Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The Copenhagen Scenario

It wasn't supposed to turn out this way. When delegates to the climate conference in Bali in December 2007 agreed on a two-year roadmap culminating in Copenhagen this week and next, they were widely understood to be buying time for the US to elect a new administration committed to much stronger action on climate change, for the remaining scientific uncertainties to be resolved, and for the large developing countries to be brought around to make binding commitments regarding their own growing emissions. Yet while progress has been made on all three fronts, the changes over the last couple of years have manifested in ways that still don't quite deliver the scenario necessary to set up Copenhagen to deliver on all of Bali's promises.

As I noted during the run-up to last year's election, both major US political parties chose nominees who had made climate change a central issue of their campaigns. Neither an Obama administration nor a McCain one was going to look much like its predecessor on this issue. Yet we've also seen that the partisan differences on climate change reflect deeper underlying concerns about the impact of greenhouse gas regulations on parts of the economy that aren't evenly distributed across the states, some of which rely much more than others on the production or consumption of the highest-emitting fuels, particularly coal. Those economic concerns loom larger after what we've been through in the last year or so. Together with the inability of recent Congresses to refrain from festooning every piece of major legislation with grab bags of peripheral regulations and pork, this resulted in a badly flawed House bill on cap and trade--and much else--and a Senate counterpart that is starting to look dead on arrival. With President Obama needing to arrive in Copenhagen armed with more than empty promises, we now get an anything-but-coincidental Endangerment Finding that could end up reducing emissions in the most costly way imaginable.

Then there's the science and even the climate itself, which has hardly cooperated in the two years since Bali. While this decade is still on track to be the warmest on record globally, 2008 was the also coolest year since 2000, and despite some rebound 2009 won't set any new records. And just when the science was looking settled, the emails and computer files hacked--or leaked--from a major climate research center in the UK have raised concerns about the peer review of papers questioning the consensus view, and about the processing of raw data for the "climate proxies" used to recreate historical conditions before the century or so that they have been observed accurately--data that incidentally provide key inputs to the climate models predicting the temperature and other outcomes from steadily increasing levels of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The likelihood that the timing of this leak is no more coincidental than that of the EPA's finding doesn't alter the need for these questions to be assessed by someone besides the scientists whose work was involved.

Then there are the large, rapidly growing emissions from China, India and other developing countries, especially when changes in land use are taken into account. As I mentioned the other day, China's announcement that it would reduce the carbon intensity of its economy as it grows is a big first step, but it also falls into the category of things necessary, but not sufficient, to induce the US to commit to deep absolute cuts, particularly in light of polling that suggests the US public is less worried about climate change than it was when the economy was booming a couple of years ago--again, no coincidence.

When I return from my current travels I'll be watching the news from Copenhagen with great interest. I expect to post more on this subject, as developments warrant.

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