Climate Compass Blog
It’s been difficult for average citizens to imagine what global warming means for them. After all, a few degrees of increase in the global mean temperature doesn’t seem too bad. But one consequence that has already been documented is an increase in intense downpours with longer dry periods in between. A recent report from the U.S. Global Change Research Program said,
“Changes in the geographical distribution of droughts and flooding have been complex. In some regions, there have been increases in the occurrences of both droughts and floods.” (p. 18) “The widespread trend toward more heavy downpours is expected to continue, with precipitation becoming less frequent but more intense.” (p. 24)
The historic drought that gripped the Southeast for the better part of two years and the severe flooding that hit the same region last week illustrate this pattern all too graphically.
BANGKOK -- It’s no surprise, in the pre-Copenhagen posturing, that the United States is once again seen by many as the single greatest obstacle to an effective global climate effort. The truth, though, is that the U.S. is hardly alone. On all the key issues – emission targets, developing country commitments, and finance – other key players aren’t ready to strike a final deal either.
In his address last week to a high-level UN climate summit, President Obama offered an impressive list of early accomplishments. Yet as was painfully evident, absent comprehensive legislation from Congress, the administration comes to the negotiating table with loads of good intention, but not yet prepared to take on binding international commitments.
Other countries, meanwhile, appear to be showing some movement.
Both China and India, long viewed as the other principal barriers to agreement, are signaling a new willingness to act - at least domestically. President Hu Jintao told the UN summit that China will set a goal to reduce its carbon intensity by a “notable margin.” India’s government is talking about setting domestic goals to limit its greenhouse gas emissions. These steps are encouraging, and may help inoculate the two countries against blame in the event Copenhagen is a failure. But in neither case has the government offered specific numbers or said it is prepared to translate its actions into international commitments.
Yukio Hatoyama of Japan did come to the summit with a number. Two weeks earlier, fresh from his landmark election victory, the new prime minister had set aside the previous government’s goal of reducing emissions 15 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, a target roughly in line with the numbers being debated in Washington. In its place, he declared a far more ambitious goal of 25 percent below 1990 levels – provided other major economies pony up their fair share.
Over the past two weeks, three utilities – PG&E, PNM Resources, and Exelon – made public decisions not to renew their membership in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. These three companies are members of both our Business Environmental Leadership Council (BELC), as well as the U.S. Climate Action Partnership (USCAP), of which we are a founding member. We have been asked a lot recently to comment on the significance of these moves, and whether other companies will follow suit.
The decision by these companies to exit the chamber is another clear indication that the political dynamic surrounding climate change legislation has changed dramatically in the last several years. No longer can businesses be counted on to march in lockstep opposition to mandatory greenhouse gas legislation. In fact, today the companies involved in USCAP and other progressive business coalitions have emerged as some of the biggest and most effective supporters of comprehensive climate change legislation. Business support was critical in moving climate change to the top of the Congressional agenda, and will likely be the deciding factor in steering legislation to enactment.
While we do not comment on the internal decision-making of the companies with which we partner, in the case of PG&E, PNM Resources, and Exelon, the time had obviously come when the differences between their strong commitment to Congressional action on climate change was irreconcilably at odds with that of the Chamber. In his letter to Tom Donahue, CEO of the Chamber, PG&E CEO Peter Darbee wrote:
“A case in point is the Chamber’s recent much-publicized call to put climate change science ‘on trial.’ We find it dismaying that the Chamber neglects the indisputable fact that a decisive majority of experts have said the data on global warming are compelling and point to a threat that cannot be ignored … To the extent … the Chamber earnestly believes these questions should be heard in a courtroom, let’s recall that the U.S. Supreme Court opined on the threat of climate in a 2007 decision. ‘The harms associated with climate change are serious and well recognized,’ the Court wrote.”
The sheer amount of misinformation on the science of climate change is stunning. It’s no wonder that the public is confused (see our FAQ for some clarity). The latest argument is easily dismissible, or at least it would be if it weren’t being repeated so much in the press (like this story in last Friday’s Washington Post, along with a series of ads for a new group pushing the idea). You may have heard a politician or two talking about the “benefits” of carbon dioxide—it goes something like this: plants breathe in CO2, so more of it is good for them. Nothing to worry about, they say, let’s go on burning fossil fuels as we always have. A group even has a new website dedicated to spreading the lie that more CO2 is good for the planet.
Most science journalists have finally gotten beyond the “he-said, she-said” articles that falsely portray a balance of views where no controversy exists among experts. Simply put, no experts in climate change are arguing that because plants use CO2, it’s ok for us to emit as much as we want. That’s because they understand that humanity has released so much CO2 into the atmosphere that it’s beginning to affect the planet. Without aggressive reductions in emissions, we are facing (among other impacts) rising sea levels, an increase in extreme weather, changes in precipitation patterns, and ocean acidification—oceans absorb CO2, threatening fisheries and marine ecosystems. The world’s scientific community has assessed the science of climate change and concluded that “warming is unequivocal and primarily human-induced.” (See this report by the U.S. Global Change Research Program or the comprehensive assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.)
Whenever the UN climate change negotiations convene these days, as they will again later this month in Bangkok, an oversized digital timer glares at delegates from the front of the hall, methodically counting down the days, hours, minutes, even seconds until the upcoming climate conference in Copenhagen. (The online version at the website of the UN climate secretariat reads at this writing 81:13:02:28.)
This staged countdown is a stark, if superfluous, reminder of the expectations looming for Copenhagen, arguably the most pivotal moment in climate diplomacy since Kyoto 12 years ago. With the dangers of global warming more clear and present today than any had foreseen then, countless are not only eager but desperate for Copenhagen to deliver what Kyoto did not – an effective global response.
But with the days quickly ticking away, it is becoming clearer to all that the time is too short. A blitz of high-level diplomacy might yet conjure a miracle, but less than three months out, the odds of a final, ratifiable deal by the time the clock hits zero appear virtually nil.