Mar 13, 2012

What happened to the consensus on climate change?

For climate change policy, last year ended with two contradictory scenes: one, the successful passage through parliament of Australia’s carbon price laws; the other, the dispiriting conclusion to the international climate change talks in Durban, writes Fergus Green, a lawyer and policy analyst specialising in climate change.

In the first of a two-part series examining the future of Australian climate policy, Inside Story explains why the international policy consensus, on which Australia has based its carbon pricing scheme, has broken down ... For climate change policy, last year ended with two contradictory scenes: one, the successful passage through parliament of Australia’s carbon price laws; the other, the dispiriting conclusion to the international climate change talks in Durban. Critics of Australian climate action would see the contradiction in the mere fact of Australia acting, given the paralysis in the international talks. But this perspective is narrow and ultimately self-defeating, since it assumes that Australia’s efforts should be predicated on success in UN negotiations. Rather, the contradiction is a more subtle one. It lies in the fact that Australia has embedded in its laws a climate policy based overwhelmingly on a model of international climate action that has been revealed, yet again, to be staggeringly unrealistic -- and unhelpful. The international climate talks have been all about treaties, targets and trading -- about agreeing to an international treaty to reduce greenhouse emissions to a globally safe level by allocating all major emitters an individual target to be met by a specified date and, moreover, by allowing countries to trade their emissions entitlements among themselves so that reductions occur where they cost the least. The Copenhagen conference in late 2009 was meant to ''seal the deal" on a treaty of this magnitude, but failed to do anything of the sort because of widespread disagreements among countries on nearly every issue on the agenda -- the thorniest being how to allocate the emissions reduction burden between rich countries (who benefited most from past emissions) and their rapidly industrialising counterparts (responsible for most of the future growth in emissions). Whether or not a new agreement should take the form of an extension of the Kyoto Protocol or an entirely new treaty was another major sticking point in Copenhagen. (The Protocol, the first commitment period of which expires at the end of 2012, contains binding targets for developed countries only. Not surprisingly, they want to scrap it while poorer countries want to retain it.) At the Cancun conference a year later, countries made progress by largely ignoring these two deeply contentious issues, agreeing instead on frameworks to raise money for climate action in poor countries, including helping them to adapt to unavoidable climate impacts. In Durban, parties re-engaged with the more difficult issues regarding emissions reductions and the future of Kyoto -- with disastrous results. The European Union sought to cajole developing countries into agreeing to its "roadmap" for a new treaty, under which a treaty would be agreed by 2015 and impose binding targets for developed and most developing countries from 2020. The quid pro quo for developing countries proposed by the Europeans was an extension of the Kyoto Protocol from 2013 to "bridge the gap" to 2020. For most of the conference, India played "bad cop" for the big developing countries, trading barbs with the European Union in the sidelines of the conference and refusing to accept any roadmap that envisaged developing countries signing up to binding targets. In a classic end-of-conference rabbit-from-hat exercise, negotiators managed to agree on language for the roadmap that allowed all sides to save face and herald progress in the talks. The text of the roadmap commits the parties to a new process for the negotiation by 2015 of "a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force", with the associated emissions reduction obligations to come into effect from 2020. The Europeans had wanted the text to refer to "a legally binding" treaty, but this formulation was deemed unacceptably strong to developing countries because of the reference to the word "binding". The disagreement threatened to derail the talks, which by that stage had already gone into overtime. A last-minute "huddle" on the floor of the conference hall between the Europeans, India and other key countries resulted in the compromise language. World leaders were quick to pronounce the success of the negotiations on the back of this compromise. The head of the UN’s climate secretariat heralded the outcome as "a historic agreement that has met all major issues". The EU’s Climate Commissioner, Connie Hedegaard, claimed that the outcome vindicated the Europeans’ negotiating strategy. Australia’s climate change minister Greg Combet said the outcome was a "massively historic step" that "means we are negotiating a legally binding agreement that would bind all developing and developed countries". But the text of the Durban outcome does not commit developing countries to binding targets and anyone who genuinely thinks it does understands neither the meaning of the words agreed to nor the circumstances in which they were agreed. One could drive a truck through the compromise language. *Read the full story at Inside Story.

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9 thoughts on “What happened to the consensus on climate change?

  1. Recalcitrant.Rick

    Maybe it’s time we had a re-visit of the 1972 movie “Silent Running” because unless we get our sh*t together, that film was frighteningly prescient. It’s also a scary reminder of how long we’ve been debating this issue!

  2. Jean

    Hooray, this means Karl Popper is making a comeback.
    The notion of the scientific consensus was promoted by American philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn.
    However I’ve always been a Popper fan.
    He said (in many more words- jeeze those blokes went on ) that when you have a theory, it stands until is is disproven.
    So- (A) climate change is happening- most scientists agree- raise your glass to Kuhn.
    or (B) climate change is happening- let’s test your evidence- yaaaay Popper!

  3. Brian Williams

    Fergus Green can hardly be characterised as a climate change denier, but the subtext of this article is surely “Why the hell has Australia embarked down a path that most CO2 emitting countries are doing their best to avoid”.

    It is a reasonable question, too often answered with such banalities as “We need to be seen to be doing something”, even though the something that WE’RE doing will have no measurable impact on the global level of CO2 in the atmosphere.

  4. icer

    I could be very wrong Jean, but I thought that Popper meant that you couldn’t actually call something a theory unless it had implications that are testable. Physicists are arguing about superstring theory now for that very reason, if there is no way you can disprove it, it really has no predictive power and is not much utility as a theory. On the other hand, global climate change has lots of testable implications like land and ocean warming, glacier retreat, sea-ice variability, etc, which has prompted deniers to forward theories to explain them like solar cycles and post-little ice age warming. I think Popper’s role here would be via Occam’s razor, for someone to come along and be able explain the observational data using a theory simpler than CO2 emissions. As the CO2 warming theory has been around for 100 years without anyone being able to poke a hole in it, the consensus has some value.

  5. Steve777

    It seems very likely that the outcome of changes to the Earth’s atmosphere brought about by the waste products of burning fossil fuels will be determined by the laws of physics. The greenhouse effect is real – otherwise the Earth would be 20+ degrees cooler and the oceans would be frozen solid. We just have to hope that the sceptics are right and that doubling the concentration of a major greenhouse gas (it has increased by 28% since pre-industrial times) will somehow have no adverse impacts on us.

  6. Frank Campbell

    I never thought I’d ever see a rational, common-sense climate piece on Crikey.

    Crikey’s brazen, repressive climate millenarianism has left it as isolated as a bag lady at a dance. Every criticism of climate policy or science has been smeared as “denialist”, driven by vested interests, emanations of vile Right-wing politics etc etc ad nauseam. Not once have we seen critique of the absurdities of climate extremists. Never once have the bogus claims of “renewable energy” shills been questioned on this “feisty” “irreverent” site (yes, “feisty and irreverent” make me puke too).

    For two full years the real environment scarcely got a mention on Crikey. Lately, things have improved a little. I wonder why.

    Intellectual dishonesty has ruled absolutely and corruptly.

    What does this “climate change lawyer” say? Just the obvious: “Australia has embedded in its laws a climate policy based overwhelmingly on a model of international climate action that has been revealed, yet again, to be staggeringly unrealistic”. Well frack me dead.

    And “the text of the Durban outcome does not commit developing countries to binding targets”. Frack me again, Sam. We had no idea, did we Mr Beecher?

  7. Kevin Herbert

    Where are the Federal Government’s defenders on this post?

    C’mon folks…provide a decent rebuttal of Fergus Green’s well argued piece..or is your collective silence all the rebuttal you can muster?

  8. icer

    I didn’t think from the article that the Federal Government needed defending. Most socially progressive policies are implemented by a small group somewhere and are ragingly unpopular with the broader (ie conservative, status quo driven) electorate, from women’s suffrage, ending segregation, legalising homosexuality etc. The idea of a carbon tax needs to exist somewhere for people to see that it works and is a good one. It is a little surprising that Labour traded so much political capital to achieve it, because, as Fergus points out, there will be a lot more shouting and hysterics before the transition to a clean-energy economy happens.

  9. Steve777

    I am not a climate scientist, nor are many of those who doubt that climate change is happening (I won’t use the term ‘sceptic’ or ‘denier’). But in a democracy we all have to make judgements on what is most likely to be true on the basis of the credibility of those making the claims.

    The composition of the atmosphere has been changed as a result of burning fossil fuels. That is a measurable fact. The extra CO2 did not come out of volcanoes or the oceans but from coal, oil and deforestation. This has been proven by the distribution of isotopes of carbon in the atmosphere.

    97% of climate scientists agree that climate change is happening as a result of the extra greenhouse gases and that the effects will be overall detrimental to humanity. How bad it will be no one can say. Science does not currently understand the complexities of the world’s climate system well enough to come up with definite predictions and timelines. Nor can ‘doubters’ be certain that everything’s going to be OK unless they disbelieve the science. The debate has been muddied on both sides by claims that certain events – droughts, floods, heatwaves, a cool wet summer in Sydney or a cold winter in England – ‘prove’ their case. No one can prove a connection to an individual event, any more than a smoker living to 90 or dying of lung cancer ‘proves’ that smoking is / is not OK. It is the overall change in average temperatures and rainfall patterns that will demonstrate what is happening.

    It is possible that the 3% are correct and that greatly increasing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will somehow not affect us in a bad way, but betting on the 3% seems to be risky, to say the least.

    There is a legitimate debate to be had as to what we should be doing about climate change. An honest position to argue would be that effective action is not possible and that we should adapt. But that debate should be based upon what credible science is saying, not by attacking science or scientists because we don’t like their findings.

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