Sunday, November 24, 2013

For what it is worth

The early feedback on the framework coming out of Warsaw:

2015 marks the deadline for a multilateral agreement under the UNFCCC that will be a) replace the Kyoto Protocol and b) be implemented no later than 2020.  It was decided back in Durban (COP17) that a new legal agreement was needed in which all countries play a role in reducing greenhouse gases and adapting to a new climate.

From the UNFCCC:

This includes work to make existing national emission reduction or emission limitation plans more transparent. It also encompasses the launch and long-term implementation of the comprehensive global support network that will deliver funding and technology to help developing countries build their own clean energy futures and construct societies and economies which are resilient to climate change. (emphasis added) 

As one of the largest national greenhouse gas emitters, the U.S. needs to both significantly and deliberately reduce its emissions (not just show up at the international negotiations table) and Congress will need to ratify any final treaty that comes out of the UNFCCC process by 2015.  Given the current "climate" in Washington D.C., that seems more difficult than reaching compromise and agreement on the international stage.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Show me the money

Since returning from Warsaw, it has been characteristically quiet in terms of media coverage about the international negotiations related to climate change. My students were on the lookout while I was away and also reported little coverage. But finally, some news about the UNFCCC proceedings has begun to appear in the U.S. media. From the New York Times on Friday (November 22nd): U.N. Talks on Climate Near End:

The United Nations climate conference ambled toward a conclusion on Friday, with delegates saying that the meeting would produce no more than a modest set of measures toward a new international agreement two years from now. As usual, the biggest dispute was over money.  

Finance is a word commonly heard in the halls and negotiating rooms of COP meetings: Long-term Finance, Fast-start Finance, Green Climate Fund, Adaptation Fund, Loss and Damage, the economic costs of mitigation. As with much of the UNFCCC process, there is lots of jargon around the topic of finance, and it can be difficult to keep all the different funding streams straight. (If you are interested in that type of stuff, details can be found here.) For those less inclined to delve into the policy and finance mechanism details, the short version is that negotiators debate the following:
  • How to transfer low-carbon technology to developing nations so they don’t further exacerbate the greenhouse gas problem and who pays for this technology transfer, adoption, and training (not to mention the loss of intellectual property income if technology is just given away);
  • How to help countries adapt to the impacts of climate change (ranging from adaptations in agriculture to reducing risk from extreme weather events). Something as simple as early warning systems such as the alerts on cell phones that may have saved countless lives in the Midwest this week can reduce risk, but such technology is not available in many parts of the world.
  • Whether countries should be compensated for the loss and damage they experience from climate change related events. Who should pay for all of this, and are some countries responsible for historical emissions dating back to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution?
  • Carbon markets such as emissions trading or sustainable development projects which help other countries avoid carbon-emitting processes or help remove carbon from the atmosphere for instance by protecting rainforests.
There are also costs of inaction that don’t directly enter the discussions at the COP meetings, but provide an underlying incentive for the talks to continue, despite little progress over the past several years. (See my post from December last year). Take for example the economic toll from weather-related disasters on Earth so far in 2013. The following is from Dr. Jeff Master’s blog from November 22nd on

Three billion-dollar weather-related disasters hit the Earth during October 2013, bringing the world-wide tally of these disasters through October 2013 to 35, according to the October 2013 Catastrophe Report from insurance broker Aon Benfield. If we add November's Super Typhoon Haiyan, the total reaches 36. This is the second highest yearly total of billion-dollar weather disasters for the globe since accurate disaster records began in 2000, though the total cost of weather-related disasters so far in 2013 is below the average for the past ten years, according to Senior Scientist Steve Bowen of Aon Benfield. The record highest number of billion-dollar weather disasters was 40, set in 2010. For comparison, during all of 2012, there were 27 billion-dollar weather disasters; the tally in 2011 was 35 (adjusted for inflation.) The U.S. total through October 2013 is seven.

In the table within Dr. Master's post, the annual loss and damage total through October 2013 comes to almost $102 billion. These numbers do not take into account the cost of damages from Typhoon Haiyan or the tornados that ripped through the Midwest of this country just this past week, so this number will rise dramatically. And the figure doesn’t take into account the loss of life.

A concept that came out of the COP meeting in 2009 – in Copenhagen (the first attended by Moravian College) was to create a fund to help cover some of these financial issues. This was put forth by wealthy nations that indicated at the time that this money would not come directly out of their treasuries.  Rather, there would be a mix of public and private financing and novel funding sources such as taxes such as on aviation and shipping fuel. A few COP meetings later, a figure of $100 billion of contributions per year by 2020 was thrown on the table.

One has to question how the figure of $100 billion was determined.  It clearly wouldn’t cover all of the annual damages based on extreme weather events over the past few years (which are predicted to become even more frequent). Hurricane Sandy and the major drought in the U.S. in 2012 alone had a price tag of $100 billion, according to the global reinsurance firm Aon Benfield, based in London. And that is for just for a single country and doesn’t take into consideration the lost revenue from tourism and recreation at the New Jersey shore during the 2013 year or the costs of the major 6-block fire in Seaside Park that destroyed 50 businesses – due to electrical damage from Sandy that went undetected.

Such reported figures are typically underestimates of the actual impact of an extreme weather event. In the U.S. in 2011, it was estimated that extreme weather events (tornados such as hit Joplin, MO, Hurricanes Irene and Lee, etc.) caused $50 billion in damages. That year, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, there were 3,251 monthly weather records broken by extreme events that struck communities in the U.S.  Many of the losses were uninsured (perhaps as high as 60 to 80%) and thus, may not be calculated in the official numbers. Further, there are many indirect costs that are unaccounted for.  It is estimated that weather events cause significant losses (14%) to the mining economy each year due to price fluctuations for oil, gas and coal that change with the weather, threats to the security of mine water supply, and damage to mines and associated transport infrastructure.  Torrential rain and unreliable temperatures negatively impact crop yields, and thus there are agricultural losses -- perhaps as high as 12%. The manufacturing, finance, insurance, retail and utilities sectors are also sensitive (think weather-induced power outages which are a huge blow to electric-utility operations). Sometimes there are winners and losers that further complicate the economic picture. For example, in a snowstorm: air travel is disrupted and heating costs skyrocket, but ski resorts hit the jackpot. During dry spell, crop supplies dwindle, but construction projects are able to stay on schedule. According to Kinetic Analysis Corporation’s figures, the real damage costs in 2011 were probably closer to $485 billion.

From a colleague who was in attendance during week 2 of COP19:

Other news was that the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) walked out on Wednesday in protest of the developed nations to fully fund commitments and Environmental groups on Thursday to protest the sluggish funding of the Green Climate Fund.

I guess I missed the interesting stuff by coming back early! (See the story.)

On the day that the LDCs walked out of the COP meeting in protest, NPR carried a story entitled “Poor Countries Push Rich Nations to do More on Climate Change”. Commitments for finance have been slow in coming causing the developing nations to question whether the industrialized nations take the negotiations process seriously. But the funding proposal mentioned above did come with strings; it was contingent on meaningful action towards mitigation (pledges to reduce greenhouse gases) by all countries – not just the Annex I (developed, rich nations) countries.  In a second NPR story from this past Wednesday on the tensions between rich and poor nations at the climate meeting reported Richard Harris stated:

And I might add that about half of all carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has come from the developing world. That includes coal burning in China and deforestation in Indonesia and Brazil.

The spin coming out of Warsaw yesterday:

The Adaptation Fund Surpasses $100 Million Fundraising Target at COP19!
New commitments from Austria, Belgium & Regions, Finland, France, Germany, Norway, Switzerland (Warsaw, Poland, 22 November 2013): The Adaptation Fund has received strong support from the international community at the COP19 in Warsaw, Poland, with commitments for $ 72.5 million in funding from seven European governments, bringing its total raised in a major fundraising push to US$ 104.3 million. The governments of Sweden and the Brussels Capital Region earlier contributed US$ 31.8 million toward the goal.

Strong support?  Really?  That is $100 million (with an "m" not a "b").  For comparison purposes, JP Morgan, a single banking entity, agreed this week to pay $13 billion (that's with a "b") in a settlement over faulty mortgage assets it sold in the years leading up to the financial crisis as a big victory for the judicial system. (See the story here.)

The constant threat of financial crises and economic recession in developed nations is frequently held up as reasons why countries cannot make greater commitments to the various funds and finance mechanisms discussed at COP meetings. Yet what about the countries that have never climbed high enough out of poverty to know what a recession is?

This week (November 20th) Melissa Block of NPR interviewed Munjurul Hannan Khan, a Bangladeshi negotiator and spokesman for what's called the Least Developed Countries group at the talks.

[Melissa Block]: What is the argument by which rich countries should have to compensate developing countries, such as your own, for the losses that you've described due to climate change?

[Khan]: First, they [developed, industrialized nations] have to accept the reality. Realities on the ground that people are suffering, and the realities on the ground that we cannot do anything by - only by adaptation or only by mitigations. So there are some things called residual impacts. These residuals impacts need special attention that we are seeing called loss and damage.

A premise that has long been part of the UNFCCC deliberations is the “Polluter pays principle”, but a long-running debate is whether developed nations should be responsible for historical emissions. Another problem is that you cannot necessarily link specific weather events like Typhoon Haiyan to climate change. So how and when would allocations from a “loss and damage” fund be distributed? And who gets to decide? 

In some cases, the link between an observed impact and climate change are clearer -- such as warming global temperatures leading to sea level rise (due to melting of glaciers and polar ice caps, ice loss from Greenland and West Antarctica, and expansion of water as it warms).

[Mr Khan]: The whole coastal area is - salinity intrusion is so high, they couldn't do their agricultural practice. They couldn't actually get their livelihood support from that area.

Some like to question models and scientific predictions.   I am not sure why.  The weather patterns and other impacts (loss of sea ice, rising sea levels, etc.) are behaving as predicted by the Global Climate Models.  And the warming trend continues:  October 2013 was 344th consecutive month of above average global temperatures.

If you go to the website for the Green Climate Fund (GCF) you will find this at the top of the homepage:

The urgency and seriousness of climate change call for ambition in financing adaptation and mitigation.

Ambition has been a common (and hopeful) word at the past few COP meetings.  Continuing from the website:

The purpose of the Green Climate Fund is to make a significant and ambitious contribution to the global efforts towards attaining the goals set by the international community to combat climate change.

Say what?

The Fund will contribute to the achievement of the ultimate objective of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). In the context of sustainable development, the Fund will promote the paradigm shift towards low-emission and climate-resilient development pathways by providing support to developing countries to limit or reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and to adapt to the impacts of climate change, taking into account the needs of those developing countries particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change.

A GCF press release from earlier this week:

(Warsaw, Poland, 19 November 2013) – The Green Climate Fund announced today that is on track towards completing the final steps that will enable it to mobilize funding and start its operations.

Hmmm.  On track?  More spin?

And a final thought from the interview between NPR's Melissa Block and the negotiator, Mr. Khan, from Bangladesh (Todd Stern is the U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change):

[BLOCK]: Todd Stern is also saying here, the fiscal reality, as he put it, of the United States and the other developed countries is not going to allow this. The money simply isn't there.

[KHAN]: If you would like to compare Bangladesh with the U.S.A., we are so poor. Our poor people is really trying hard to get the next meal. But in case of the developed country, it's the question of compromising the lifestyle. In our case, it's a question of survival. (emphasis added) 

Lately, I have been once again pondering the work of British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow, especially The Two Cultures - from an influential and controversial 1959 Rede Lecture delivered in the Senate House, Cambridge.  Essentially, his thesis was that "the intellectual life of the whole western society" was split into two cultures -- the sciences and humanities -- and he lamented that this was a major hindrance to solving the world's problems.

Fifty years later in 2009, Peter Dizikes was reflecting on this work in the New York Times:

So why did Snow think the supposed gulf between the two cultures was such a problem? Because, he argues in the latter half of his essay, it leads many capable minds to ignore science as a vocation, which prevents us from solving the world’s “main issue,” the wealth gap caused by industrialization, which threatens global stability. “This disparity between the rich and the poor has been noticed . . . most acutely and not unnaturally, by the poor.”

I think Mr. Khan and many others from the LDCs would agree.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

What leadership looks like

There is typically more controversy and conflict than progress at the annual U.N. climate conferences.  Sometimes, the controversy can surround the choice of host country; for example, last year, COP18 was held in the oil-rich country of Qatar.  The 19th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 19) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Warsaw has been no exception in terms of controversy. 

As noted in an earlier post ("Oil and Gas-loving Qatar and now Coal-Dependent Poland Hosts of COP"), Poland relies heavily on coal as an energy source and the Polish prime minister has stated that “hard coal and lignite -- and soon shale gas -- will remain our principal energy sources. That's where the future of the energy sector lies.” Several sponsorships of COP19 had links to the fossil fuel industry.  Warsaw even chose to co-host the International Coal and Climate Summit (ICCS), at a time that coincided with COP19.

Many were upset by this odd juxtaposition of events, both of which appeared to be equally welcomed in the city.  For many, even more perplexing was that UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres had agreed to speak at this Coal Summit.  Perhaps the greatest frustration was expressed by the UNFCCC’s youth constituent, YOUNGO, which decided to send Ms. Figueres an open letter forcing a choice of attending either their Global Climate Youth Meeting or the Coal Summit.  The Executive Secretary chose to attend the latter.  The frustration of the youth is clearly evident in some of the social media updates from last week (for example, see references 1-3 below).

The ultimatum send by the youth and the fact that some of them walked out on Ms. Figueres when she attended the Inter-generational Inquiry held later in the first week of COP19 were, to me, both understandable and disappointing.  I admire the passion and activism of the international youth that I have witnessed at COP meetings over the past five years -- far more engagement than I see from most of my students on environmental or social issues.  Many of these youth will likely be future leaders in climate policy development and activism.  However, I don't approve of the youth that rudely walked out of the inter-generational event when the Executive Secretary was speaking, especially if you have ever heard the heart-felt comments and support that Ms. Figueres has previously provided to the youth -- the generation that will likely feel the full brunt of climate change.  I think that this was recognized by some (see here).

I would hope that the YOUNGO members can understand why it might be important for the Executive Secretariat to speak to the coal industry.  Indeed, Ms. Figueres argued that it was important to confront the enemy, if you will, rather than to ignore their existence.  I agree with her, but realize that it isn't always easy to stand up to those who have a different world view.

Christiana Figueres did speak at the Coal Summit this week, and the text of her speech was widely distributed.  It is worth reading, so I have copied the text verbatim below.  Her comments confirm my observations over the past five years that Ms. Figueres is an extremely intelligent, brave, articulate, and diplomatic leader.  And added plus (from my perspective) is her understanding of science, and willingness to use it as ammunition in her efforts to address the global climate change issue.  I am not certain that I could have stood up to the coal industry in this manner, but I applaud the Executive Secretary for doing so.

And maybe, just maybe, having these international summits coincide in time and location is having an unexpected result.  Just this morning in Warsaw, the UK climate secretary Ed Davey announced that the UK would join other countries and large financial institutions in ending international financing for coal projects (4).


Full speech by UN climate chief Christiana Figueres to World Climate and Coal summit in Warsaw

Your Excellency, Mr. Deputy Prime Minister, Honourable Member of the European Parliament, Distinguished Chair of the World Coal Association, Ladies and Gentlemen, I appreciate the opportunity to address the International Coal and Climate Summit in a frank and honest exchange on the transition to a low-emission economy.

Let me be clear from the outset that my joining you today is neither a tacit approval of coal use, nor a call for the immediate disappearance of coal. But I am here to say that coal must change rapidly and dramatically for everyone’s sake.

There are some who, deeply concerned about the devastating effects of climate change already felt by vulnerable populations around the world, are calling for the immediate shut down of all coal plants. There are others who think that coal does not have to change at all, that we can continue to extract and burn as we have done in the past.

The first view does not take into account the immediate needs of nations looking to provide reliable energy to rapidly growing populations in pursuit of economic development and poverty eradication. The second view does not take into account the immediate need for climate stability on this planet, necessary for the wellbeing of present and future generations.

Today I want to set out an alternative path that is admittedly not easy, but is undoubtedly necessary. That path must acknowledge the past, consider the present and chart a path towards an acceptable future for all. I join you today to discuss this path for two reasons. First, the energy sector is an intrinsic component of a sustainable future. And second, the coal industry must change and you are decision makers who have the knowledge and power to change the way the world uses coal.

The path forward begins in the past, recognizing that coal played a key role in the history of our economic development. From heating to transportation to the provision of electricity, coal has undoubtedly enabled much of our progress over the last 200 years. Coal was at the heart of the developed world’s Industrial Revolution and brought affordable energy to the developing world.

However, while society has benefitted from coal-fuelled development, we now know there is an unacceptably high cost to human and environmental health. The science is clear. The IPCC Fifth Assessment Report outlines our predicament. We are at unprecedented GHG concentrations in the atmosphere; our carbon budget is half spent. If we continue to meet energy needs as we have in the past, we will overshoot the internationally agreed goal to limit warming to less than two degree Celsius.

AR5 is not science fiction, it is science fact. AR5 is the overwhelming consensus of 200 lead authors synthesizing the work of 600 scientists who analysed 9000 peer-reviewed publications. AR5 is arguably the most rigorous scientific report ever written. And, the findings of the AR5 have been endorsed by 195 governments, including all of those in which you operate.

There is no doubt that the science is a clarion call for the rapid transformation of the coal industry. Just this morning, more than 25 leading climate and energy scientists from around the world released a clear statement about the need to radically rethink coal’s place in our energy mix.

Considering that coal energy loads the atmosphere with greenhouse gasses, competes for water and impacts public health, the call of science has already been answered by a wide gamut of stakeholders: Students, faith-based organizations and citizens are asking their investment managers to divest from coal and other fossil fuels. Cities choked by air pollution are limiting the burning of coal. Development banks have stopped funding unabated coal.

Commercial financial institutions are analysing the implications of unburnable carbon for their investment strategies. Pricing of GHG emissions is on the rise, evidenced by trading markets coming online around the globe. And, international policy is moving us toward a global low-emission economy. All of this tells me that the coal industry faces a business continuation risk that you can no longer afford to ignore.

Like any other industry, you have a fiduciary responsibility to your workforce and your shareholders. Like any other industry, you are subject to the major political, economic and social shifts of our time. And by now it should be abundantly clear that further capital expenditures on coal can go ahead only if they are compatible with the two degree Celsius limit.

Ladies and gentlemen, the coal industry has the opportunity to be part of the worldwide climate solution by responding proactively to the current paradigm shift. It would be presumptuous of me to put forward a transition plan for coal as you are the repositories of knowledge and experience, and the assets you manage are at stake.

But there are some fundamental parameters of this transition:

  • Close all existing subcritical plants;
  • Implement safe CCUS on all new plants, even the most efficient;
  • Leave most existing reserves in the ground.

These are not marginal or trivial changes, these are transformations that go to the core of the coal industry, and many will say it simply cannot be done. But the phrase “where there’s a will, there’s a way” is tantamount to human history because will precedes innovation, and innovation precedes transformation. John F. Kennedy called for putting man on the moon in ten years at a point when no one knew how that would be done.

We must transform coal with the same determination, the same perseverance, the same will. We must be confident that if we set an ambitious course to low-emissions, science and technology will rapidly transform systems. Above all, you must invest in this potential, because the coal industry has the most to gain by leveraging the existing capital, knowledge and capacity to transform itself. The world is rising to meet the climate challenge as risks of inaction mount, and it is in your best interest to make coal part of the solution. These radical changes have the transformative power to bring coal in line with the direction in which society is moving.

I urge every coal company to honestly assess the financial risks of business as usual; anticipate increasing regulation, growing finance restrictions and diminishing public acceptance; and leverage technology to reduce emissions across the entire coal value chain. You are here today as coal industry leaders, but you can also understand yourselves as long-term energy supply leaders. Some major oil, gas and energy technology companies are already investing in renewables, and I urge those of you who have not yet started to join them.

By diversifying your portfolio beyond coal, you too can produce clean energy that reduces pollution, enhances public health, increases energy security and creates new jobs. By diversifying beyond coal, you reduce the risk of stranded assets and make yourselves ready to reap the rewards of a green economy. By diversifying beyond coal, you can deploy your disciplined, courageous and technically skilled workforce into new renewable energy jobs, transforming your companies from within.

The Warsaw Communique is a first step for change because it shows:
  • That the Association accepts climate change as a development risk; and
  • That lower coal emissions is an aspirational and realizable goal.
The communique is a first step, but it cannot be the last. I invite you to use this Climate and Coal Summit to decide how you are going to step up to the challenge of contributing to real climate change solutions. We must urgently take the steps that put us on an ambitious path to global peaking by the end of this decade, and zero-net emissions by the second half of the century.

Steps that look past next quarter’s bottom line and see next generation’s bottom line, and steps to figure health, security and sustainability into the bottom line. For it will be your children and my children, our grandchildren and their grandchildren who will look back at today and judge our collective commitment to them.

They must be able to look back and recognize this summit as a historic turning point for the coal industry.


Saturday, November 16, 2013

Science meets politics

Back in graduate school, I was solely focused on science, my laboratory research -- a total geek, I guess you could say. Our lab investigated carbon-concentrating mechanisms in algae and studied how photosynthetic organisms responded to environmental stress, including how plants would respond to increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. I remember my thesis advisor saying this work would be important some day, but at the time, people weren’t yet talking about global climate change.

At that time, I was fairly apolitical, tuned out from most world events except for major ones like the Challenger explosion. I couldn’t understand why my lab mates listened to NPR all the time. Little did I know that I would someday find myself in the middle of international climate change debates and politics. But here I am in Warsaw, attending my fifth COP (Conference of the Parties) – the annual meeting under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

I am a member of RINGOs – the Research and Independent NGO constituency group, one of nine officially recognized by the UNFCCC Secretariat. Each day of the COP, we meet at 9:00 a.m. to review progress in the negotiations, to share what we are hearing in the hallways, and to network. It is a roomful of researchers – natural, physical, and social scientists, along with engineers, some lawyers and others. Many of us wonder how we ended up here, in arena of world politics. Most of us realize that it is because the scientific data scares us into action.

I came across this article today, about Dr. Michael Mann from Penn State, a scientist who has really been thrown into the political arena, and certainly not by choice. I suggest you read it.

Michael Mann has authored two books with interesting titles:
  • Dire Predictions: Understanding Global Warming - The Illustrated Guide to the Findings of the IPCC and
  • The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines.
The late Stephen Schneider, another world-famous climate scientist and 1992 MacArthur Genius Award winner was the author of several books. The one that caught my attention was written in 2009:

Science as a Contact Sport: Inside the Battle to Save the Earth's Climate.

Our delegation met Dr. Schneider at COP15 in Copenhagen and he told us stories of the early days of climate science and of the countless death threats that he received. Simply for researching and writing about climate science.

Stephen Schneider speaking at a COP15 event

Dr. Schneider and James Balog (geologist, mountaineer, photographer) meet
with Moravian students and faculty at COP15.  Balog has recently produced
Chasing Ice after going to extremes to capture video of glacier retreat
and major glacial calving events
Many people have heard of Dr. James Hansen, a scientist who recently retired from NASA and affiliated with Columbia University. In 1988, he gave testimony to congressional committees that helped raise awareness of climate change; under the Bush administration, his reports on the topic were famously red-lined by government officials (see, for instance, the NPR story at ).

Moravian students with Dr. James Hansen at a PennFuture event
Nowadays, people might know him best for his activism, and indeed, he has been arrested a few times. He is also an author of a book published in 2009 entitled:

Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth about the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity.

I often wonder what turns brilliant scientists, who are normally extremely focused and objective, into authors of books with such apocalyptic titles, or even into activists. The countless scientists that I have met throughout my career are not prone to hyperbole, or acting like “chicken little”.

Many of the young researchers who came to the RINGOs meeting this week said that they wanted a “home” within the COP meetings that wasn’t focused on climate activism such as the YOUNGOs (youth constituency) and ENGOs (the constituency for environmental organizations) are known for. But yet, all of these people also expressed frustration with the process and slow progress made in negotiations.  We wish that the sense of urgency noted in the recent reports of the science-based IPCC reports and the books of renown climate scientists would infect the negotiations process. Will activism make this happen?

Yesterday, three undergraduates who are chemistry majors and representing the American Chemical Society (1) went with me to the Maria Sklodowska-Curie Museum. We were surprised to see a quote attributed to her, apparently part of a speech given at the League of Nations, which seemed so relevant for those of us attending the UNFCCC meetings this week.

I understand that international cooperation is a very difficult task, but it must be undertaken even if it requires immense effort and genuine devotion.

I do not know the context of this, but I am intrigued at this hint that other scientists were thinking about international cooperation a very long time ago. I wonder how this was received at the time, especially from a female scientist, albeit a two-time Nobel Prize winner.

1.  Note:  These students are blogging at .  They are beginning their foray into climate change politics much earlier than I did in my career.

With respect to confrontation...

Confrontation has had a comeuppance here in Warsaw.  Immediately following Yeb Sano’s impassioned statement on Monday, there was an apparently spontaneous chant of “We stand with you!”  that was quickly squelched.  Three students later unfurled a supportive banner and were then banned for 5 years from any UN climate talks.  They and other youth seem to be holding a grudge against the system. 

In a separate stream, there has been a lot of anti-Polish sentiment due to: Poland’s impeding the European Union’s climate efforts, their co-hosting a Coal Summit coinciding with the COP, their inviting polluting companies to sponsor the COP, and to anticipate greedily the economic opportunities presenting themselves in a melting Arctic -- to name but a few.  On the other side, there is a nicely published book about Poland called the Black Paper.

While being interviewed, a question was posed to the (Polish) president of the COP, Marcin Korolec, about making progress and bringing this whole series of conferences to a satisfactory conclusion while raising some of the above-mentioned facts.  Mr. Korolec pointed out that pointing out blame and shaming people was not apt to yield positive results, and that, indeed, we ought to try to be sympathetic to all sides so that at the very end all parties are willing to sign on and not block a final agreement.  

It gives one food for thought.

InFocus: Health Care (and Climate Change)

As has often been noted, the four themes for InFocus at Moravian are interconnected:  Poverty, Sustainability, Health Care, and War & Peace.  Climate change is related to all four areas.  On Thursday, one of the themes of the COP had to do with the health impacts of climate change, and on Friday afternoon, the US Center hosted a panel on the topic. 

The panel “Health Adaptation in the United States and Around the World” was led by Dr. John Balbus, the Senior Advisor for Public Health at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS).  A 2010 report thoroughly lists the many different impacts on health from climate change, ranging from the direct impacts of weather events (heat waves, storms, etc.) to biological agents (microbes, vector-borne diseases, etc.).  An overview of health concerns around the world can be found here.

Of interest to researchers, the Obama administration has also made the online resource MATCH (Metadata Access Tool for Climate and Health) publicly available.  One of the goals of MATCH is to provide “relevant Federal metadata on climate and health that will increase efficiency in solving research problems.”  Remembering that Dr. John Snow (1813-1858) discovered that cholera was transmitted through water by using a dot map showing clusters of cholera cases and overlapping that with maps of the water supply system, it seems like there should be possibilities for student research as we focus on Health this year!

The U.S. Center at UNFCCC

Each year, the U.S. sponsors a U.S. Center site with extensive programming the COP meetings.

The most up-to-date data from satellites, computer modeling, and other cool technology are typically on display on a "Hyper-wall" . 

The images are striking; the scientific messages behind the images can be frightening.

Global Temperature Anomalies Over Time
Ice Flows in Antarctica
The interactive "Science on the Sphere" was used at COP15 in Copenhagen; you can see great programming on one of these spheres at the Nurture Nature Center in Easton.

I am struck by the ongoing denial of climate change that is widely reported on in the media (for instance see vs. the strong data that exists in support of climate change and its impacts world-wide generated by international collaborations and analyzed by top scientists in the U.S. at NOAA, NASA, and within academe.

From the link above:

A new report by Cook et al. (2013) examined nearly 12,000 peer-reviewed papers in the climate science literature; the analysis found that 97% of the papers that stated a position on the reality of human-caused global warming said that global warming is happening and human-caused, at least in part.

The Working Group I section of the 5th Assessment Report (AR5) of the IPCC that was released in September states that it is extremely likely that climate change is being impacted by humans (over 95% confidence).

At each event at the U.S. Center, the facilitator introduces the programming as part of a "public outreach and diplomacy initiative" by the United States.  It is evident that they pride themselves on their extraordinary data and technological capabilities in climate research and clean energy technologies.

The U.S. State Department has an extensive set of reports related to climate change and our country's negotiating positions which have been submitted here at COP19 (see link below).  I wonder how many citizens know about the positions that we take? I encourage you to take a look.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Climate Refugees: “Crossing the Sahara on Foot”

Africa has seen some extremes in climate disasters – the flooding last year contrasted with the recent droughts.  In 2012, I visited Kenya and wrote about the impacts of climate change on the Maasai.  At a side event on Climate Migrants this week, one of the African delegates in the audience talked about the strong ties Africans have to the land. He noted that “no young person wants to leave their ancestral land, but they are having no choice.  Young people are trying to cross the Sahara on foot – to get to Europe. “ 

The IPCC report of 1990 acknowledged that migration might be the greatest single consequence of climate change, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that “by 2050, between 250 million and one billion people might be forced to move due to climate change.”  Ziaul Haque Mukta, Regional Policy Coordinator from Oxfam Asia, gave the keynote talk, starting by highlighting recent forced migration events: Philippines (Typhoon Haiyan: 600,000 evacuated, over 10 million people affected); Papua New Guinea (Carteret Islands: 1000 permanently relocated due to storm erosion and salt water intrusion); India (Lohachara Island: 10,000 evacuated due to island being entirely submerged); Bangladesh (Bhola Island, 500,000 homeless due to half of island being submerged).  In the United States, Hurricane Katrina temporarily displaced over a million people in 2005.

Currently, migration is part of the Loss and Damage discussion, but the panel urged that Climate Forced Migration should be treated as a stand alone issue with its own legal framework.  They called on the developed countries to “own up to their historic responsibility,” referring to historic greenhouse gas emissions.  They continued: “We can no longer wait. …  Justice demands that, and they have to be fair to all.“

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Will Moral Arguments Suffice?

Not likely.

I sit in these meetings in Poland and listen to civil society cry out moral arguments – strong justifications for developing a multilateral agreement aimed both at reducing the risks of climate change and providing assistance for those either suffering the impacts of a destabilized climate or needing help to build resilience and adapt to the changes that are coming (or are already occurring).

Based on the lack of headway we see in negotiations which, incidentally, have been going on since the early 1990s, to civil society it seems as if policymakers focus not on moral arguments, but rather politics, economic considerations, and historic international tensions. Yet as I talked with some negotiators today who were incredibly bright and extremely informed about the issues, I found them to be passionate about finding a “way out of the stalled process” and more than a little frustrated about the lack of progress being made. I asked them why they keep at it, and they consistently indicated that they still believe in the importance of this process. Their reasons vary. Most believe that real transformation will actually come – and is happening -- at the local and regional levels, but they feel that these changes wouldn’t happen without the on-going international focus on the urgency and severity of the problem.

I saw examples of extremely complicated modelling today. These analyses are used to determine the percent reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that are needed by 2030 from different country blocks in order to keep global surface temperatures from rising above 2 degrees Celsius. In addition, they try to factor in equity – a nebulous concept, but one that incorporates historical responsibility for emissions, capacity to change (financially, technologically, etc.) and sustainable development needs. Explaining all that would take a separate post. These models indicate that developed nations like the U.S. and western European countries (the OECD block), need to have a reduction of 40% of 1990 levels of greenhouse gas emissions. Impossible, I thought.

I heard examples of how some in Africa are trying to model the costs of adaptation depending on whether global temperatures increase by 1, or 2, or 3 degrees Celsius (the latter would put us into conditions previously not experienced by our species). Such information might be used to counter the arguments that we cannot afford to put regulations in place (loss of jobs, economic impact that will slow growth, etc.). The information could be used for a risk-benefit or cost-benefit analysis, if you will. In these models, the benefits lie in avoiding costs associated with extreme weather damage and destruction. Information on the costs of such events can be plugged into simulations since we have data on the economic impact of recent major storms, and IPCC reports and weather data can be used to estimate how many extreme events might occur in any given year. An interesting effort, but it falls short of truly understanding the cost of inaction.

The impacts of climate change will be much more complex and have greater costs than the estimated loss and damages associated with severe storms like the recent typhoon that hit the Philippines. They will affect water availability, food security, public health, etc. in ways we cannot precisely predict. Add to that all the unknown ways in which ecosystems will respond to climate change and, in turn, impact not only wildlife and habitat, but also ecosystem services that humans rely on every day, but rarely think about. Externalities, by definition, are not factored into economic equations. But for some of these climate change impacts, it is impossible to add a projected price tag, and thus, we cannot accurately determine the cost of business as usual. I am beginning to think that we do need to start putting dollar figures on nature – species, ecosystem services, and human lives. And we certainly need a lot more monitoring to learn how our ecosystems and agricultural systems are responding to climate change. But neither of those tasks will be easy.

And meanwhile, elsewhere in the COP, there are on-going discussions of market mechanisms (to offset carbon emissions by developed nations), distributive and procedural justice concerns about proposed initiatives in adaptation, land grabs, and enthusiasm about new financial opportunities opening up as the Arctic ice sheets melt and reveal potential new wells of resources – further exploitation of the poor and the planet.

Throughout the past two days, I have been doing some work related to our campus LINC (general education) curriculum as I sit in the climate meetings. We recently changed our requirements (lessening them) to allow more flexibility for students to take other, non-prescribed electives. The categories most impacted were what we refer to at Moravian College as U1 and U2 – the social impact of science and reflections on a moral life, the U referring to upper level. Students used to have to take one of each, but now can get by with only one. Yet as I ponder what is needed to solve complex global issues like climate change, I question this curricular change. Students with a solid grounding in ethical decision making and science (our U1 and U2 categories) are what we need more of.  And they need a good dose of global understanding, of world views that aren’t the same as ours.

Science and moral arguments are not sufficient, but without them, we don’t stand a chance.

"When I Was Ten"

Obviously, the Co-Chair of the contact group for Loss and Damage, Robert Van Lierop (representing St. Kitts and Nevis) was a bit older than ten when, in 1991, he recommended tabling the issue of Loss and Damage.  This astonishing admission came about when the G-77/China group mentioned that this topic wasn’t new to Doha last year, but had actually been in the works for three years.  The representative of Nauru has a longer memory, and she mentioned that the topic was first mentioned at Bali in 1991, and that the co-chair of this current meeting was responsible for tabling it.  In the interest of full disclosure, Van Lierop acknowledged the misstep, and, in a humbling moment, said he tabled the motion “when I was ten.” 

To be fair, in 1991, the severe impacts of climate change were being considered more as a theoretical possibility, and not as something absolutely certain. The first IPCC report had just been published in 1990, which served as the basis for the UNFCCC meetings. But for the past few COP meetings, climate change impacts are clearly a reality, and Loss and Damage is an important topic.

The first meeting of the contact group was open to observers, but will quickly change to closed meetings for the duration of COP 19.  Bolivia, speaking on behalf of China and the G77 has urged the group to quickly start working on the text itself, rather than spending time on speeches and rhetoric. In good faith, they submitted a text hours earlier and sent it ahead to the other parties.  The Co-Chair acknowledged the submitted text, along with two others: those submitted by the EU and Switzerland/Norway.  However, no texts were available at the time of the meeting for discussion, and opening statements were made as usual.

All of the representatives who spoke conveyed their thoughts and prayers to the people of the Philippines. The United States representative spoke of the $20 million of humanitarian assistance already committed to the Philippines, along with the pre-positioned team coordinating help efforts. She also recognized the existential threat to low-lying islands for a variety of reasons.  There is a broad range of issues that are part of Loss and Damage, including mitigation, assistance, and migration. A comprehensive report about the various aspects of this important issue can be found here.

At this point, only the text by China and the G77 is posted online at the UNFCCC site.  This is an issue that will be carefully watched by the developing countries and the NGOs.  The developing countries strongly believe that they need to have a system in place to address loss and damage, and they are looking beyond ad hoc humanitarian responses which are are “appreciated but not adequate.”

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Workshops and Workstreams

Even after five years, there is much to be confused about at the COP meetings between all the acronyms, jargon, and complicated governance frameworks. There are contact groups, informal consultations, open-ended consultations, meetings, workstreams, work programmes (yes, the British spelling is correct), workshops, daily programmes (that change several times a day), briefings, official documents, informal papers, and even non-papers. (I am not kidding about that one!) Plus, some of these sessions are open to observers (civil society) one day, but not the next. Week one is an intense work week as different groups collect data and ideas to draft language and plans for moving forward. When the high-level segment commences on Tuesday of week #2, high ranking ministers and heads of states use these materials, but have also been known to scrap all the work and start from scratch at the negotiating table. Science seems so much easier (and more logical) than this multilateral policy stuff!

This year, there seems to be an unusual number of workshops. I have been to three already, and it is only day #3. I went to one last year, which was the first I ever recall seeing on the agenda, err, I mean daily programme. In subsequent posts, I will elaborate on the content of the three workshops I attended on
  • “Issues related to agriculture” (as mandated in paragraph 83 of FCCC/SBSTA/2013/3);
  • "Gender and climate change”; and
  • “Lessons learned from relevant experience of other multilateral environmental agreements.”
When I was a graduate student in the 1980s, our lab worked on the impact of increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide on photosynthesis in algae and plants. This information had implications for crop yields (agricultural productivity), and we knew that different types of plants (C3 vs C4; I won’t bother you with the biochemical details) respond differently to increasing carbon dioxide availability. During those graduate school years (1981 – 1986), carbon dioxide levels went from 338 to 346 ppm. This year the levels hover around 400 ppm. As the implications of rising greenhouse gases became more apparent, scientists realized that there would be many impacts on agriculture.

Yet despite the wealth of scientific publications around this issue, it wasn’t until COP17 in Durban, South Africa (2011) that text was adopted that enabled (mandated) a dialogue about agricultural impacts and adaptation. This was assigned to a working group within the SBSTA framework, and plans were made to hold this workshop – now two years later.

What is SBSTA (besides one of the many IPCCC acronyms)? Following the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol, two bodies were set up to deal with the technical discussions. The Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (or SBSTA) is one of these. And alas, agriculture is one of the issues that now falls under this group’s auspices.

At COP18 in Doha, issues of women and gender were front and center (oddly enough in a country where women’s rights are a bit different than what we are accustomed to in the United States). Concerns centered on the fact that, globally, women are disproportionately impacted by climate change for many reasons, yet the policy work related to the environmental problem is negotiated mainly by men. Two important decisions were adopted which “promote gender balance and improving the participation of women in Convention negotiations and in the representation of the Parties in bodies established under the Convention or the Kyoto Protocol.” The work to implement these decisions fell to the SBI, the Subsidiary Body for Implementation – the group that advises the COP (Conference of the Parties) on “improving the effective application of the Convention and the Kyoto Protocol”.

The third workshop was organized by yet another group – the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action or ADP. This new working group was established in 2011 in Durban (sometimes things make sense) and is charged with adopting an agreement by 2015 to be implemented in 2020, effectively replacing the Kyoto Protocol. Given the difficulties in achieving consensus on pretty much anything – details of mitigation (reducing the causes of climate change), adaptation (learning to live under a new climate regime and increasing resiliency), and financing things like technology transfer, a Green Climate Fund, or loss and damage resulting from historic, current, and future emissions – this new group is looking elsewhere for ideas. In this workshop, representatives from other successful multilateral agreements related to the environment shared their models of decision making and implementation. These included CITES (an agreement related to endangered species and international trade), an agreement under the Stockholm Convention related to Persistent Organic Pollutants (the “dirty dozen” and other toxic compounds), and the Montreal Protocol that addresses the phase out of ozone-depleting chemicals that degrade the stratospheric ozone layer.

If you are still following along, you should know that these items represent only a small percentage of the work that goes on at a COP meeting!

A panel discussion during the "Gender and Climate Change" workshop

Note:  I am grateful to the Organization Internationale de la Francophonie for their extremely value resources including the "Guide to the Negotiations for COP 19 and CMP 9 (#13), and "Background Analysis".  These resources are handy references and contain detailed analysis on the history and status of negotiations.