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The Search for Science in Copenhagen

By Nicole Heller

As a scientist and a first-time observer of the international political process to combat climate change, I wondered about the role of science in the negotiations.

As one journalist told me, “This is the ultimate debate over the power of science.” If true, then judging from the recent climate talks, science does not appear to be particularly powerful. If it were, the numbers for emissions reductions currently in brackets in the UN text would not have so much political wiggle room. For instance, a group called Climate Interactive provides a tool linking the political talks directly to the implications for projected warming. As of today’s negotiated numbers, their calculations shows that the treaty puts us on a path of 4°C (7°F) warming by 2100, twice the level of warming scientists and governments regard as a dangerous limit (see related blog).

As I observed the diversity of people and interest groups involved in COP and considered the sticking points holding up negotiations, it dawned on me that, at least for now, the talks are more about re-directing the flow of money from global financial institutions to sustainable technologies and land-use, while maintaining economic growth patterns, than about climate change. This is mirrored by the fact that those behind the closed doors tend to be lawyers and economists, while scientists, environmentalists and human rights advocates tend to be in the front rooms discussing the implications of the treaty, ways to make it better, the challenges of implementation, the need for greater inclusion of critical issues like agriculture, nitrogen pollution, biodiversity, and so on. Still, I saw at least three critical roles of climate science at the meeting.

1. Science motivates action and clarifies risks

I talked with Dr. Chris Field, co-chair for the IPCC Working Group II, Impacts, Vulnerability and Adaptation assessment, about how he was spending his time at COP15. I had heard that he was being asked to help inform the negotiations. He told me that wasn’t really the case. Mostly he was being asked about the email scandal by the US Congress and media who were focused on whether the emails reveal greater uncertainty about the climate science than has been acknowledged by the IPCC. At this point he went into near autopilot, explaining to me how none of the problem issues in the emails affected the IPCC process in any way. In his words, the scandal proves “the IPCC process works.”

In interactions with negotiators, Field told me he was asked to help understand what is in the science. He explained that in his experience, most of the negotiators get it, but they want to be sure. He discussed uncertainties in climate projections and how to interpret probability distributions – namely, that changes may turn out to be much more extreme than average projections. He also spent time explaining that the 2007 IPCC assessment is largely viewed as conservative: CO2 emissions have risen faster than projected; sea ice is melting faster (see related blog); and that there are things scientists can’t explain such as why the last few years haven’t warmed as expected.

2. Science helps equalize power among nations of different economic status

The science of impacts provides a key platform on which developing nations can make a stand. Small island nations emphasize the data on rapidly rising sea levels and argue for limiting warming to 1.5°C, a commitment that would require much stronger domestic cuts in carbon emissions than what is currently on the table. Similarly, African nations emphasize the disproportionate impacts climate change will have on Africa given their vulnerability and lack of resources to cope with climate change (e.g. adapt agricultural practices to ensure food production, in the face of greater rainfall variability or increased drought). African countries advocate for hundreds of billions of dollars in aid, in addition to stronger mitigation targets by developed nations.

3. Science develops in response to the needs of this newly emerging global economic institution

Strong new language in the text about creating a system for measuring, reporting and verifying greenhouse gas emissions (MRV) and for tracking reduced deforestation and forest degradation (REDD + mechanism) create a demand for highly accurate and geographically precise information about greenhouse gas emissions. Emissions have not historically been tracked as closely or as completely as is desired for full transparency in a marketplace. For instance, if we are going to pay countries for carbon stocks, the amount of woody biomass in their forests, we need to be able to measure it in each individual forest, and measure changes that may occur due to logging, fire or insect disturbance. Projects like Planetary Skin, and scientists like Greg Asner at Carnegie Institution, are rapidly developing new science and tools to meet this demand. But the science is still very much in development, and it is interesting to see the way a complex carbon marketplace is being designed around expectations of monitoring capabilities that may not be quite there yet. But with the mandate of a UN convention and early action funding, I am sure the science will expand rapidly.

In conclusion, it appears the science is not very well aligned with the emission targets on the table.  However, in the larger picture as I see it, a deal at Copenhagen is a step toward creating a global-economic system driven by sustainability science.


Keeling Curve Charles David Keeling's measurements provided the significant evidence of increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration

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