Science and politics - a tale of two meetings
More than 8,000km separate Vienna and Bangkok.
That's roughly the distance that appeared to be separating the minds of people attending very different meetings that took place in the two capitals last week.
In between bites of Sachertorte, scientists unveiled their latest research in many disciplines relating to the Earth - including climate change - at the European Geosciences Union (EGU) annual meeting.
Betwixt pad thai and green curry, at this year's first session of preparatory talks within the UN climate convention (UNFCCC), delegates from the vast majority of the world's governments attempted to find a political route simultaneously acceptable to their masters and appropriate to the level of scientific concern.
Reporting both accurately is a tough task, for different reasons.
The EGU, which I attended, is formed of multiple parallel sessions at which new research is presented - there are so many that keeping track of everything is an impossible task.
The UNFCCC, on the other hand, is a tangled political web that's pretty opaque even if you are present - which clearly, on this occasion, I wasn't.
Those caveats given, here's my brief summary of the two meetings as they relate to climate change.
Vienna saw lots of talk about ice, particularly the Arctic kind... and not much of it was optimistic.
We saw new models of how quickly Arctic sea ice will melt, and new attempts to understand key mechanisms affecting the Greenland ice sheet.
You may have read about Wieslaw Maslowski's renewed projections that summers will be free of sea ice within this decade.
Not all modellers agree with that timescale... even so, the fact that it's on the agenda indicates the speed of changes in this most totemic of regions.
I didn't have time to report on the Greenland modelling, but one of the packed presentations I attended saw a study indicating that the ice sheet could well reach a tipping point of melting at a global average temperature rise of only 1.5C (2.7F) from pre-industrial times.
We are about halfway there already.
I also dipped into sessions on methane releases from around the Arctic.
This is a really tough issue to research, because historical records aren't good.
So when ships monitor methane bubbling up from around Svalbard, for example, and wonder how important it is, there's no database that you can open to compare present day releases against those from half a century ago.
Nevertheless, we heard that the water in some of these locations has warmed by one or two Celsius in the last few decades, and scientists presented simulations indicating how that may be affecting methane emissions.
Hard data appeared in short supply - for the reasons I've given, plus the fact that this sort of research is hard and expensive.
But I was accosted by one scientist who said his initial calculations indicate methane release could be serious enough to amplify human-induced warming 40-fold.
OK... we're talking here about non-peer-reviewed science, for the most part - the rituals and rhythms of science mean conference presentations are habitually of non-published material.
Even so, I trust this little tour d'horizon has given you a flavour of discussions and debates at what is a purely scientific gathering, with no politics and very small amounts of hype.
Take a trans-continental jet over to Bangkok, meanwhile, and we see politics and science trading places.
Those of you familiar with the UN process will know that for the last few years the official negotiations have been run along two parallel tracks - one dealing with the Kyoto Protocol, the other (named Long-term Co-operative Action, or LCA) with everything else.
This was a week-long meeting, and the LCA group did not agree its agenda until the Thursday evening.
From that, you might judge that not much was accomplished; and from what I've been hearing, you'd be absolutely right.
There are now less than two years until the Kyoto Protocol's first commitment period - in other words, its first set of targets for reducing emissions - comes to an end.
This is why developing countries are vehement in their assertion that their richer cousins need to get on with agreeing a new set of targets very soon.
Business groups at the Bangkok meeting said the same thing. After all, if you were making investment decisions that might be financially affected by carbon targets, you'd want to know as far as possible in advance what those targets are going to be.
Tuvalu and others demanded that rich countries should either say right now that they are going to agree further emission cuts under the Kyoto Protocol, or leave the room.
This was aimed partially at Japan, Russia and Canada, which have said they won't entertain the prospect. But it was also presumably intended to draw out the final positions of those that have said they might, such as the EU, Australia and New Zealand.
The EU then countered that they couldn't say yes or no until technical details of what a second commitment period might look like had been nailed down.
And so the loop played round.
The US, meanwhile, stuck to two positions that have become very familiar over the last year:
- that it is pledging to cut emissions by as much as other developed nations, but only if you count from a baseline of 2005 rather than 1990 which just about everyone else uses
- that it will not do more without "symmetry"- i.e. unless China pledges pretty much the same thing.
At this point in the cycle of talks, looking back to the last big summit (Cancun, in this case) and forward to the next one (Durban), there's often a deal of friction.
Later on in the year, countries that want major progress on fundamental issues are often more or less forced to accept their demands won't be met, and in the ensuing "something or nothing" situation, to work alongside those whom at root they consider recalcitrant.
So the political path may yet smooth out as the year progresses.
But if the scientific picture is getting worse, as soundings at the EGU would indicate... what then?
Do the politics reflect the new urgency that science appears to be generating?
And if not, can they be reformed so they do - especially given the huge obstacles that materialise now, when attempting to agree measures that are acknowledged as inadequate by just about every party in the climate convention?