Sunday, October 25, 2009

I should have done this yesterday

But I suppose then I couldn't report on what happened.

Yesterday, Saturday, marked 50 days before the opening of the world climate summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, which is scheduled to run from December 7 to December 18. To mark the day, there were protests around the world, many of them centering on the theme of "350," referring to 350 parts per million. That is the level of CO2 in the atmosphere below which climate scientists say we must remain to avoid the worst aspects of global warming.

Grist reported on several of the protests, including ones in Sydney, Berlin, Jakarta, Madrid, and Istanbul. The article also noted some creative expressions of concern: In Paris, protesters set their alarm clocks and mobile phones to ring at 12:18 pm, to refer to the end of the summit on December 18. There were two actions in London, one by "The Eye" and one across the Thames, where some 100 musicians gathered outside Parliament and used their trumpets, trombones, saxophones, and clarinets to play an F note (with a frequency of 350 Hz) for 350 seconds. And in Beirut, many of the protesters wore snorkels, saying this wouldn't be the first time the city was submerged but the first time the cause wasn't earthquakes.

NPR described
what founder Bill McKibben called a global game of Scrabble, [in which] groups in Australia, Ecuador, India, the United Kingdom, the U.S. and Denmark each spelled out one of the numbers in 350. Hundreds gathered in New York City's Times Square and watched slideshows of the other events on giant screens.
Photos also came in of people forming one of the numbers at places ranging from on the beach at Catia La Mar north of Caracas, Venezuela, to at the Dead Sea, in Jordan, in Israel, and in the Palestinian Territories. Altogether, says, there were over 5,200 events in 181 countries.

But as exciting and invigorating as such an outpouring of concern and conviction is, there is still a big and in some ways steepening hill to climb. Writing at Grist, Jonathan Hiskes says "it’s hard not to be troubled" by the results of a recent Pew Research Center poll, which found, quoting Hiskes,
a significant drop in the number of Americans who believe global warming is happening, is human-caused, and is a serious problem.

The poll found that only 57 percent of respondents believe that “the earth is getting warmer,” compared with 71 percent in April 2008. Pew has asked similar sets of questions six times since June 2006 and has never found such a dramatic rise in skepticism.

Those who believe warming is caused by human activity (burning fossil fuels) wavered between 41 and 50 percent in the first five polls. This fall, the figure dropped to 36 percent.

Those who consider global warming a “very serious problem” ranged between 41 and 47 percent in the first five polls. This fall, the figure fell to 35 percent.
Hiskes suggests several "unsatisfying" possible explanations for the results (and David Roberts, also at Grist, wonders how seriously to take them), but I think he misses the obvious one: Pew asked if there is "solid evidence that the average temperature on earth has been getting warmer over the past few decades." For the past few years, it hasn't been getting warmer. Temperatures have been pretty stable, even dropping a bit, in a cooling trend driven by a shift in ocean currents that may conceal the effect of anthropogenic warming for a decade or even longer. As a result, there has been more than enough triumphant trumpeting among the reichwing about "So where's the global warming, huh?" to have penetrated the understanding of the issue among the general public. (This is precisely why some climatologists are urging that a greater focus be placed on the long-term nature of the warming.)

Which is deeply unfortunate, because - as I have, I'm sure you know, said many times before - not only is global warming real and a serious threat to the future, its effects are already being seen.

For one example, the UN's International Labor Organization (ILO) has launched a project in the Philippines aimed at mitigating the impact changing weather patterns generated by global warming are already having on the local economy.

For another, Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute says that we are already seeing "environmental refugees."
Our early twenty-first century civilization is being squeezed between advancing deserts and rising seas. Measured by the biologically productive land area that can support human habitation, the earth is shrinking. Mounting population densities, once generated solely by population growth, are now also fueled by the relentless advance of deserts and may soon be affected by the projected rise in sea level. As overpumping depletes aquifers, millions more are forced to relocate in search of water.
As one point of evidence, he cites a 2006 UN conference that predicted that desertification in sub-Saharan Africa could drive up to 60 million people from the region and into North Africa and Europe by 2020.

In the run-up to the Copenhagen summit, various people and organizations have tried to stress the urgency of the matter. A report by leading physicians from 17 nations published simultaneously in the UK's two leading health journals, the British Medical Journal and The Lancet, last month, declared that "a global health catastrophe" faces us in the absence of effective action.
Calling on medical practitioners everywhere to put pressure on politicians in advance of the meeting, the doctors say that the world's poorest people will be hit first by the health effects of global warming, but add that "no one will be spared". ...

Malaria, dengue fever and other tropical diseases would increase, the study predicted, spelling out how rising temperatures will cause health crises in half a dozen areas: there will be increased problems with food supplies, clean water and sanitation, especially in developing countries. Meanwhile, the migration of peoples will combine with extreme weather events such as hurricanes and severe floods to make for disastrous conditions in human settlements.
Such a future faces us, they said, if the politicians at Copenhagen are "indecisive" or "weak."

More recently, just a few days ago the leaders of 18 US scientific societies wrote a letter to the Senate
to state the consensus scientific view [of climate change].

Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver. These conclusions are based on multiple independent lines of evidence, and contrary assertions are inconsistent with an objective assessment of the vast body of peer-reviewed science. Moreover, there is strong evidence that ongoing climate change will have broad impacts on society, including the global economy and on the environment. For the United States, climate change impacts include sea level rise for coastal states, greater threats of extreme weather events, and increased risk of regional water scarcity, urban heat waves, western wildfires, and the disturbance of biological systems throughout the country. The severity of climate change impacts is expected to increase substantially in the coming decades.
The words about human activities were given an exclamation point by work recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Current global warming seems to be unlike any other in the past, which were the outcome of natural processes, says new evidence unearthed by geologists.

Sediments retrieved by University at Buffalo (UB) geologists from a remote Arctic lake are unlike those seen during previous warming episodes. Researchers found that dramatic changes began occurring in unprecedented ways after the midpoint of the 20th century.

"The sediments till the mid-20th century were not all that different from previous warming intervals," said Jason P. Briner, assistant geology professor at the UB College of Arts and Sciences. "But after that things really changed. And the change is unprecedented."

The sediments are considered unique because they contain rare paleoclimate information about the past 200,000 years, providing a far longer record than most other sediments in the glaciated portion of the Arctic, which only reveals clues to the past 10,000 years.
Note that they made no claim about the degree or intensity of warming in those earlier eras as compared to now. What they did say is that the present warming is fundamentally different from anything that has been seen since modern humans appeared on Earth. It is not a natural phenomenon. It is us. We are doing it.

So why are we futzing around? Why are we hearing things like Danish Prime Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen saying things are moving too slowly for an agreement to be reached in Copenhagen? Why is it that Canadian Environment Minister Jim Prentice can tell the Toronto Globe & Mail (Canada) say he's not hopeful for an agreement at the meeting without generating howls of protest? How can it be that Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, has to say it's “unrealistic” to expect a treaty to come out of the summit and the best Obama adviser John Podesta can offer is that there may be some kind of accord to lead to a treaty, that is, the nations could maybe agree to agree - sometime later?

Well, one reason is the idiotic, perverse, Alphonse and Gaston routine in which the nations of the world are engaging.

Canada, for example, is insisting it should have a "less aggressive" target for emission reductions than Europe or Japan because its population is growing faster and its industrial structure is energy-intensive. It's also refusing to release a plan
until there is more clarity on how the United States intends to proceed in global climate-change talks in Copenhagen in December, and on what an international treaty would look like.
It's also demanding that emerging economies such as China and India agree to binding caps on their emissions - while those two nations have taken a united stand of pledging to reduce the rate of growth of their emissions, but not to cap them. They in turn insist that the developed nations, particularly the United States, the world's second largest producer of greenhouse gases (behind China) must act first. But lacking a commitment from developing nations, the chances of getting climate protection legislation through the Congress are dim.

So Canada says it won't act until China and India agree to cap their emissions, who refuse to do so and say the US must act first, and the US refuses to act until after China and India do.

Meanwhile, European Union has said it would reduce emissions by 30 per cent from 1990 levels by 2020 - if other developed countries accept similar reductions.

"Please, after you." "Oh, no no no, by all means, after you." "No, you first." "No, you first!" And around it goes, all of them concerned with short-term economic (and political) self-interest and nationalistic ego to the detriment of the long-term interests of their own societies.

You want to see just how dumb the governments of the world can be? That Globe & Mail article says that Ottawa is defending its climate goals by saying the 2020 target represents a 26% reduction from 1990 emission levels on a per-capita basis, after adjusting for population growth, and the targets are “comparable” to more aggressive ones because they will be just as costly to achieve.

"Per capita basis" doesn't mean shit to the climate! "Comparable costs" doesn't mean shit to the climate! What the climate cares about is the total output of greenhouse gases. And as long as we continue as we have been, pumping them out faster than the environment can dispose of them, we continue to build our own coffins. Might there be some short-term economic or political disadvantage to saying "We're not waiting for anyone else, we're going to do the best we can, right now?" Yes, absolutely. The question is, how much of your future, how much of your society's future, how much of the human future, are you willing to sacrifice to avoid that cost?

The answer we're getting right now is - let's just say - not encouraging.

Footnote: On the other hand, for whatever encouragement it does bring, it's wise to recall that those US poll numbers from Pew Research do not reflect worldwide thinking. A worldwide poll commissioned by The Guardian (UK) and released the end of July, found broad popular support for action on climate change.

The survey sampled the opinions of over 18,000 people in 19 countries, asking them if they wanted their own government to make climate change a top priority. Overall, 73% said yes.

The results of the poll as graphed at this link are a little hard to understand so I'll explain: People were asked to rate, on a scale of 0 to 10, how high a priority dealing with climate change is for their government. They were then asked to rate how high a priority it should be. There are two notable takeaways from this:

One is that, as DeSmogBlog notes, the US is an outlier: On making it a top priority, it came in at 4.71. Only one other nation (the Palestinian Territories) came in under 5 and only one more (Iraq) came in under 6. Which, considering the importance of the US in the whole negotiation and how it almost single-handedly undermined Kyoto by its self-centered, pig-headed resistance to cooperation, is certainly not good news.

However, even here there is a silver or at least a silver-plated lining in the second takeaway: In every one of the 19 countries, including the US, people said it should be a higher priority for their government than it is.

Take what you can get and carry on. 'Cause if you don't - we are so screwed.

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