Road to Copenhagen, Part 1: Doing the Climate Shuffle

There’s a familiar dance being performed on the world stage. It’s called the Climate Shuffle.  It has been going on for decades, but more people are watching now and every nation is practicing the steps.

The dance is not complicated. The goal is to get everybody dancing together, a kind of Clean Electric Slide. But first, insist you won’t get on the dance floor until everybody does. If you get there and find that everyone is doing his own thing, try the Unilateral Slide (one step forward, two steps back, moving in circles). Most of all, be prepared to dance fast because the music is speeding up.

In this strained metaphor, the music is the increasing pace of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.  As it turns out, the scientific evidence on which negotiators and policy makers have depended – particularly the last report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – significantly underestimated the speed at which global warming is occurring.

Poor and low-lying nations already are suffering its effects. Some of the first climate refugees are being forced from their ancestral islands in the South Pacific because of rising sea levels.  Livestock is dying in parts of Africa parched by drought.

The World Health Organization estimated earlier this year that 150,000 deaths occur annually in low-income countries due to climate-related crop failure, malnutrition, diarrheal diseases, malaria and flooding. Nearly 85 percent of the dead are young children.

Rich nations are not exempt. In June, the U.S. government’s Global Change Science Program reported to Congress that damaging climate impacts are here and likely to get worse:

“¦Climate-related changes are already observed in the United States and its coastal waters. These include increases in heavy downpours, rising temperature and sea level, rapidly retreating glaciers, thawing permafrost, lengthening growing seasons, lengthening ice-free seasons in the ocean and on lakes and rivers, earlier snowmelt, and alterations in river flows. These changes are projected to grow.

In the September issue of the journal Nature, 28 environmental scientists reported we have reached or surpassed the upper safe limit in six of the planet’s 10 critical biophysical systems.

NASA scientist Dr. Jim Hansen, whose scientific forecasting has been pretty accurate over the years, now warns that holding atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases to 450 parts per million will not protect us from climate-induced disaster. He says we need to get back to 350 ppm, a threshold we’ve already crossed.  We need to accomplish that backward step at the same time we’re making billions more babies and trying to end the extreme poverty that already afflicts billions of men, women and children around the world.

Five weeks before the 15th Conference of the Parties in Copenhagen – a long-anticipated gathering in danger of being anti-climatic — one source close to the negotiations tells me three broad scenarios remain on the table.

  • Scenario 1 is a Son-of-Kyoto treaty in which all nations agree to specific, verifiable and enforceable limits on their greenhouse gas emissions;
  • In Scenario 2, nations remain hung up on sticking points and can’t agree on a global treaty. Instead, they agree to cut carbon with national-level efforts and smaller bilateral or multilateral agreements.  However, they accept international monitoring of progress and some type of enforcement.
  • In Scenario 3, nations decide to go it alone with no international deal, monitoring or oversight.

So far down the road to Copenhagen, we would have hoped that the U.S. Congress had passed an aggressive climate bill and negotiators would have decided on the basic architecture of a global deal. The lack of progress is not for lack of effort. A lot of negotiators, subject-matter experts and key staff on the Hill are sleep-deprived these days. Because of them, hope is not lost. They deserve our thanks.

At the same time, I know they will forgive us for keeping up the pressure for deals in Congress and at Copenhagen – not just any deals, but real deals. All that’s at stake is a civilization worthy of the noun. The Climate Shuffle becomes a death dance if it goes on too long.

With pressure in mind, I will post a series of pieces over the next several days. They will address how our policy-makers are underestimating the risks of climate change; how new evidence suggests we have only five years to completely retool global industry; how consumers, corporations and government might work together; how the White House can provide audacious leadership; and how morality must trump money on Capitol Hill.

— Bill Becker

8 Responses to Road to Copenhagen, Part 1: Doing the Climate Shuffle

  1. Canada Guy says:

    Here’s an easy item for them to add to the list in Copenhagen. It’s probably the lowest-hanging fruit they are going to find. Reach an agreement on an international ban of plastic water bottles:

    This product is totally unnecessary and most people didn’t even buy them until 10 or so years ago. This is the easy stuff, guys, get it done.

  2. Leif says:

    This Boil must be lanced. (Another book title Joe) Very frustrating to say the least. It is always darkest before the dawn, and all that stuff. Keep up the good work Joe, this site is a breath of FRESH AIR. Thank you.

  3. Klem says:

    Exactly right. It’s way too late to make changes to our carbon emissions now. So dump the waxman Bill, dump Copenhagen. It’s too late, we’re all going to fry in the heat from all of that CO2… or freeze from all of the CO2 depending on whose theory you believe today. But anyway we’re all going to parish next year. So forget Cap&Trade and forget Copenhagen.

    I’m going to the beach.

  4. Andy Velwest says:

    The metaphor I like best (and I think it would make a great cartoon, but I’m not an artist), is that each nation is a paratrooper that has jumped out of a cargo plane. The ground below us is (of course) catastrophic climate change. We are all chained together. And we are all arguing over who should open their parachute first.

    I don’t agree with Klem, there are too many solutions available at a reasonable cost. It’s just a matter of getting them from the fringe to the mainstream quickly enough.

  5. Edward says:

    “150,000 deaths per year” already, and increasing exponentially? Has the rate of increase been calculated?

  6. James Newberry says:

    My reading of the climate situation is: due to a systemic error in neoclassical economics, which determines most business behavior of the Western world, and political corruption of democracy, over the past century or two we have injected enough “greenhouse gas” into the atmosphere (and ocean) to revert the Earth back to the Eocene Epoch of geologic age. Unfortunately, this era was ice cap (or “ice sheet”) free, meaning about seven million cubic miles of melting ice are headed our way. Unless we do something more bold than putting ten or twenty bucks on a ton of carbonic acid gas (CO2) years from now.

    And the Senate wants to go atomic, a sort of political meltdown attempting to effect a real one. “Just don’t do something, stand there.”

  7. Richard Brenne says:

    The dance metaphor is good and apt and humorous, Bill. Nice post.

    Andy Velwest (#4) has an amazing metaphor, and I gather metaphors like berries (or vice-versa). Andy, is that metaphor original with you? If not, do you know where it originated? If so, congratulations, that is amazingly descriptive, eye and ear-catching, and concise. May I quote you? I’ve been using a similar and related metaphor, but not that good.

    Klern (#3), bringing up increased CO2 causing cooling means you must be talking about – and from – some other planet.

  8. Andy Velwest says:

    Richard Brenne,

    Thanks for the kudos. Yeah, I thought of it. Use it all you like. And if you know of any skydivers that want to make a powerful youtube video…