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According to the Center for American Progress (CAP, not to be confused with the U.S. Climate Action Partnership), the COP16 international climate negotiations that just concluded have achieved essentially the best result we could reasonably have hoped for:

“This year, with the exception of a lone holdout [the Bolivian amassador] who was overruled by the Mexican chair of the meeting at the last minute, all 194 parties agreed to turn the core elements of the Copenhagen Accord, expressed in a scant six page outline last year, to 33 pages of densely packed text which the negotiators will now be bound to use in working for a final agreement.  It will also set substantive global goals and requirements on [global-warming] adaptation and mitigation for the present.

“This outcome gets us halfway between the original idea of the Copenhagen Accord as originally articulated by the Danes:  A two step process starting with a political agreement in 2009 to be followed by a legal agreement based on the same principles at a later date.  While the Cancun Agreements are not the full second step they are a solid half step forward, a kind of Copenhagen 1.5.”

- Andrew Light, “The Cancun Compromise,” December 11, 2010

Okay, sounds pretty good, but what I’m wondering is, won’t any international agreement become fairly meaningless (a la Kyoto) after the Republicans follow through on their plans to destroy any and all U.S. policy that would work toward said agreement’s goals?  After all, as CAP itself points out:

“Seventy-six percent of the Republicans in the U.S. Senate next year and 52 percent of Republicans in the House of Representatives publicly question the science of global warming. All four candidates set to take over the House Committee on Energy and Commerce -- Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL), Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), and Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-FL) -- have disparaged climate scientists and climate policy.”

- Faiz Shakir et al, “Climate Zombie Caucus,” November 22, 2010

Yet another CAP article points to some reasons for hope:

The World Resources Institute notes that through ambitious use of the available tools at hand the United States can reduce emissions by 14 percent below 2005 levels by 2020—well on the way to meeting President Barack Obama’s commitment in Copenhagen to a 17 percent reduction. These tools include EPA regulations and state-by-state regional climate agreements.

“WRI calculated that this 14 percent reduction could be achieved through aggressive state policies and improved federal executive agency enforcement, even without major new federal legislation on reducing vehicle miles traveled, federal land management policies, or new federal investments in areas such as energy efficiency and renewable energy infrastructure. And particularly without a federal climate treaty.

“Estimates by Environment America are even more bullish on the potential impact of proactive state-level policy measures. If even modest federal actions were taken, in addition to robust regional and administrative efforts, much deeper emissions reductions would be well within reach even in the absence of climate legislation.”

- Bracken Hendricks, “Bottom Up in Cancun,” December 10, 2010

Still, I have to wonder how long we have before the “tools” described above are smashed by the “climate zombies” in Congress and elsewhere, especially considering the results of this year’s midterms, and the even worse beating progressives will probably take in the 2012 elections, thanks to Citizens United.  According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics,

“Identifiably conservative organizations are spending more than $2 on advertisements and other communications for every $1 liberal organizations do. . . .

“A key factor in these realities: Major industries and special interest areas that had just months ago primarily bankrolled Democrats have suddenly flocked to the GOP – a phenomenon that the Center finds has only increased in speed as Election Day draws closer. . . .

“An [especially] extreme example of a shift away from Democrats comes from the energy sector, which in January 2009 fueled Democrats with 56 percent of its federal-level political contributions. By September [2010], preliminary numbers indicate Republicans benefitted from 74 percent of the sector’s cash.”

- “Election 2010 to Shatter Spending Records as Republicans Benefit from Late Cash Surge,” October 27, 2010

Unless these people (mostly foreigners, I think) get into the game somehow, the disparity is going to be even worse in 2012.  And while the results of a single U.S. election don’t constitute a Mayan apocalypse by themselves, their ultimate impact on climate policy just might.

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The Copenhagen climate talks are over, but their outcome remains uncertain. The nonbinding agreement that was accepted by most (but not all) of the nations represented contains a target for limiting warming (two degrees C) but lacks any discussion of greenhouse gas parts-per-million targets, much less emissions rates. Nevertheless, if all goes well and the chorus of voices in favor of strong action continues to swell, this vaguely-worded document could still be the next-to-last step on the road to a global commitment in line with the science. Certainly the poor nations who will immediately benefit from a large new source of clean-tech and adaptation funding will not be complaining much about it, but we might end up complaining that not enough of the money is making it through their governments' greedy or merely incompetent hands and into the projects they truly need. Some people have given up in disgust, claiming that we'll have to find methods of changing the basis of our energy economy other than through international negotiations.

Then there are those who say there's no point in spending any government money to speed this shift, because the massive cost of adapting to climate catastrophe might never have to be spent, even if we do nothing. This comic illustrates one common counterargument: the benefits of the shift could well outweigh the monetary cost, regardless of whether global warming is real. And meanwhile, Media Matters has a compilation of explanations for why, despite Climate-Gate, the existence of man-made global warming is still a near certainty. Its key weakness, though, is that no one other than climate scientists is qualified to confirm or deny that climate data was fudged or climate skeptics' research papers improperly rejected. And once the seeds of mistrust have been planted, those who prefer not to believe in the crisis have a ready answer to any and all such statements: “These scientists have proven they can't be trusted. Why should we believe anything they say?”

Belief systems throughout history have mostly hinged on faith in ideas or supernatural entities rather than trust in individuals. Science has been so successful, at least in part, because it claims none of the above is necessary, because “the surest path to truth is by looking at the natural world itself, which anyone can do.” In principle, anyway; in practice, of course, most scientific facts were determined through experiments that the average Joe lacks the skills and equipment to reproduce. Nevertheless, with the advent of “citizen science,” the ideal of democratizing the pursuit of knowledge seems within reach.

But what if it's all a sham? What if even the most basic bedrock principles of science, that any result should be open to challenge and all explanations for the data deserve a fair hearing, are never really practiced within the scientific “priesthood,” because it's much more politically convenient to hew to the dominant theory? This is what the climate skeptics are really asking, and it would be foolish to ignore them--not just because they might have a point, but also because technological civilization itself rests on scientific foundations. A widespread loss of faith in science could be catastrophic in its own right. Thus it is a matter of the utmost importance to both explain clearly and persuasively why the scientific community deserves our trust, and to keep working to ensure that, despite the occasional failing, it generally lives up to that trust.
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Obama Elects to Come to Copenhagen's Conclusion, Not Beginning
...thus moving from "Hi, let me give you an inspiring 'good luck' speech and then head off to collect my Nobel Prize while you all get on with the hard part," to "Hi, I'm here to actually help close the deal on a general agreement that could lead to an actually respectable treaty when the language is finalized next year."

I would type more, but I have a video to finish for the upcoming Longest Night Festival, a SolSeed event to be held in east Portland starting 12 days from today. Aren't deadlines great?
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"If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm."
        - Dr. James Hansen, NASA

"While agreeing unabated emissions pose serious risks, some prominent scientists and economists focusing on climate policy said the 350 target was so unrealistic the campaign risked not being taken seriously — or could convey the wrong message. 'Three-fifty is so impossible to achieve that to make it the goal risks the reaction that if we are already over the cliff, then let's just enjoy the ride until it's over,' said John Reilly, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology."
        - Andrew C. Revkin and Nick Perry, "Worldwide Demonstrations Advocate '350' Carbon Limit," The Seattle Times October 25, 2009

"Forget that this task of planet-saving is not possible in the time required. Don’t be put off by people who know what is not possible. Do what needs to be done, and check to see if it was impossible only after you are done."
        - Paul Hawken, commencement address at the University of Portland, May 3, 2009

The Global Day of Climate Action, almost certainly the biggest single political event in history, happened three weeks ago yesterday, and I haven't posted about it until now. Why? Because I didn't know what to think after attending an event, listed on the website but actually part of an unrelated Seattle Town Hall lecture series, in which Professor David Battisti of the University of Washington provided the climate science endorsement of that John Reilly quote above. His graph of climate futures, taken from the IPCC Special Report on Emissions Scenarios, defines stabilizing CO2 levels at just over 500 ppm by the year 2100 as a "utopian" scenario in which environmentalists achieve everything they can reasonably hope for.

In a way, I realized after calming down for a week or so, this didn't say anything I hadn't already been aware of. Politics is about compromise, global politics doubly so, and so it stands to reason that however urgent the need for drastic action, chances are it simply won't happen unless the threat is imminent. And since the climate has actually cooled a bit since 2005 (a blip in the overall warming trend, of course), the idea that the climate crisis is already in progress and spiraling toward global catastrophe is currently not believable enough to spur strong action at the global climate negotiations in Copenhagen next month.

In a personal communication, Professor Battisti admitted that the 350 movement has a use, to serve as a high enough upper bound to possibly achieve a semi-decent commitment to action after the inevitable compromises are made. But now it looks like even that may be a pipe dream. Despite the pressure of those 5200 events occurring in 181 countries on October 24th,

". . . depressingly, all predictions point to a big, fat non-event. The pundits, and even the lead negotiators, tell us that we can’t expect that 'FAB' (fair, ambitious and binding) treaty we’ve all been working for to extend the work of the Kyoto agreement. There are just too many disagreements and unresolved issues, they say, between 'developed' and 'developing' countries over issues ranging from targets for reducing global warming pollution to investments in clean energy technology and the adaptation funds needed to transition away from a quickly warming world.

"And so, we squabble as the world burns."
        - 1Sky Campaign Director Gillian Caldwell, "What's a grrrl to do when everyone predicts disaster?" on the Care2 Global Warming Blog

In search of an answer to the question posed in that article title (or a more gender-neutral version thereof), I wrote a sort of fable to try and convince myself that an inspiring future could exist in which civilization heroically survives and prospers in a hot, damaged world. Please read it and tell me what you think.

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1Sky: 1 Climate. 1 Future. 1 Chance.
This is the logo and slogan of the organization for which I have technically signed up to be a "Precinct Captain," though no one has yet informed me of what specific responsibilities come with this position.  I think I'll wait until after the Focus the Nation town hall meeting I'm trying to help organize before I go out of my way to find out.

At any rate, the "1 Chance" referred to here may well be COP15, the negotiations that will take place in Copenhagen this December to try to hammer out a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol (COP apparently stands for Conference of the Parties).  Al Gore, whose comments to this effect are linked from the COP15 website, and several of the distinguished speakers at Power Shift 2009 were of the opinion that if these negotiations fail to produce a real global commitment to action, irrevocable climate catastrophe is basically assured.  There will simply not be enough time to get the world started down the right path.

On the one hand, this kind of urgency makes it easy to commit to action, because nobody (other than certain Christian fundamentalists) wants to see the end of the world as we know it.  But on the other hand, it also makes despair very easy, because international negotiations frequently collapse, and when they "succeed" they usually result in a compromise that contains few if any binding commitments to action.  Even the Kyoto Protocol itself, which did place a binding commitment on its First-World signatories "to reduce their collective GHG emissions by 5.2% compared to the year 1990," will depend for its success on "the stark decline in Eastern European countries' emissions after the fall of communism," which occurred well before the treaty was even drafted.  "As of year-end 2006, the United Kingdom and Sweden were the only EU countries on pace to meet their Kyoto emissions commitments by 2010."

Do we really think that eight months is enough time to bully our leaders into making sure that sort of thing doesn't happen this time?  It's one thing to claim, as Van Jones does, that my generation was born to change the world.  It's quite another to set such a hard, near-term deadline for that to happen.

I almost prefer James Lovelock's belief that we're already doomed to a new hotter climate equilibrium, and all we can hope to influence is how long it takes to establish itself.  In that case, any progress we make this year would at least be an incremental step toward having a decent length of time available to migrate toward the poles.

March 2015

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