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G20, Bonn and the climate of opinion

Richard Black | 13:14 UK time, Thursday, 2 April 2009

Sometimes, on reading comments on this blog, I draw the same impression as simon-swede did on the last post: "so much vitriol".

But at other times, I find myself in full agreement with jr4412 - "an informative and well-argued debate" - which is a far more satisfying state of affairs.

Solar_panels_and_electric_carThat's what we're aiming for - and thanks to everyone who posted constructive comments on the last thread, and for every bit of humour - something that's sorely lacking in many environmental circles, and very welcome here.

I wanted to pick up three comments on recent threads that I thought made an interesting counterpoint to events this week - the G20 meeting in London, and the UN climate convention meeting in Bonn, the first formal gathering on the route to December's Copenhagen summit which is supposed, as regular readers will know, to agree a global climate treaty with even more bells and whistles than the Kyoto Protocol.

One is PAWB46's "there is no scientific evidence for AGW" (anthropogenic global warming).

The second, CuckooToo's "despite the fact that the science is far from settled, despite the IPCC's reservations about computer modelling, despite the BBC's refusal to report newsworthy articles by sceptics, it's a done deal?"

... and the third, pmbiggsy's "I suggest our efforts are focused in a direction that both climate realists and alarmists can agree on - developing new fuels/technology rather than futile attempts to control the weather/climate with unilateral policies".

I think, pmbiggsy, that this is exactly where we are now. Reporting of the UN negotiations tends to focus on headline commitments made to cutting greenhouse gas emissions; but I would argue that the mechanisms set up to stimulate the development and spread of low-carbon technologies are more critical to making carbon reductions than the size of countries' promises.

This is the point Lord Stern made this week in a briefing directed into the ears of G20 leaders. An economy that is green but prosperous is, he said, "the only option. Low economic growth in a world that has poverty and that is aspirational is unacceptable".

There are voices in the climate change sphere - some of them camped in the City of London - arguing that economic growth and conventional versions of what economics actually is are the real problems. Whatever the merits of these arguments, they are not the voices being listened to in the wind-tunnels of power.

Altercation_at_climate_campAsk, then, what is essential to a prosperous and green economy; and I would suggest the most fundamental long-term ingredient has to revolve around energy, both saving it and implementing cleaner ways of generating it.

These are the technologies at the centre of the Kyoto Protocol's technology transfer clauses - clauses that have to be be re-energised in the Copenhagen process if the Kyoto successor is to work at all.

Cost will be an issue, true; but when the price of oil can rise fourfold or even more in a few years, and with "end of oil" projections ranging from few to many decades, who's to say that the relative stability of renewables prices and the certainty of continued raw energy supply do not make attractive compensations?

All this is happening, of course, because where it matters, "The Debate" on climate science (there are actually many debates, but only one so acrimonious as to merit initial capitalisation) is "a done deal".

Among scientists themselves, The Debate is, if not completely settled, at least producing large majorities on one side; rossglory reminds us of one of several surveys indicating a significant consensus in the active scientific community, and we've previously discussed others on these pages.

Which does not mean that current day climate change is proven, indubitably, irrevocably, and irrepressibly, to be of human manufacture. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) does not make the claim; though some may read its pronouncements as indicating certainty, everything in its reports is couched in terms of probability.

This may make uncomfortable reading for scientists, but to politicians, probabilities are part of everyday life.

Will the MP accused of fiddling expenses or extra-marital dalliance be forced from office, or manage to cling on? How much are the banks eventually going to need in bail-out money? Will World Cup victory and a lovely summer win us back the vote-critical feelgood factor?

All are judgement calls; and the reality is that politicians are used to dealing with probabilities and uncertainty, and framing policy under these conditions.

I have heard it argued that the IPCC's climate projections are a lot more reliable than most economic forecasts; and surely Bryn_hill is right to argue that the meaningful question is "at what shade of grey do you say we need to act?"

The vast majority of European governments and leaders found the shade of grey convincing more than a decade ago.

For years, the Bush administration in the US and the Howard government in Australia argued against international actions to curb emissions, though both continued to endorse IPCC reports, hence accepting its version of climate science; their opposition was not based primarily on science, but on political and economic considerations.

From time to time, Russia and Canada, among developed nations, raise banners against firm emission curbs; but their arguments too are economic, not scientific.

At its current meeting, the G20 is set to agree a paragraph endorsing a strong deal in Copenhagen. G20 governments represent most of the world's population and most of the world's emissions.

In Bonn, representatives of these and other governments are batting around ideas as to what the Copenhagen deal might include; and all are posited on the idea that man-made climate change is real and needs tackling.

At the global political level, then, the deal IS done; human-induced climate change is accepted as a threat virtually everywhere. Governments set up the IPCC, and it is to that body's advice that they listen to - not to wattsupwiththat, not to ClimateAudit, not to the Lavoisier Group.

In comparison to the weight carried by the G20, the G8, the UNFCCC, UNEP, the UN Security Council, the IPCC, and all the other organisations backing emissions-busting policies, it's hard to see the recent Heartland Institute conference, for example, as having any more political relevance than a government in exile.

SunIn a strict sense, of course, science is never a "done deal"; more research can always turn a consensus on its head, and you can bet your life that if convincing evidence emerges that anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are not driving climate change, governments will change direction faster than a cosmic ray, so conducive would that be to business as usual.

But for the moment, in the judgement of 194 countries endorsing the last IPCC report, the shade of grey is dark and glowering enough to indicate action now.

I know the community of "climate sceptics" is vast and disparate, and for that reason I try to avoid sweeping statements on the issue; but I sometimes think the sheer size and breadth of the political consensus escapes from that community's field of view.

Against that consensus, statements such as PAWB46's "there is no scientific evidence for AGW" stand out like a sore thumb.

I see the statement, simply, as untrue, and demonstrably so. There is a mountain of research supportive of, or indicative of, or consistent with (if not proving) anthropogenic warming, whether it's observational data, computer models, or trends drawn from the Earth's historical record. There is evidence in abundance.

Now, the key is how you interpret that evidence. For me, statements such as "I don't find strands of that evidence convincing", or "I don't accept that computer programs can model the complexity of the climate", or "I believe natural cycles have been under-represented as a cause of climate change" are all entirely legitimate and defensible, because they acknowledge that in the end, we all make judgement calls on what is before us.

With few exceptions, those with political and economic power are taking as little notice of statements such as "there is no evidence for anthropogenic climate change" as they are of protestors hurling bricks through the windows of capitalism this week; perhaps that is partly because they are demonstrably untrue, or partly because they are often delivered with, to quote simon-swede, "so much vitriol".

So what will have been accomplished by the end of the G20 meeting and the conclusion of the Bonn gathering in a week's time?

In concrete terms, not much. The G20 countries all support the primacy of the UNFCCC as a decision-making body, and all know that discussions between the US administration and Congress are vital; so anything more than what our friends in Washington call "Mom-and-apple-pie" was never likely to emerge in London, especially with climate concerns cast in the shadow of the world's economic woes.

The Bonn conclusions are likely to be a bit more subtle, but in the end more relevant.

An essential part of the context is that even if the bill just introduced into the US House of Representatives by Congressman Waxman and Markey becomes law, it would only commit the US to reduce emissions by about 6% from 1990 levels by 2020.

It's unclear, too, what target Japan might adopt for 2020, with a government advisory panel last week producing six possible strategies ranging from an increase of 4% to a cut of 25%.

The big questions here, where it matters, are not whether emissions need curbing at all; but whether these important industrialised countries are prepared to stomach tough targets that may incur an economic price, and whether developing countries will find the west's proposed package of cuts, technology transfer and financial support worth responding to with carbon constraints of their own.

New fuels and technologies will form an important part of the discussions. Whether there is enough evidence to make anthropogenic climate change a "done deal" is a question highly unlikely to see the light of day.

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