Climate: 2C or not 2C?

Anti-climate tax protestor Climate "sceptics" are making it hard for the US and other governments to progress

Comments by the US climate envoy last week discussing the value of the 2C target in international climate change negotiations have provoked quite a response.

Todd Stern, who leads the US negotiating team in the UN climate convention (UNFCCC) and performed the same role at the recent Rio+20 summit, told an audience at Dartmouth College that insisting on the target in negotiations would lead to "deadlock".

The approach needed more "flexibility", he said.

The negotiations he's referring to concern the Durban Platform - an oddly-chosen name for a process agreed at last year's UN talks in South Africa.

Governments agreed to conclude negotiations by 2015 on a new global deal that would include to different extents every nation, to come into effect in 2020.

As I reported earlier this week, the comment went down very badly with the blocs pushing for faster action on climate change - the Alliance of Small Island States (Aosis) and the EU - with Marshall Islands minister Tony de Brum describing this flexibility as "a death sentence".

Later, the African Group of countries weighed in, spokesman Seyni Nafo saying: "This is not a game with numbers; its a question of people's lives, and so I am not sure there is much space for the 'flexibility' Mr Stern has spoken of."

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But Ed King of the Responding to Climate Change website asked whether Mr Stern didn't have a point, given the difficult internal politics of the world's two biggest emitters.

"The aim is to avoid a 2C rise not just for 2015 or 2020 but stretching into the next 100 years," he writes.

"For that to be achieved the USA (and China) has to be on board."

In the middle of this comment storm, Mr Stern's office issued a statement designed to be a clarification.

"Of course, the US continues to support this [2C] goal; we have not changed our policy.

"My point in the speech was that insisting on an approach that would purport to guarantee such a goal - essentially by dividing up carbon rights to the atmosphere - will only lead to stalemate given the very different views countries would have on how such apportionment should be made.

"My view is that a more flexible approach will give us a better chance to actually conclude an effective new agreement and meet the goal we all share."

I say the statement is "designed to be a clarification" because actually, I'm not sure it is.

Certainly, countries have very different views on how "carbon rights to the atmosphere" should be divided up.

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We've seen that in abundance at successive UN climate talks dating back at least to 1997 and the agreement of the Kyoto Protocol.

So to that extent, Mr Stern's suggestion of not worrying too much about trying to build a 2C guarantee into the 2015 deal but instead starting "with a regime that can get us going in the right direction and that is built in a way maximally conducive to raising ambition, spurring innovation, and building political will" makes some sense.

However, as he acknowledges: "This kind of flexible, evolving legal agreement cannot guarantee that we meet a 2C goal."

Which begs the question; what use is such an agreement if it doesn't?

It's worth returning at this point to the basic point of the UN climate convention: "The ultimate objective is to achieve... stabilisation of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system."

In some ways it's a badly phrased objective, because greenhouse gas concentrations at a level that are "dangerous" for inhabitants of drought-prone East Africa or low-lying Tuvalu may be absolutely fine in Paris and indeed beneficial in Yakutsk.

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But there it is. And the importance of the 2C figure is that it's come to represent a kind of general, averaged-out notion of what "dangerous" means.

Many countries argue it's too lenient. A majority favour 1.5C; a few hold out for 1C.

No government - in public, at least - argues it's too strict.

So as far as there is a general consensus about these things, when Mr Stern advocates a negotiating process that "cannot guarantee" a 2C goal, one way of seeing that is as an acknowledgement that governments shouldn't aim to fulfil the basic objective of the UN climate convention; which is obviously political dynamite.

And yet elsewhere in his speech, he is extremely forthright in arguing that "dangerous anthropogenic climate interference with the climate system" has to be avoided.

For all the protestations of "sceptics", he says: "The atmosphere doesn't care. Its temperature will continue its implacable rise, with all the consequences that entails, unless we act to stop it."

On the evidence of warming - the succession of hot years, the Arctic sea ice melt, ocean acidification, and so on: "They warn of droughts and floods and extreme storms.

"They warn of water shortages, food shortages and national security risk. They warn of what 11 retired generals and admirals wrote about in 2007 - climate change becoming a 'force multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world'.

"And they introduce the threat of catastrophic, non-linear change."

... all of which is exactly why most governments are not only supporting the 2C target (if not a smaller figure), but remain determined to get a deal in 2015 that ensures it's achieved.

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The most intriguing question - and despite making some enquiries, I've turned up nothing definitive on this - is whether the US is alone in proposing an approach to negotiations that doesn't explicitly aim for 2C.

Since the Copenhagen UN summit of 2009, the US has formed part of what's been dubbed a "coalition of the unwilling", which also, to varying degrees, has included China, India, Russia, Canada, Japan and some of the Gulf states.

Submissions that the US and China sent to the UNFCCC in March, outlining ideas for moving forward on the Durban Platform, don't mention the 2C target at all.

An omission - or something more meaningful?

Meanwhile, submissions from India and Saudi Arabia claim that in order to meet 2C, it's necessary only for the traditional developed countries to restrain emissions - even though the science makes clear that at some stage, all countries will have to take a hit.

The uncomfortable reality is that India, Saudi Arabia and other fast-developing countries can still point at the US and its fellow early industrialisers - the UK, Germany, Japan - and legitimately argue that none has yet been willing to make emission cuts that their historical responsibilities justify.

And without that leadership, they won't follow.

To Mr Stern, the implication of all this is that a process based on slicing up "rights to the atmosphere" can't work.

Politically, he may be right. But it's hard to see any path to a world free of dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system unless governments do find a way of apportioning these rights.

Richard Black Article written by Richard Black Richard Black Former environment correspondent

Farewell and thanks for reading

This is my last entry for this page - I'm leaving the BBC to work, initially, on ocean conservation issues.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    @RB #80

    I agree with you, the official temperature record over the last 150 years or so is, and continues, to be upward.

    Do you agree climate sensitivity is the key in this debate and observational evidence indicates low climate sensitivity ie no problem? If not, could you provide evidence of high observational based climate sensitivity not modelled or recon?

    @79 I used to be a chippy ;)

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.


    "Such attempts to warp public opinion by paying lobbyists to ridicule...
    I reccomend [sic] wattsupwitthat [sic] as a prime example of the genre."

    Wow! You appear to be claiming Watts is a paid lobbyist without any proof!

    Perhaps you answer his work rather than make unfounded accusations?

    Maybe answer my question in #78 - not 1 true believer answered in the previous thread

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    Please see for discussion of the tediously persistent 'no warming since 1998' meme.

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.


    Hitting the nail on the head again mate. All attempts to directly measure sensitivity indicate that it's low to slightly negative within the 0.8 - 1.2 C range. Until some startling new evidence turns up, this really should be a non-event -- you'd almost have to burn everything we've got to hit anything like 2C.

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    The +2C issue is also dependant on the temperature record being accurate Assuming Muller et al continues to fail peer review and Watts et al passes peer review, would you:

    1 Produce an article acknowledging the above?
    2 Accept Watts has a point wrt surface stations?
    3 Accept papers relying on the official temperature records may need re-evaluation?


    Same questions as 2 & 3

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    @Richard Black

    The 2C + rise is based on climate sensitivity being high If CS is low, then there is no problem CO2 alone accounts for ~1C for every doubling.

    All high estimates (IPCC) of CS are based on models & / or paleoclimatic reconstructions, with lack of understanding of clouds being a big problem

    All low estimates are based on observations of the real world.

    CS is the real issue

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    Still the green advocates demand a reduction in CO2 but denounce nuclear energy.

    They are against progress, consumerism and especially capitalism.

    The only way they can achieve their ideal world of a an agrarian socialist utopia is to remove mass energy production, and to drive everybody into poverty. And they do not mind using fear and hysteria to achieve their goals

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    I suppose the Climate Change debate, which has been proven to take place on this pile of rock since it was formed 4bn years ago; has given a job to all those who are really unemployable in a day to day job. And
    Im still waiting for somene to answer 2 questions - 1 how does taxing this make it change? and what weather would you like anyway? Next we will have to buy air at Tescos

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    @Entropic Man

    Now that's a very interesting measurement to pick..... why the 5yr average, as if I didn't know ;-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    3 Hours ago
    " no increase in warming since 1998. If more people bothered to look up the data instead of relying on summaries by true believers..

    I just happen to have the data to hand, from the NASA/Goddard website. The 5-year average temperature anomaly for 1998 was 0.39C. For 2009 the 5-year average was 0.54C, an increase of 0.15C.

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    CO2 levels are rising but the temperature has not risen for over a decade.

    As all models state that both CO2 and temperature rise TOGETHER, then
    ALL of the models are wrong and all of their predictions are worthless.

    If this was any other area of science, the theory would be binned, and new ones would come in to challenge it.

    But in the 'new science' of climate change, rules do not apply!!!!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    Richard - I guess you know the range of countries that now have the global climate policy framework of "Contraction & Convergence" as the basis of their negotiating position ? If not, Global Commons Institute (who promote this framework) are worth visiting at Ranging from the EU to India, those governments represent more than half the world's population. How about discussing it ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    Or put another way - the US can't be bothered with dealing with Anthropogenic GW, but doesn't wnat to loose to face but admitting so, so instead argue for measures based on numbers that will not actual deal with aGW at's to Obama winning the election & declaring aGW the national security threat is actually is......

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    68. Notscience1
    Perhaps you could reference a publication supporting your assertion in a reputable scientific journal?

    I've showed you where the data is. Why don't you do an analysis and submit it for publication. Since your assertion is contrary to what I've read so far, it could make your career in climate science. If you hurry it might get referenced in the next IPCC report.

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.


    Strawman again, I never said the satellite data was wrong, on the contrary it's the satellite data that shows that there has been no increase in warming since 1998

    No one needs to take anything I say on faith, the data is freely available like you say

    If more people bothered to look up the data instead of relying on summaries by true believers this embarrassing episode would be over

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    65. NotScience
    If you had followed my link in post 60, you would see a reference to it.

    Here is another link:

    "Where in "the science" has the ideal global mean temperature been determined? " shows you don't know much about science or the AGW problem.

    You can lead a mule to water, but you can't make him drink.

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    33. Arthur1958 "The climate is warming. It has been doing so since the last ice age peaked. It will continue until the next ice age begins."

    If I remember correctly, we should be cooling because of our orbital mechanics, instead we are warming. Unless your are NotScience who at various times has suggested we are cooling or the same. Effect?

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.


    I would like to know which assertion I made can be refuted by satellite images?

    I would also like to know what part of the science I am ignoring?

    Another strawman argument exposed

    Where in "the science" has the ideal global mean temperature been determined?

    If people are going to say stupid things and set arbitrary targets they should expect to be challenged.

    I say well done to the US

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    62. Notrocketscience1 "he global mean temperature hasn't risen in the last 14 years"

    Of course you can't square the circle, you keep misrepresenting the data. So according to you all the satellite measurements of increased sea surface temperature are wrong and your assertion that they haven't changed are right. Why should anyone believe anything you say? Did look at the link in my post 60?

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    55. penguin337 "Somalias fishing is doing GREAT
    The best fishing in decades


    I expect the reason is pirates have kept the foreign fishing fleets away. You have noticed the reports on the BBC web site from time to time about Somali pirates haven't you?

    It might be a little difficult to adapt that solution to the North Sea.


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