something happens - the agreement on deforestation, for example - this is unusual rather than the norm.

We can expect the United Nations to make a bid for a new governance agency and new funds to go with it. They made this request at COP17 and it has been part of the conversation for some time. The "front" for this is the need to administer the $100 billion a year global fund. 

We can also expect significant disputes betweeen the developed world (the G8), the developing world (especially India and China) and the Small Island States. This is part of the drama of these events. Some scientists will claim that the end of the world is neigh and we should treat these scientists seriously, but ask them to openly share their raw data with the world. That usually shuts them up (or sends them to their lawyers).

There will be interesting side shows - Canada will be vilified, Lord Monckton will be critized and Bjorn Lomborg will be ostracized - these too are normal events.

What no one will talk about is the fact that none of the decisions made to reduce CO2 emissions by anyone are having any impact or that the data from direct observation doesnt support the "science". These are "no, no" conversations.  

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