Greenpeace: Let Them Eat Cake

Third dispatch from the U.N. climate change conference in Bali

Nusa Dua, Bali - On December 11, Greenpeace distributed slices from a gigantic chocolate cake to participants at the U.N. Climate Change conference (COP-13) to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol. Since many Kyoto Protocol signatories are not meeting their obligations to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to levels below those of 1990, I'm not sure what the festivities are all about. In fact, Japan, Canada and many EU countries are emitting more GHG than they did in 1990.

Oh, well. It's the thought that counts.

One of the hottest topics being negotiated the COP-13 is technology transfer. I was under the impression that technology usually got transferred when one party sold it to another. That's how I got the Sony Vaio on which I am typing this dispatch. Apparently that's old-fashioned thinking. Under the new post-Kyoto climate treaty, poor countries are demanding that rich countries create some kind of tech transfer fund that would be used to subsidize their purchases of new low-carbon energy and carbon sequestration technologies.

If that weren't enough there are rumblings among poor country negotiators that they want the right to simply seize the patents (nicely called "compulsory licensing" in trade talks) and make the equipment themselves. "If there is insistence on the 'full protection of intellectual property' in relation to climate-friendly technology, it would be a barrier to technology transfer," declared Martin Khor, director of the leftist Third World Network. Is threatening to confiscate their patents really the way to encourage companies and inventors to invest in creating the innovative low-carbon energy technologies that world is being told are vital to stopping dangerous climate change?

In the meantime, the rich countries quite sensibly urged poor countries to drop their tariffs on environmental goods, e.g., energy production technologies. James Connaughton, the director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, noted that as a result of tariffs the world is foregoing 15 percent of potential investment in clean energy technologies. However, with consummate hypocrisy, rich countries refused to consider lowering their tariffs on biofuels imported from poor countries, insisting that is an "agricultural" rather than "environmental" issue.

Just how much man-made warming is dangerous? The Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research took a stab at answering that question during a side event today at the Grand Hyatt. The British government's Hadley Centre is one of the world's leading climate modeling organizations. Vicky Pope, one of the scientific leaders at the Centre, tried to quantify the risks of climate change. She pointed out that the world is already at concentrations of 380 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, up from 280 ppm in pre-industrial times. However, if all of the other GHG were included (e.g., methane and chlorofluorocarbons) concentrations of GHG would already be 430 ppm in CO2 equivalents.

Hadley climate models project that if atmospheric concentrations of GHG were stabilized at 430 ppm, we run a 63 percent chance that the earth's eventual average temperature would exceed 2 degrees Celsius greater than pre-industrial temperatures and 10 percent chance they would rise higher than 3 degrees Celsius. At 450 ppm, the chances rise to 77 percent and 18 percent respectively. And if concentrations climb to 550 ppm, the chances that average temperatures would exceed 2 degrees Celsius are 99 percent and are 69 percent for surpassing 3 degrees Celsius.

Pope noted that the climate models project if temperatures rise to 2 degrees Celsius, the melting of the Greenland ice sheet may become inevitable. She hastened to add that current models suggest that completely melting the Greenland ice sheet would take 2,000 to 3,000 years, although improved models focusing on ice dynamic could change that projection for the worse. Pope added that this year the extent of summer Arctic sea ice fell to its lowest recorded level. She played a video of a model simulation suggesting that summer Arctic sea ice could be completely gone by 2080.

Average global temperatures exceeding 3 degrees Celsius could mean significant loss of Amazon rainforest and stresses on agricultural production that reduce food supplies. "We need severe mitigation to stabilize CO2 equivalent concentrations at 450 ppm," concluded Pope. This is in line with Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projections that global GHG emissions must start falling well before 2030 if that goal is to be met.

Pope displayed a chart ranking the last 150 years in order of their average temperatures. He showed that the ten warmest years have all occurred since 1995. With less than 3 weeks to go, 2007 is on track to be the fifth warmest year on record.

Most interestingly, and to its credit, the Hadley Centre has now gone out on a risky prediction limb. The Centre has combined its weather prediction model with a climate change model to make definite forecasts about the world's climate for the next decade. To wit: "We are now using the system to predict changes out to 2014. By the end of this period, the global average temperature is expected to have risen by around 0.3 degrees Celsius compared to 2004, and half of the years after 2009 are predicted to be hotter than the current record hot year, 1998." Since various temperature records—surface, satellite and weather balloons—have shown a temperature trend that increases at about 0.2 degrees per decade or less, this is a truly bold prediction.

In an April 2006 column, I held climatologist Patrick Michaels, a well-known global warming skeptic, to his prediction about temperature trends between 1998 and 2007. Michaels had bet "that the 10-year period beginning in January 1998 and extending through December 2007 will show a statistically significant downward trend in the monthly satellite record of global temperatures." He lost that bet.

Over a glass of wine in the Grand Hyatt Hotel gardens, I told the very nice Vicky Pope that I plan to do the same thing with the Hadley Centre predictions. Check back in 2014.

Disclosure: I would like to express my deep appreciation to the Atlas Economic Research Foundation for providing a grant to pay for my travel expenses to cover the COP-13 meeting.

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His most recent book, Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution, is available from Prometheus Books.

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  • Packer Stan||

    One of the hottest topics being negotiated the COP-13 is technology transfer.

    Wouldn't it be interesting if a technology that reduced GHG was transferred and just so happened to also enable the building of nuclear weapons?

  • Paul||

    If that weren't enough there are rumblings among poor country negotiators that they want the right to simply seize the patents (nicely called "compulsory licensing" in trade talks) and make the equipment themselves.

    I'm not sure I buy the fact that the only barrier to these poorer countries adopting and building this technology is a patent.

  • ||

    I'm not sure I buy the fact that the only barrier to these poorer countries adopting and building this technology is a patent.

    Sure it is. It's all you greedy industrialized nations, selfishly hoarding your technology that keeps us poor, starving and dependent.

    It's your fault and you should feel guilty and send us money. And food. And medicine. And technology we can't maintain. Either that or some weapons. Actually, we'd prefer the weapons.

  • ||

    If current models predict Greenland's ice sheet might melt in 2000-3000 years (2-3 mm/yr), why doesn't IPCC 4th report include this info?

    Hardly the catastrophy the Gorean doomsday cult prophesized.

  • colonel_Angus||

    Greenland will be more habitable once again, just like it was when the vikings lived there, during another NATURAL warm period long ago.

  • ||

    I realize this group probably knows this, but 1998 was NOT the record year most think it was. Scott McIntyre pointed out a Y2K error in NASA's data so the hottest year was not 1998, but 1934. Just saying ...

  • ||

    I'm not sure I buy the fact that the only barrier to these poorer countries adopting and building this technology is a patent.

    In the cases of pharmaceuticals and software, patents and copyrights might not be the only barriers, but they are certainly major ones. Why should poor countries respect these government-granted monopolies?

  • The Snob||

    "Why should poor countries respect these government-granted monopolies?"

    Perhaps for the same reasons they are granted in the first place. Pharmaceutical companies don't invest as much in a lot of tropical disease research because there's a lot more money in addressing baldness or impotence, freedom from which even the EU hasn't yet declared a fundamental human right.

    That said, I would support a subsidy program of some sort to help with the costs of market-priced technology. To the extent that this is *global* warming, it may be cheaper to eliminate a ton of carbon output in Bangladesh than in France or Japan.

  • ||

    Hmmn.. not rewarding invention and threatening to underpay for the technology...that really incentivized a cure for AIDS and Malaria!..Hey, it basically killed research .

  • ||

    "Is threatening to confiscate their patents really the way to encourage companies and inventors to invest in creating the innovative low-carbon energy technologies that world is being told are vital to stopping dangerous climate change?"

    In the 19th century, the U.S. did not "threaten" to confiscate patents of individuals and corporations from other countries, it did so. That is, the U.S. did not recognize the patents and copyrights of other nations. Best-selling authors like Charles Dickens and Walter Scott collected no royalties on copies of their books published in the U.S., and British advances in textile machinery, iron and steel forging, etc. appeared in the U.S. via the "five finger discount." Hey, if it was good enough for us, why isn't it good enough for the rest of the world?

  • ||

    That said, I would support a subsidy program of some sort to help with the costs of market-priced technology.

    Again I'm assuming that technology patents actually represent a significant barrier to the developing world's infrastructure. But would a massive publicly-funded R&D program with any discoveries guaranteed patent-free, free to be adopted by anyone at all, be the sort of subsidy you'd support? We almost have this system in place... but patents on publicly (and privately) funded research at U.S. universities often serve as a profit source for the universities and corporations or startups.

  • ||

    AV: Well, then let them steal the patents fair and square without benefit of an international treaty and a pot of rich country tax payer money to pay for it all.

    Joel H: You're onto something. A Nigerian negotiator here went on and on about how intellectual property rights was holding developing countries back from addressing climate change. A journalist (not me) asked her to give some examples. She looked rueful for a moment and then admitted that she couldn't name any examples.

  • ||

    I fail to see how stealing the work of others (as far as I am concerned, using someone else's work without their permission is stealing) will help countries that don't have the infrastructure to use them. A better solar panel or wind turbine won't help unless there is a well-built power grid. Unless the Third World can prove they are capable of making good use of these patents, I fail to see what this will accomplish other than discouraging scientists from even attempting to come up with technologies these nations can use.

    Alan Vanneman,

    If policy in the 19th century is a good enough justification for policy in the 21st century, does that mean we can simply keep using oil as they did back then?

  • ||

    A better solar panel or wind turbine won't help unless there is a well-built power grid.

    Huh? Both of those things produce electricity locally without a grid at all.

  • ||

    He wasn't that far off though, the Southern Hemisphere has been cooling. Had he been basing his data from the Antarctica stations he would have certainly won that bet.

  • ||

    If from 1750-1945 the United States had been held to following the same intellectual property laws which are now being enforced against developing nations, it is highly unlikely that the U.S. would be the world's wealthiest and most powerful nation today.

  • ||

    "That said, I would support a subsidy program of some sort to help with the costs of market-priced technology."

    This is the whole point of the 'free market'...steal from the public commonwealth and then patent it and take all the profits for yourself...oh and then whine to others about intellectual property rights and too much investment in gov't services.

  • ||

    why do these climate change panalists sound like the villians in Ayn Rand novels?

  • ||

    [Michaels had bet "that the 10-year period beginning in January 1998 and extending through December 2007 will show a statistically significant downward trend in the monthly satellite record of global temperatures." He lost that bet.]


    Hang on a minute. If you take the MSU RSS satellite temperatures (the most thoroughly checked version of the data) from January 1998 to November 2007 and make a graph, the trend is MINUS 0.04 degress Celsius per decade. In other words, a slight cooling.

    Obviously, the December figures are not in yet, but if they are similar to November, the overall trend will be MINUS 0.05 degrees.

    Someone tell me, how exactly did he lose the bet?

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