11 September, 2009

Global warming: are we heading to a doomsday scenario?

Sergio Abranches

Chief US Climate negotiator Todd Stern’s statement at the House Select Committee for Energy Independence and Global Warming that “the tenor of negotiations in the formal U.N. track has been difficult,” was only the most recent warning of a dimming prospect for an effective deal in Copenhagen.

Stern also urged the US Senate to “do its part to move this process forward in a timely manner. Nothing the United States can do is more important for the international negotiation process than passing robust, comprehensive clean energy legislation as soon as possible.”

Meanwhile, new scientific evidence, and stronger scientific warnings indicate we are approaching a point of no return on global warming. The Royal Society recently issued a report saying that “it is likely that global warming will exceed 2°C this century unless global greenhouse gas emissions are cut by at least 50% of 1990 levels by 2050, and by more thereafter.” The report adds that “unless future efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are much more successful then they have been so far, additional action may be required should it become necessary to cool the Earth this century.” We’ll need a “Plan B”, involving geoengineering, “the deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth’s climate system, in order to moderate global warming.”

The Royal Society calls for substantial research funding to study the use and consequences of geoengineering. It proposes the development of “a code of practice for geoengineering research,” and provides recommendations for a voluntary research governance framework. John Shepherd, who chaired the Royal Society study, said geoengineering may become “the only option left to limit further temperature increases.”

This outlook points to a “tragic choice” between the climatic consequences of unmitigated global warming, and the risks of geoengineering. Shepherd noted that their research “found that some geoengineering techniques could have serious unintended and detrimental effects on many people and ecosystems.”

One of the panels I sat at the American Political Science Association’s Annual Meeting, in Toronto (September 3-6), was on “Geoengineering and Global Order.” Political Scientist and author Thomas F. Homer-Dixon, of the University of Waterloo, pointed out that, since the drivers of global warming are stronger than mitigating factors, “the precautionary principle requires us to aggressively research geoengineering and be prepared to use it extensively.” He recommends we make sure we have all arrows in our quiver, and geoengineering is one of them.

Physicist Jason Blackstock, a Research Scholar at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, cautions that there is significant uncertainty on the spatial and temporal response of the most promising geoengineering technologies, making their near-term deployment extraordinarily risky.

The methods the scientific community considers the most promising are Shortwave Climate Engineering. According to Blackstock basic physical science, exploratory climate modeling, and the impacts of volcanic aerosols on climate all suggest that this method could partially compensate for some effects of increased atmospheric CO2, particularly net global warming. Existing data “also reveal important limits to the range of CO2 impacts that it could ameliorate.”

Blackstock argues for increased research on the possibilities and risks of geoengineering, since we might need to use it as a last resort. Undesirable consequences will, however, be unavoidable, and they’ll do more harm to countries in the tropical belt, that are not interested or cannot afford to study these methods of intervention in the climate system.

The conclusion is that “we might have to choose another type of climate change instead of the one we’re now heading to.” This sort of “tragic choice dilemma” requires a prompt answer to the unsolved problems regarding the international governance of geoengineering research. He argued we need to start studying fast and efficiently who does this research; how, when, under which conditions, and by whom this knowledge will be appropriated and used.

Blackstock is co-author of the report “Climate Engineering Responses to Climate Emergencies,” indicating that “the climate system might be inherently too complex—and therefore the possibility of ‘unanticipated harmful side effects’ too large—for any intentional human intervention to ever be considered safe.” A point he has also stressed on his presentation at the APSA panel. Another relevant risk from geoengineering is moral hazard: that it can be perceived as a substitute for greenhouse gases emissions reduction and serve as a justification to delay action. The “climate skeptics” are already defending this solution. Additionally, “significant international tensions might emerge surrounding who gets to define what the ‘optimum’ climate should be,” the report says.

Are we really heading towards this catastrophic scenario, where we’ll have to choose the climate change we have been causing with our GHG emissions, or the climate change we’ll generate by trying to engineer the climate system?

If the rate of emissions does not come radically down within the next three to four decades, the answer is likely to be yes. Some analysts are convinced we can no longer avoid a climatic cataclysm. At the panel “Adapting to or Avoiding Doomsday: Dealing with Climate Change”, also at APSA, Wolfgang Brauner, political scientist of the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, suggested that even “maximum mitigation is unlikely to avoid catastrophic climate change”, and it would “overwhelm the adaptive capacity and resilience of social, political and economic systems.” We would be facing a likely temperature rise around 4oC, moving essentially into uncharted territory.

This scenario seems too pessimistic, but the fact is that we are not making any progress so far to avoid it. I talked at the panel “It is not easy going green,” about how it would be advantageous to Brazil to build a low carbon economy. The costs of this conversion would be comparatively low because of the country’s relatively clean energy matrix, and most of its emissions come from deforestation and degradation. Yet, the dominant political and business elite resists such change.

Wei Liang, from the Monterey Institute of International Studies, showed that, in spite of the environmental costs the country is facing, the Chinese government will not take any steps to join a climate deal that might impair the country’s development over the short run.

In the US, the Senate has delayed action on the climate bill. The US Chief Climate Negotiator says negotiations are at a dangerous standstill. This is also the opinion of UK Foreign Secretary, David Miliband. A few days ago he has warned of a “real danger that negotiations to tackle climate change could collapse, with catastrophic consequences.”

Looking at the very few panels dedicated to climate change at the APSA meeting, one might get the impression that US political science deems it to be the greater challenge of our time. This is not the case. APSA’s president, Peter Katzenstein, didn’t even mention it on his “presidential address”. He lectured the audience on: “Those People: Contrasting Perspectives on World Politics.” It is fair to suppose he talked about the most relevant issues on world politics. Climate change was not among those issues. Not one of the plenary sessions was dedicated to the discussion of climate change. Of the 1082 papers uploaded to the

Social Science Research Network’s site dedicated to the meeting, less than 1% dealt with the global warming challenge.

It seems the establishment of the US political science does not consider global warming and its climatic consequences to be a core problem to be addressed by the discipline as a whole. The notion that the US should lead talks towards an ambitious climate change deal is at odds with the apparent alienation of its political science establishment regarding the most dangerous governance problem of the 21st century.  As we know, the academic political science elite in the US is representative of the frame of mind of the governing elite.

It seems that we should start considering the hypothesis that “doomsday scenarios” are becoming more realistic than “positive change scenarios”, given this environment of blocked politics and climate change alienation among some of the major mature and emerging powers.

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