Durban Summit: No Change For Climate Change?

Expectations couldn’t be lower, yet some Kyoto goals are already being met

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Steven Cherry: Hi, this is Steven Cherry for IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations.”

Summer is the time of year for movie sequels—2011 saw seconds for The Hangover and Kung Fu Panda, a third Transformers, a fourth Pirates of the Caribbean, and of course, the eighth and mercifully last Harry Potter—but this fall is a time of sequels when it comes to climate change.

In fact, the main attraction—this time it’s in Durban, South Africa—has multiple numbers attached to it. It’s the 17th meeting for the parties to the U.N. framework convention on climate change, so some people are calling it COP 17, and it’s also the seventh meeting for the parties to the Kyoto Protocol, so it’s also CMP 7. And in fact our marquee features another sequel—a new release of e-mails intended to embarrass the scientific community, which is already, inevitably, being called Climategate 2.

We have as our guest today retired senior editor Bill Sweet, who has been covering climate-policy meetings for Spectrum at least since Kyoto. He attended the Copenhagen meeting two years ago in person—in fact, he was one of the first guests this show had, in 2009—to talk to us from the conference hall—and he was on the show again for the Cancun meeting last year. Bill, welcome back to the podcast.

Bill Sweet: Thank you, Steven.

Bill, two years ago on the eve of the Copenhagen summit you quoted Denmark’s minister for climate and energy, Connie Hedegaard, who presided over the meeting as saying failure is quote “not an option.” Then the talks failed. At Cancun last year, on the other hand, absolutely nothing was expected and quite a little bit was achieved. It seems like the world’s leaders maybe have learned from the past and kept expectations low, maybe lower than ever?

Bill Sweet: As far as I can tell, expectations really are low this time. It’s not, as far as I’m able to ascertain, at all expected that any of the really major issues will get even addressed at this meeting let alone resolved. And I’m not sure how much is going to be done at lesser levels either. I suppose there will be some talk of how various countries are doing in terms of meeting their Copenhagen climate pledges—these are voluntary pledges countries made in the context of the Copenhagen agreement to cut their emissions so and so much over the next years. But apart from that if there’s anything really important any real concrete business that will be attended to at Durban I haven’t heard about it.

Steven Cherry: Bill, Kyoto was basically an agreement for the fully industrialized countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Copenhagen was sort of an attempt to bring in the next tier of countries, especially China, India, and Brazil, into some sort of firm commitments. Is that still the game plan for climate change?

Bill Sweet: Well, in principal now what was supposed to happen here at Durban was that a successor agreement was to be agreed upon to Kyoto, in which new mandatory reduction targets would be set and presumably a broader group of countries would be brought in to actually make these cuts—that is to say a redefinition of which countries are industrial and which countries are developing. The industrial countries having to make cuts, the developing countries being exempt from cuts, or perhaps new categories could be invented. But nobody seems to expect that work to actually get done at Durban because the differences, above all between the United States and China, are just too profound. So for that and other reasons it looks to me like, if Durban turns out to have any real value, and if it turns out in the long run to seem more important than it seems to us right now, it may be more because of conversations people have in the corridors—you know like a really good science or engineering meeting, rather than because of what actually goes on in the formal negotiating sessions.

Steven Cherry: Bill there was talk previously of significant monetary payments going between the industrial countries and the developing countries, but in the face of the continued economic recession it seems like the industrial countries can’t afford anything right now.

Bill Sweet: Yeah, I think that’s not going to improve the atmosphere at these talks. The developing countries were promised help addressing climate change problems at Copenhagen and there was good reason always to be skeptical about whether that money would be delivered under normal circumstances. As you said, I think it’s obvious now under these circumstances that it’s not going to be delivered. But of course that’s not going to make the developing countries any more conciliatory in terms of the fundamental issues that are dividing the industrial and developing countries.

Steven Cherry: Bill, Connie Hedegaard also said two years ago that the world cannot afford to see the whole global democratic system as not being able to deliver results from one of the defining challenges of the century. That turned out not to be true. The sky didn’t fall in 2009, but at some point the sky will fall or be so filled with greenhouse gases it might as well.

Bill Sweet: Well, you know it’s a funny thing, Steven. First of all when you talk about the countries that Connie Hedegaard probably had in mind, namely the more advanced and more sophisticated countries in the world that actually have democratic governments and pretty well functioning political systems, there’s a profound divide between the United States and all the other democracies. Namely, all the other advanced industrial democracies are on board with Kyoto and making the cuts they promised to make at Kyoto more or less, while the United States treats Kyoto as just a complete dead letter. It’s as if, really Americans were kind of living on a different planet here. They don’t seem to realize that everyone else who’s like them in the world thinks Kyoto makes perfectly good sense and wants that process to work. What’s even stranger though is the latest numbers are showing—and here I think many Americans would be very surprised to hear this—Kyoto actually has worked. That even if you include the United States among the industrial countries required to make cuts in emissions between 1990 and 2009–2010—that’s the period in which we have the most recent data for—if you look at those industrial countries and the promises they made at Kyoto to cut their emissions and see what they’ve actually done, in fact they’re on target by and large to meet the Kyoto goals, and so its not the case that Kyoto can’t be done. Kyoto actually can be done, and even the United States has done not too badly even while asserting as forcefully as possible that it has no intention whatsoever of doing the Kyoto Protocol. So it’s a very funny situation we have on our hands here, you know. The nations of the world adopt the Kyoto Protocol, the protocol actually works at least in the sense that the countries by and large accomplish what they said they were going to accomplish, and yet here in the United States the attitude is that it’s simply irrelevant. The reason for that attitude, of course, is that the emissions by countries like China are beginning to swamp the cuts made by the Kyoto industrial countries. And I think it’s becoming clear that actually unless that issue is somehow addressed and resolved, there isn’t any future for an ongoing regime in which the major countries of the world make mandatory emissions cuts.

Steven Cherry: Some of the U.S.’s accidental compliance with Kyoto has to do with the reduced industrial output of a continued economic recession, doesn’t it?

Bill Sweet: Yeah, there has been a blip from that. But, you know, Steven, I was just looking at some numbers I unearthed this morning compiled by the Congressional Research Service this year and actually cross-linked by IEEE’s policy advising organization IEEE-USA, because I was curious to know how the recent trends in greenhouse gas emission track to our actual energy consumption with the kind of question in mind that you just raised, well what kind of a part is economic growth or economic contraction in general playing here. And this document has a table showing among other things U.S. energy consumption over many decades. And if you look at this Kyoto period from 1990 to 2010, well in that period U.S. greenhouse gas emissions have gone up about five and a half percent. That’s not very good compared to the European countries and Japan, which have almost all cut their emissions quite significantly, some by a great deal, Germany and the United Kingdom for example. But if you look at U.S. energy in that period, well U.S. energy consumption has increased by 11.6% since 1990. So in the most recent 20-year-period, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions have gone up only half as much as our energy use has gone up.

Steven Cherry: Lets talk about Climategate 2 for a second here. Blockbuster action movie sequels are timed for the summer, but Climategates are timed to climate-change summits. Climategate 1 concerned a bunch of private e-mails that were made public right before the Copenhagen summit, right? This time they concern a bunch of private e-mails that were made public right before Durban. Maybe you could start by very briefly reminding us of the original Climategate.

Bill Sweet: I can remind you of the original Climategate, which was that somebody managed to hack into or was given access to a huge trove of e-mails involving scientists at a British research center, which is important because it’s historically been the center that played the key role in determining the world’s annual temperature record, and therefore has been the most important source for any scientist studying what’s happening to world temperature and what might be affecting it. And many of these e-mails, at least at first glance, were quite compromising and seemed to suggest that these scientists were discussing with each other how to massage their data, or at least how to, sort of, present their data in a selective way so as to not cause public misunderstanding, I mean, to put it one way. And so at first glance it looked very bad. It probably was a little bit bad, and it certainly caused a lot of damage in terms of short-term confidence in the scientific process and in the scientific communities in the world.

Steven Cherry: As in all good sequels, we largely have the same cast of characters here. The e-mails are once again from the University of East Anglia’s climate research unit, and I guess they’re being made available anonymously on a Russian server just like the first time around. Bill, is it fair to say that nothing in the e-mails could change the basic fact that, and here I’m going to quote The Economist magazine, which in turn is paraphrasing climate scientist Andrew Watson: “The world has warmed significantly in the last 100 years and [that] this has most likely been caused by human beings spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.”

Bill Sweet: I don’t think anybody can dispute that now, and so in a funny way I don’t think this Climategate 2 thing is going to have too much impact, because on the one hand, for the reasons I think we’ve already discussed, discussions of where to go next with climate policy are at a complete standstill. We know they’re not going to go anywhere in the short run, and on the other hand I believe it is becoming to be almost universally accepted that the world is in fact getting warmer. I think even Rick Perry conceded that in one of the presidential debates. There are a few people out there who still dispute whether we human beings have anything to do with it, but that’s part of the irony of the day, Steven, that one the one hand it’s becoming universally accepted that, yes indeed, we are making the world warmer and it’s a problem. On the other hand we have no idea what to do about it.

Steven Cherry: Very good. Thanks for joining us today and if there are any big surprises, maybe you’ll be good enough to sort them out for us two weeks from now when the Durban conference ends.

Bill Sweet: All right, Steven. It’s a pleasure as always.

Steven Cherry: We’ve been speaking with retired senior editor Bill Sweet about the Durban summit on climate change, which started this week. For IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations,” I’m Steven Cherry.

This interview was recorded 28 November 2011.
Audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli

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NOTE: Transcripts are created for the convenience of our readers and listeners and may not perfectly match their associated interviews and narratives. The authoritative record of IEEE Spectrum’s audio programming is the audio version.

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