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Climate Success in Copenhagen
Alex Steffen, 9 Nov 09

A quick note. Several people have asked me recently about Copenhagen and COP-15, and whether the summit isn't a failure from the start, since it pretty clearly will not produce a new treaty. I think not.

First of all, it's been clear for months that negotiators didn't have enough time to get to a signed comprehensive global climate treaty by December. In fact, all the way back in April the main players were saying that success at Copenhagen would be defined by agreements in principle, not yet by binding treaties, or at very least not yet by a treaty which includes the U.S.. That's not ideal, but also not a disaster. Getting to agreement on some broad principles about targets, mechanisms and climate equity would be a big step forward. At this point, getting the actual treaty not just negotiated but signed by all the major parties would be a bit of a coup.

But one huge achievement looks more certain, and is largely being overlooked: leaders are taking the science seriously. More and more politicians, business leaders, religious leaders, doctors, even soldiers, have decided to try to understand what we know about what we're doing to our planet. They're paying attention.

That's not a small step, because the scientific findings are coming back clearer and louder that we are pushing hard up against our planet's real limits. Once you accept the science, the implications themselves drive a radical redefinition of realism.

We are being told (with increasing clarity and sharp language aimed at cutting through the artificial "debate" created in the U.S. by anti-climate interests) that we need dramatic changes in the way we do things, immediately. The IPCC, for instance, points to the need to peak global climate emissions by 2015 (and then decrease them every year), if we are to avoid going beyond two degrees Celsius of warming (which is already, itself, a dangerous level). More and more voices argue openly that we need to be aiming to reduce atmospheric CO2 to 350 ppm. Increasing numbers of people in the developed world are arguing that we need to lead the way to a fair global climate footprint (which would require about a 90-95% reduction in our emissions here in the U.S.) -- and that in order to buy the developing world time to adopt climate-friendly practices, we need to do it in the next couple decades, not by mid century as has been the previous consensus.

Leaders are also getting something else: that climate action may actually accelerate gains in economic prosperity. Redesigning civilization will make us richer, and allow a lot more people to share in that wealth.

To attend Copenhagen is essentially to sign off on the science, almost by definition. That is what makes is so important that President Obama attend. That is what the world's leaders standing up together will say to the world: we agree on the need to act, and the validity of science as the standard by which we measure that need. That, in turn, will give a new generation the moral leverage it needs to try to make change happen on the ground, all over the planet. And that, in and of itself, is a huge victory.

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==Climate denialism comment deleted as per this site's policy.==

Posted by: Moderator on 7 Nov 09

Thanks so much Alex,

I needed to read such clear appreciation.

Keeping hope alive's not child's play.

Let's roll up hope's sleeves and evolve.

Posted by: paul t. horan on 7 Nov 09

One of the things working against a robust outcome at Copenhagen is that all weather is local if you know what I mean.

Parochial feelings are difficult to morph into global feelings.

I agree with the author here who thinks "it can happen".

Posted by: Dredd on 8 Nov 09

Anything less than meaningfully urgent and binding agreement is a failure. There's no negotiation with nature or natural limits, regardless of any consensus or agreement in principle we might arrive at globally.

As Chief Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper for the Onondaga Nation of the Haudenosaunee has said, "You don't negotiate with the tick." That is, our treatises or any principled consensus means less than little, but unfortunately more than means we're closer and closer to global thresholds, over which when crossed, means our only option is adaptation. We're probably already there.

Posted by: Josh S on 8 Nov 09

Hi Alex,
A huge fan of Worldchanging here. I have a question for you, specifically on this: "But one huge achievement looks more certain, and is largely being overlooked: leaders are taking the science seriously."

Needless to say that I was ecstatic to read this, but then I began wondering - what are some of the signs and visible changes that indicate improved seriousness with which our leaders look at the scientific evidence?

I am asking because in recent meetings with scientists from different parts of the world, I was still hearing a lot of frustrations that they were not being listened to by the policy-makers and leaders.

But if you are observing changing attitudes towards science, I would love to hear some examples and stories.

Thank you, and keep up the amazing work!

Posted by: Andrew Y on 8 Nov 09

I'm a university student studying earth sciences, and more relevantly earths climate.

All I know though my learning, research and input from various lecturers whom have spent 30+ years studying climate. Is that they firmly say that it is absolutely impossible to conclude that the earth is warming due to anthropogenic activity with the knowledge that we currently have regarding climate. The IPCC's predictions are proving to be increasingly void. Quite understandably considering that their predictions are based on countless weak assumptions, one being that they neglect any effect that clouds may have on the earths climate (seriously!). Did you also know that global warming has been observed on other planets? and as my lecturer pointed out, there isn't but one SUV to be blamed.

The internet is infested with uninformed opinions from both sides of the debate. I'm merely sharing the views of many very enlightened minds that I'm studying under, whom aren't ignorant and have no conflicting interests.

Science does not support anthropogenic warming. The science behind global warming is incomplete.

Posted by: Matt on 9 Nov 09

Hey Matt, even if you eliminate Climate Change, we're still up against some severe, non-negotiable and emerging planetary boundaries. Check out the September 2009 issue of Nature.

So take Climate out of the equation and what are your thoughts?

As EO Wilson has said, paraphrasing loosely, if you preserve only the physical environment (climate, etc.), the living shall still continue dying. But if you preserve the living, the rest takes care of itself.

Posted by: Josh Stack on 9 Nov 09

US will lead the way on technology. They have to pass the climate which will pave the way for innovation

Posted by: Selva on 9 Nov 09

Hey Josh

I'm afraid climate is where my knowledge lies in this forum.
I'll be sure to look into the "severe, non-negotiable and emerging planetary boundaries" you've mentioned.

All I'm able to further add is that evidently "global warming" often seems to deter people from the real issues facing our planet, myself included.

Posted by: Matt on 9 Nov 09


Just to be clear: do you or your lecturers say there is no clear evidence of global warming at all, or just *anthropogenic* warming?

What other explanation is cited for the CO2 levels we are observing today?

I had not heard of global warming on other planets: what evidence is there?

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 9 Nov 09

Everything I have said has come directly from various lecturers that I am studying under. Obviously there is global warming in the same sense that there is global cooling, note that by "global warming" (with quotes) I'm referring to the phenomena that's filling Al Gores pockets. Indeed warming has been observed on other planets, this is in my course notes, but for quick referencing purposes...

"What other explanation is cited for the CO2 levels we are observing today?"

I think you have misunderstood. The CO2 levels may be where they are because of anthropogenic emissions, but that is not the issue. The issue is whether or not the observed enhanced greenhouse gas effect (driven by increased CO2) is going to induce "global warming". We still don't know enough about the climate to say it's a major factor.

An example of the complexity of the earths climate system is the scenario where the oceans warmed, this in turn would increase the rate of evaporation, which of course increases rainfall, which then cools the earth. The complexity of our climate system is greatly underestimated by the IPCC.

Posted by: Tony on 9 Nov 09


Here's the link, just one of many that describe what the authors call "planetary boundaries."

As an example, a quote I found compelling, from a Yale360 article: "Artificial nitrogen is as ubiquitous in water as man-made carbon dioxide is in the air."


Would you agree that the anthropocentric additions of Co2 and other gases to the atmosphere correlate to, at least, major shifts, possible thresholds, and change on a scale that we may not have faced previously?

Posted by: Josh Stack on 10 Nov 09

And the Planetary Boundaries feature is here:

Posted by: Josh Stack on 10 Nov 09

Alex, as Josh remarked above, we're heading for various ecological boundaries of which climate sensitivity is but the most ubiquitous. I'd add that efforts to resolve the climate issue are thus likely to be among the largest operations on the planet.

For this reason, I suggest that efforts to halt GHG outputs and to defend communities from climate impacts have to be very careful indeed not merely to avoid adding to ecological abuse, but wherever possible to actively assist in its remedy.

The best example of such a multi-functional remedial option that I've come across could be titled "Afforestation for Biochar, Energy & Ecology" [ABEE].

No doubt readers here are well aware of the potential of Biochar, which is charcoal, laced with compost and/or FYM, to greatly raise farm yields when plowed in to farm soils. Thus far most modern usage has been in the tropics, but there are also positive reports coming (from gardeners so far) in temperate latitudes.
Apart from offsetting some of the foreseeable loss of farm yields due to climate destabilization, Biochar also provides carbon sequestration at a relatively low cost.

Moreover, during the production of the feedstock charcoal, both surplus heat and volatile hydro-carbon gasses are driven off, which can be used to provide Syngas, Methanol, Biodiesel, Electricity and Steam.
These fuels and energy are not low-carbon or carbon-neutral, they are potentially carbon-negative, given the volume of carbon interred per unit of energy supplied.

At present the feedstock for Biochar is proposed as being farm, forest & urban waste biomass, which would of course be a subtraction from the present global usages and nutrient cycles. This is projected as offering over 1.0 GT/yr of Carbon Recovery and Burial [CRB].

The far greater potential, reportedly of around 8.0 GT/yr of carbon, would be from sustainable forestry being established on non-farm land in many countries. This would not only be a sufficient draw on airborne carbon to start lowering the concentration substantially, it would also generate widespread employment in working the forests.

The optimum silviculture for this is also one of the oldest (it was used in the UK's Bronze Age, if not earlier) and is known as Coppice. Small areas of young trees are felled cyclically and allowed to regrow from the stump to be ready for the next harvest after 7 to 28 years.

This offers not only around 20% better yields than normal fell-&-replant regimes, it also provides habitat for the highest biodiversity of any European ecosystem. Forestry of this quality, on the proposed scale, would have transformative effects on a whole range of global problems, not least the settlement of landless people whose involuntary abrasion of native ecologies is itself a critical problem.

'ABEE' could of course be done really badly, which some loud types see as a reason to oppose even its discussion. Given that we can, if we choose, see to it that it is done really well, I'm content to ignore their disapproval.

Plainly, in terms of its potential for multiple exceptionally benign yields alongside its several climate-remedy factors, 'ABEE' is currently without equal, and might act as an exemplary option for remedial planning projects.



Posted by: Lewis Cleverdon on 10 Nov 09

Seeing the forest and big picture !!

1. To date, out of the earmarked $787bn in stimulus package , roughly $155bn dollars, not sufficient to reverse the trend of jobless rate, have been doled out. But, away from job saving and creation, GDP growth etc, the added value on the stock market alone might stay at roughly $1trillion, which could help us see the forest in light of conclusion of the historic health care and sustainable energy act.

As always, focusing exclusively on up-front cost and subtracting its added value from equation, we will more likely be trapped in a small cage.

2. The world-wide stimulus package to prop up the crumbling economy is an interim measure. For that, a long-standing and fundamental energy framework is urgently needed.

3. The poor countries can't afford high fossil fuel costs, which will strain global economy.

4. In recent years, the high oil price has taxed jobs word-wide, therefore work creation via developing sustainable resources is considered to be imperative, which might be a final focus of this great recession.
If the sustainable energy policy works against employment, EU should be suffering from the highest jobless rate by now, but the reality is the other way round.

5. Thankfully and interestingly enough, 100s of Companies (with $13 Trillion) Are Demanding Strong Climate Deal in Copenhagen just like environmental activists, and a coalition of more than 500 Global Businesses is also demanding ambitious new climate deal.

6. Those who are concerned about growing deficit are obliged to get engaged in energy fix actively.

7. In the face of drastic dent in fossil fuels and soaring price of them, the hands-off policy reflects economic crash world-wide.

Probably it doesn't matter whether someone is on the upper deck of Titanic ship or not as the global economy is interconnected just like Internet.

Posted by: hsr0601 on 11 Nov 09

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