Science & Technology

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.