This post also appears in National Journal's Cancún Insider blog.
CANCUN – We’ll see tomorrow here in Cancún whether countries are ready to move past binding-or-nothing in the international climate effort.
For the past five years, negotiators have deadlocked over whether and how to extend a legally binding climate regime beyond 2012, when the first Kyoto targets expire. In that time, over countless sessions, the U.N. climate talks have produced little in the way of tangible results.
Cancún is an opportunity for a more sensible approach.
The Supreme Court announced on December 6 that it would hear an appeal in one of the several common law nuisance cases against greenhouse gas (GHG) emitters that are making their way through the courts. By granting ceritiorari in AEP v. Connecticut, the Supreme Court has signaled its intention to weigh in on the appropriate role of the courts in addressing damages caused by climate change. As explained below, possible future regulatory actions by EPA or, alternatively, action by Congress to restrict EPA’s regulatory authority, could be factors that influence the Court’s decision.
From commercial airplanes from Virgin Atlantic to a U.S. Navy fighter jet, powering airplanes with biofuels has been long been a goal of the airline industry. Following test flights by a number of airlines and the U.S. Department of Defense, Lufthansa will be the first to offer a biofuel-powered commercial flight in April of 2011. Though a 50-50 mix of biofuels and jet fuel (traditional kerosene) will power only one of the aircraft’s engines, the German airline is achieving a considerable milestone. The program is a 6-month trial using the Hamburg-Frankfurt route to evaluate the wear and tear of biofuels on an aircraft engine. The program should reduce the airline’s carbon footprint by about 1,500 metric tons of CO2 in total (the annual emissions of about 300 cars) and cost about 6.6 million euros. The plane is no slouch either – an Airbus A321 has a seating capacity of 220 and a range of 3,000 miles.
CANCUN – We need a new paradigm – one that recognizes the importance of a binding treaty, but appreciates that getting there will take time.
For 15 years, the primary thrust of the UNFCCC negotiations has been establishing and extending a legally binding regime: the Kyoto Protocol. This preoccupation has probably precluded more modest steps within the UNFCCC. Worse, it has produced a perennial state of stalemate.
In a new report we are releasing today, the Pew Center on Global Climate Change calls for a more “evolutionary” approach. Looking at other multilateral regimes, the report shows how most have evolved gradually over time: incremental steps build parties’ confidence in the regime and one another, leading to a greater willingness to take on stronger obligations.
Throughout this year I have posted a number of blogs on the record-breaking extreme weather events of recent years, particularly 2010. Events ranged from unprecedented blizzards on the U.S. East Coast to the cataclysmic Russian heat wave and flooding in Pakistan. The key message I’ve tried to communicate is that, rather than debating whether these particular events are being caused by climate change – an interesting academic question that is unanswerable on a practical level – we should learn from these events about our individual and societal vulnerabilities and the real costs of climate change.
In an op-ed in The New York Times, Jack Hedin, a Minnesota farmer, offers an excellent example of the type of practical learning I’m talking about:
“The past four years of heavy rains and flash flooding here in southern Minnesota have left me worried about the future of agriculture in America’s grain belt. For some time computer models of climate change have been predicting just these kinds of weather patterns, but seeing them unfold on our farm has been harrowing nonetheless.”
Mr. Hedin’s family has farmed the soils of southern Minnesota since the late 19th century. Today he runs a small farm in Rushville, where an onslaught of extreme weather events over several years forced him to retreat to higher ground. This is an example of forced adaptation where abandonment was the best choice. But even in the new location, his farm lost $100,000 worth of crops to excessive soil moisture this summer.
Notice that Hedin doesn’t waste time worrying about whether particular weather events were caused by human-induced climate change:
“The weather in our area has become demonstrably more hostile to agriculture, and all signs are that this trend will continue. Minnesota’s state climatologist, Jim Zandlo, has concluded that no fewer than three “thousand-year rains” have occurred in the past seven years in our part of the state. And a University of Minnesota meteorologist, Mark Seeley, has found that summer storms in the region over the past two decades have been more intense and more geographically focused than at any time on record.”
Climate scientists know the climate is changing, that many mid-latitude locations are becoming wetter as a result (see figure below), and that we can expect that trend to continue. What does it matter whether a particular storm on a particular day in a particular year was caused by human intervention with the climate system? After all, it isn’t one particular event that has Mr. Hedin worried about the future of farming in America’s grain belt; it’s the preponderance of evidence that the climate is already shifting and the common sense realization that farming is getting harder because of that shift.
Please read Jack Hedin’s op-ed in The New York Times. He has the right idea about learning from extreme weather events.
Jay Gulledge is Senior Scientist and Director of the Science and Impacts Program