THE SCIENTIFIC ALLIANCE
12 December 2008
Reality bites in Poznan and Brussels
As this newsletter goes out, the UN climate change conference in Poznan goes to the wire. Starting on 1st December with government negotiators and a wide range of NGOs present, the final two days are given over to the high-level part of the meeting, attended by ministers and top officials from all 186 participating nations. 10,000 people have attended this conference, with the aim of cobbling together a way forward which would result in a post-Kyoto (after 2012) package of mitigation measures at the Copenhagen conference next December.
But the difficulties of coming to an agreement which is credible and workable are becoming increasingly apparent. One particularly ironic issue is that the EU, which likes to see itself leading the charge when it comes to emissions reduction, is also holding a Council meeting in Brussels and has so far failed to come to an agreement on its own package. And in a further twist, the leader of the awkward brigade which has frustrated negotiations is Poland, host of the UN conference.
The problem lies first with the increasingly discredited Emissions Trading System. By issuing a restricted number of credits which could be sold by those organisations cutting their emissions and bought by those exceeding allowances, politicians have sought to create a market such that the price of permits would provide an incentive to reduce the use of fossil fuels. But this is a highly rigged, centrally planned market which policymakers believed could be controlled by issuing the "correct" number of permits which would then find their own price level and force down emissions.
And, like all attempts at central planning, it has been a failure. Too many permits have been issued for current market conditions and the price is too low to incentivise a move away from coal and oil. The whole complex mechanism could have been replaced much more effectively by a flat carbon tax, to be adjusted like any other to provide the desired carrot or stick.
Poland - highly dependent on coal to provide its electricity - refused to sign up to a deal which would place it at a disadvantage compared with western neighbours. It has been joined in this position by a number of other newer Member States from eastern and central Europe . But the problems do not end there. Italy has demanded that the whole policy is subject to economic review in 2014 because of the potential damage to its industry. And Germany , with the biggest manufacturing base of any European state, has succeeded in delaying the introduction of tighter emission standards for cars and also demanded the issue of more free permits for its industry. Angela Merkel , originally leading the charge for emissions control, has reined in her enthusiasm when confronted with the reality of harming key national industries.
Although we will not know the form of the final agreement until the Brussels meeting finishes today, it looks increasingly likely that concessions will have to be made to reach a deal that all Member States will sign up to. The issue of more free emissions permits and the ability to reduce nominal emissions by funding more projects in developing countries may lead to surface unanimity, but the resulting lower carbon price will further reduce any chances of meeting the target of 20% reductions by 2020.
The Kyoto targets themselves - costly but ineffectual - will not be met by many industrialised countries. To have any chance of achieving an overall global decrease in emissions over coming decades, not only would the much more stringent commitments made by Europe have to be fulfilled, but China, India and other rapidly developing economies would require enormous transfers of cash from the West to give them any incentive to reduce their use of coal. Faced with the harsh realities of economic life, it is no wonder that the prospects for any meaningful agreement in Poznan are slim.
The consequences of alarmism
Views on climate change are highly polarised, but there are also many moderate sceptics who genuinely want to understand what drives climate. Many scientists who contribute the work of the IPCC are also by nature moderate; they may be convinced that fossil fuel burning is the major driver of average temperatures, but they are open to discussion. However, a number of their colleagues are behaving as climate activists rather than scientists. Not only are they personally convinced by the received wisdom, but they also think the situation is far more serious than the measured tones of the massive summary reports would suggest.
These are the people behind the scary headlines, and in this they have many prominent supporters, from Al Gore down. They seem to have no shred of doubt about their views, but what if they are in fact wrong? If in the meantime they have managed to influence policy to the extent that decisions have been made and implemented which will have negative impacts on citizens in Europe and around the world, an already dubious public will be unforgiving. The consequences could be disastrous both for science and politics.
Politicians are among the least-trusted people in a modern societies which no longer feel much respect for authority figures. But scientists as a group are still among the more trusted groups of professionals (unless, unfortunately, associated with government of industry). This is one of the reasons why lay people have been willing to accept the mainstream view on man-made global warming and even the more extreme pronouncements of activist scientists.
For some true believers in the global warming story, alarmism has been justified as a means to an end; a way to engage people and get general consent for the stringent policies deemed necessary to avoid potential catastrophe. But, although they may have fully won over most politicians and opinion formers, this approach has singularly failed to capture the hearts and minds of the general public.
The media have carried a series of "even worse than we thought" and "only x years left to avoid catastrophe" stories. These are reinforced when events such at the UN Poznan conference are held, and the likely prospect of the financial crisis taking precedence over climate change policy has engendered even shriller cries for action.
The problem is that most people see for themselves that, despite an undoubted shift in weather patterns since the mid-70s, the last decade has seen little which cannot be ascribed to normal variation. That in itself, of course, is no reason to say that longer term trends to a warmer climate are not possible, but it certainly makes the case much harder to sell. Hence the ramping up of the alarmist rhetoric.
But if, as it seems, this is not having the desired effect and if, as is very likely, the hell and damnation messages of climate change - the "slow cooking" of the Earth, the swamping of Pacific island states by rapidly rising sea level, the "runaway" and "irreversible" warming as tipping points are passed - are found to be gross and irresponsible exaggeration, then public opinion will rapidly turn against the messengers.
Not only would this mean a reaction against the influence of the European green movement and a further deepening of the distrust of politicians, but science will also suffer. Science is built on a foundation of careful experiment and observation, coupled with rational and open-minded interpretation. The hijacking of climate science by a clique of activists could reflect badly on the whole scientific community.
The Scientific Alliance
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