Sunday, December 20, 2009

Copenhagen 2009, or, "We Started a Joke"

Well the climate conference held in Copenhagen the past two weeks has whimpered to its miserable end. Even those trying to find something good have to settle for a handful of straw.

Let me tell a little parable.

Two guys shared a house, although they quarreled all the time. One day Joe turned on a burner on their gas stove and made a pot of stew, which he then put on to simmer. Joe didn't know the gas pipe in the kitchen had a tiny leak.

Sometime later, as Joe and Sam, his housemate, sat in the living room watching TV, there was an explosion in the kitchen. They rushed to see what happened, and found the kitchen burning mightily. Joe called the fire department, though the station was at least half an hour away, even for a fire truck using its lights and siren. Then he told Sam they needed to get outside and turn on two water hoses they had so they could stand outside and spray water inside to try to impede or put out the fire.

Sam snarled, "No. You started it, so you put it out yourself."

Startled and angered, Joe retorted, "But I didn't start it on purpose, and this is your home, too!"

Sam still refused, angering Joe further, to the point he shouted, "Fine! I'M not doing anything, either!"

They went outside as the fire spread.

By the time the firemen arrived, the house was pretty much destroyed. The firemen squirted their hoses until the remains were completely extinguished and cooled. Once it was safe, the fire captain walked around the outside of the house, and we he returned, he exclaimed, "I saw two hoses already hooked up, long enough to have reached the kitchen! You could have maybe kept the fire contained to the kitchen and still have someplace to live. True, you might have to go out to eat, or maybe buy a camp stove until your kitchen could be rebuilt, but to just let the house burn to the ground makes no sense!"

Joe and Sam began hurling accusations at each other, each saying the other was responsible for the destruction of their home.

Finally, the firemen left in disgust.

This parable isn't a perfect one for Copenhagen, but it'll do. Joe is the U.S., and Sam is China.  More broadly, Joe is the developed world and Sam is the Third World together with the developing world.

It's true that the developed world is historically responsible for damaging the environment more than the rest of the world, if we go back to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution or so, though in the latter half of the 20th century some Third World countries began rising, increasing their own contributions. The one defense of the developed world is that when people began burning coal and oil in the early part of the 19th century, no one had any idea that way down the road this would lead to trouble, potentially catastrophic trouble, for the climate.

But for the countries outside the currently accepted "developed world" to say, "You guys blew it for nearly two centuries, but that provided the engine for your economic growth, so you have no right to tell us we have to cut our emissions drastically. It's OUR turn to 'drill, baby, drill' and 'burn, baby, burn' is downright stupid.

On the other hand, it's equally stupid of countries that are developed to childishly say, "Okay! I'm taking my dolly and going home! So there!"

But that's essentially what happened at Copenhagen.

Complicating matters was the attitude of the "Group of 77," a loose coalition on the world's poorest and less-developed nations. Their spokesman, a gentleman from Sudan, led the charge for rich nations to promise far more financial aid than they've tentatively agreed to provide (and there is considerable justification for that complaint) -- but without any accountability or transparency.

Yeah, right. We've been down Boondoggle Road before, giving foreign aid to some banana republic's central government only to discover later it ended up in Swiss bank accounts and the like, with little, if any, of the jackpot reaching the intended recipients. I don't mind my tax money going for foreign aid -- but I mind immensely when it's stolen.

Then there's the whole debate about what, if any, role humans play in climate change. Those in the debate fall into one of two basic groups, each of those further divided into two sub-groups:

1. Believes humans play a significant role in climate change
     (A.) Those who have a political agenda
     (B.) Those who believe, based on science, we do play a role

2. Questions whether human-induced climate change is real
     (A.) Skeptics who say "it's not clear"
     (B.) Deniers

I have no time for 1. (A.) and 2. (B.) The first includes, among others, scientists on the payrolls of companies in the fossil fuel industry. They're about as trustworthy as the scientists on the payrolls of the tobacco industry who some years back swore up and down tobacco at the very least was harmless to health, and arguably (they claimed) actually good for it. Again: yeah, right. The second is a bit more complex. There are people in it who have listened to the arguments and sincerely concluded the evidence of a human role simply isn't there -- but the weakness of their position is they start with the intent to reach that conclusion, though they're loathe to admit it. Then there are those who come up with nonsensical arguments, such as "Look! Podunk, Somewhere had a record cold winter!" and "The climate's changing all the time and has been since the beginning of the planet!"

To argue that such-and-such a place had a record-cold winter is pointless, as undoubtedly some other place had a record-hot summer. Climate change doesn't say that every single square inch of the planet will be warming (or, in earlier ages and undoubtedly in future ones, cooling). It says the global average is now increasing, and doing so at an alarming rate, and that it's doing so because of human activity.

As for the argument that the climate is always changing, no one disputes that. The several Ice Ages and the warmer periods in between them prove that the climate is in a constant state of flux. However, there's a difference between change over millenia and change over decades.

Now, someone's going to pop up and point out, for instance, the Mini Ice Age that lasted from about 1500 to around 1800 (estimates vary a bit) and the preceding Medieval Warm Period. Those events absolutely occurred, and evidence is available in many places around the world. And they had significant regional effects. They also were relatively short-lived.

And someone's going to pop up and mention Climategate. The scientists involved claimed they were just blowing off steam in the ridicule they heaped on other scientists in their e-mails; I don't know. But it's clear that while a number of scientists were involved in this episode -- and it was an episode, not a global conspiracy involving countless tens of thousands of scientists -- the number involved was relatively tiny. Nor does it in anyway detract from the underlying science, including much derived using other data and other software, nor many other studies involving none of the scientists in Climategate.

This leaves us with 1. (B.), those who believe humans are making a significant contribution to global change, and 2. (A.), those who are, we might say, straddling the fence, if leaning a bit towards disbelief in any role for humans.

Both these groups include thoughtful people, including trained scientists, though there are far fewer scientists in the skeptical group than in the group that does believe we play a significant role. Still, they merit attention. After all, climate science remains very inexact; for instance, just a few years ago, the best estimate for when the Arctic would become basically ice-free during the summer was sometime around 2100. Now, the worst-case scenario is in the next five or six years, while the most "rosy" is about 20 years.

Back to Copenhagen. China and the U.S. together produce about 40% of the world's greenhouse gases. If just those two countries were to join hands and actually do something truly significant, they would accomplish two things: (1.) start along the road towards significant efforts, and, (2.) shame other countries into following suit.

But what have they done? China has promised to reduce it's emissions relative to each unit of production. What does that mean? It means that China's increased emissions by 2050 will be "only" around 80% (according to articles citing scientific estimates I've read) higher than now -- instead of several times that. As for the U.S., we're promising a 14%-17% reduction from 2005 levels by 2020. But consider what Japan has put on offer: to reduce its emissions by 25%-35% from 1990 levels -- not the much higher 2005 levels -- by 2020.

Kind of puts China and the U.S. to shame.

But let's step away from the whole contentious climate change business and consider simple environmental pleasantness.

Anyone who has been to any of the world's major largest cities knows that smog is a huge problem. It affects people's health -- even China doesn't deny that (and China has more of the worst-polluted cities than any other country on Earth). Bangkok is no paradise when it comes to this, especially in central Bangkok, where on some days when the weather is itself clear, the smog is so bad you can barely see the Sun. The air stinks. And the smog contributes to polluting the soil and water. Even if climate change is an Al Gore myth or lie, I plain would like to have clean air.

Wouldn't you?

By the way, what are we going to say to the citizens of island nations such as the Maldives and Tuvalu as the last of their islands disappear beneath the waves? What are we going to say to people forced to move inland as the sea encroaches into the world's great coastal cities (as is happening right here in Bangkok -- I've seen it)?