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Fast words on warming; snail's pace on whales

Richard Black | 17:20 UK time, Friday, 13 March 2009

On Monday, I trailed a couple of meetings taking place this week that I suggested might have a significant impact on environmental issues: the climate conference supported by the Danish government taking place in Copenhagen, and the International Whaling Commission's (IWC) meeting in Rome.

At the end of the week, I want to look back at both and try to distil some of the themes emerging and what they might mean. But to be honest, with the climate conference, I'm going to need your help.

I'll come to that in a moment - first, let me deal with the whaling meeting.

WhalesThe context, as regular readers of this blog will know, is the "peace process" instigated more than a year ago by the IWC's chair, Bill Hogarth, which is attempting to find a "compromise package" of reforms that both pro- and anti-whaling countries could see as a step forward.

Dr Hogarth's original aim was to agree the package at the main IWC meeting in Madeira in June. A preliminary document was drafted earlier in the year, and the Rome gathering was a kind of "where are we up to now and what do people think of it so far?" kind of affair.

No-one I've spoken to who was there has reported major progress; words like "breakthrough" have been absent. But there are four things, I think, worth flagging up.

The first is that if Japan is to reduce or even end its Antarctic hunt, as many of its opponents want, the IWC is going to have to allocate a catch quota around Japan's coasts for four of its traditional whaling communities - that's the political trade. So how are IWC scientists going to set that quota - according to the comprehensive but laborious process (the Revised Management Procedure) developed over many years, or via some more ad-hoc but much quicker sums?

To achieve anything at the Madeira meeting, it'll have to be the latter. So, those leading the process now have to decide what they would want to ask the IWC scientific committee to do - and the committee's response, which won't emerge until the late stages of the Madeira meeting, will be crucial in determining whether coastal whaling can be introduced in the next few years.

To add pressure on the coastal discussions, the South Korean delegation said that its traditional whaling communities have the same need for whale meat as Japan's - hinting strongly that they too would like to secure a small legal catch (already many tens of whales are caught, officially by accident, in fishing nets each year).

And this is the second point of interest; anti-whaling countries are likely to be more cautious about granting Japan a coastal quota now that South Korea has crystallised fears they already had about the concept overflowing into other countries.

The third point is that there was, I'm told, very little meaningful discussion of scientific whaling at the Rome meeting. It's going to have to happen sometime, because for many environment groups it is the biggest elephant in the room; but who is going to have the cojones to raise it, and when, knowing that proverbial blood on the carpet may swiftly follow?

Finally, the US delegation - which punches far, far above the weight of a single country in this arena - is apparently willing to play a long game with this process. So, failure to agree a package in Madeira will not necessarily signal the end of the road - which probably, on balance, improves the chances that reforms will eventually happen.

A small working group is scheduled to produce more detailed proposals in the middle of May, and I'll do my best to bring you the details as soon as I can.

OK - now to the climate talks. They've certainly generated a lot of headlines - my first Google news search this morning yielded more than 1,000 articles - and most of them have been of the "we've got to do something because things are worse than we feared" variety.

You'll probably have seen the stories on sea levels rising and ocean acidification that my colleagues David Shukman and Roger Harrabin wrote earlier in the week, and Matt McGrath's story on what you might call the main conference outcome - a call to action by the scientists organising the meeting, saying that key trends are happening so fast that the worst-case scenarios of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2007 report are in danger of being realised.

Certainly many of the studies presented did suggest that things are as bad as, or perhaps even worse, than the IPCC projections.

But others suggested the opposite. Jonathan Bamber and colleagues concluded [pdf link] that rather than the Greenland ice sheet melting irreversibly at a global temperature rise of 3C, it might need to reach 6C before it started happening.

The same group also suggested [pdf link] that the volume of water stored in the West Antarctic ice sheet has been overestimated, and that there's enough to raise sea levels globally by about 3.5m rather than the 7m figure that has often been used.

The story about sea levels rising faster than IPCC projections were expected; the organisation was open in 2007 about excluding estimates of "accelerated" melting of icecaps and glaciers from its assessment because, it concluded, not enough was then known about the processes to model them accurately. And since 2007, other studies have also concluded that the IPCC figures were too low.

The acidification trend, also, has been well documented, so it's no surprise to see more details emerging on that.

But many of the other studies are just that - individual studies. They haven't been through the full IPCC review process - or even, in some cases, through the normal peer review process of a scientific journal.

As Andy Revkin of the New York Times notes, this has led some scientists outside the conference to suggest these studies are being given more weight than they deserve, and to suggestions that the "message" from Copenhagen is perhaps being overplayed - which could, Andy notes, backfire on the organisers.

Nevertheless, whatever the qualifications, I believe the conference conclusions will have significant political impact through the year, as negotiators try to formulate a new global climate treaty.

(I mentioned this in my earlier post - and although not everyone commenting agreed with me, no-one has produced a concrete reason why I was wrong).

The Danish organisers are going to draw up a full report of the conference which should be available before a core meeting along the UN process, in Bonn in June.

As a passing note, the Danish meeting bears a strong resemblance to the Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change conference in 2005 initiated by the UK government. Hosted by the UK Met Office, it definitely played into political circles globally, and many of the conclusions found their way into the IPCC 2007 assessment.

I'd be interested in your general thoughts, as always. But I'd also like to invite you to help trawl the research papers presented at the conference; my brief foray showed there is lots of interesting stuff there, but around the wheat there's a lot of chaff too, a picture that will be familiar to anyone who's done their time at scientific conferences.

So what I propose is that if you're interested and have a moment or two, go into the conference abstracts, find a subject area of interest, and then pull out one abstract that you think takes us forward in some way and post a comment telling us what the finding is and why you think it's important.

You can choose from several fields of climate science, economics, social policy - even the role of the media.

If you don't find a subject heading that particularly interests you, then why not begin near the beginning of the list if the first letter of your surname comes early in the alphabet, and near the end if you're a Zworykin, a Yarsley or a Xerxes.

Hopelessly random and unstructured, I know - but I hope it'll throw up a good mix of what you find interesting, and then perhaps there'll be room for another chat about it early next week.

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