At COP15, Science on the Sidelines

By Andrew Freedman

Much is being written about the political posturing as negotiators struggle to construct a draft text that will be ready for heads of state when they arrive in Copenhagen later next week. Less attention is being devoted to the role of science in the negotiations, which is surprising when you stop and think that it is scientific research, after all, that has brought thousands of diplomats, activists, and journalists to this small, bike friendly city.

All of us are here because of the science that “unequivocally” indicates – to quote the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – that global temperatures are increasing, “very likely” from human activities, inducing a variety of mainly negative effects around the world.

Scientific evidence is why the representatives of small island states, such as Kevin Conrad of Papua New Guinea, are relentlessly pushing for the ratification of a legally binding agreement that includes significant emissions cuts by industrialized countries. Small island countries such as the one he represents understand the implications of recent studies warning of significant climate change-related sea level rise if greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase.

Scientists have said the next IPCC assessment, due in 2013, will likely boost its estimates of sea level rise considerably compared to its last report, based on recent data showing more extensive melting in parts of Greenland and Antarctica than was previously known.

Science is also why so many countries, including the United States, have agreed to the goal of limiting climate change to two degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. Many studies show more serious detrimental impacts may occur beyond that point, although the two degree threshold was in part a political decision.

Despite the fact that scientific research has motivated the world to come to Copenhagen, scientists are taking a back seat here to the political leaders. This has long been the tradition at these U.N. Climate summits, known as “Conferences of the Parties” or “COPs.” In many ways it makes complete sense, since figuring out what to do about climate change ultimately involves political, ethical and legal questions.

But it seems problematic that the political leaders are relatively free to ignore the data supplied by the scientists, whose research demonstrates the risks posed by climate change.

The degree to which climate scientists are divorced from the process here is striking. Even IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri, signaled today that he does not know how significant a role scientists are playing at COP 15.

“It [science] certainly played a very major role in Bali, and I hope that's not lost on this particular COP,” Pachauri said.

I find it interesting that the American Geophysical Union, which counts a large number of climate specialists among its ranks, is holding its annual meeting in San Francisco next week. That's pretty far from Copenhagen.

The IPCC representatives who are here have spent part of their time defending their research against allegations stemming from the so-called “climategate” scandal. As he has in recent days, Pachauri shot back against critics of the Nobel Prize-winning panel again today.

“Frankly, talking to all of the negotiators over here, I get the sense that they haven't been distracted [by climategate]. Of course, they would be one or two countries or perhaps a few more who would like to seize on this and, if I'm not mincing any words, would exaggerate the threat of this… The fact of this is that this has had absolutely no impact on either the  Third Assessment Report or the Fourth Assessment report… in terms of the robustness of the science.”