Cancun Climate Platitudes and Predictions

Second dispatch from the United Nations Climate Change conference in Cancun


Cancun—United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon kicked off the high level segment of the U.N.'s climate change conference yesterday afternoon. Speaking at the plenary session of environment ministers and other high level officials from 194 countries, Ban offered ringing diplomatic niceties such as "a new future must take place here," and that "we cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good," and he urged governments "to be flexible and to negotiate in a spirit of compromise and common sense for the good of all the peoples."

Of course, one must realize that as the head of the United Nations, Ban cannot publicly criticize any of its member states. This became painfully clear during a press conference after his speech in which a CBS reporter asked Ban to name the countries that were "stumbling blocks" to the negotiations here in Cancun. Ban smiled gently and basically repeated his earlier statement that he thought progress could be made in the area of protecting forests, climate adaptation, some elements of finance, mitigation transparency, and the Kyoto Protocol. The reporter persisted, asking again which countries were blocking the negotiations. Ban turned to Christiana Figueres, the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, suggesting that maybe she could shed some light on the question.

Of course, Figueres is a U.N. bureaucrat who also knows better than to criticize member states by name. So instead of answering the question, she mildly observed that negotiators are not facing new challenges here at Cancun. Figueres, however, did say that she believed that progress was being made on long term goals as negotiators worked together on a shared vision. With just the slightest hint of tactful regret, Figueres noted that the details of the institutional arrangements for tech transfer and finance deals still needed to be worked out. And, of course, there is the thorny problem of figuring out how to make Copenhagen Accord emission reduction pledges legally binding under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). No country was outed for obstructionism. This is the sort of kabuki theatre that passes as a "news event" most of the time at a U.N. confab.

In contrast, India's environment minister Jairam Ramesh was quite refreshing. At his afternoon press conference Ramesh vigorously defended India's efforts to fight climate change. For example, Ramesh declared that his country is going to double renewable energy production from 4 to 8 percent and nuclear power from 3 to 6 percent by 2020. He pointed out that 70 percent of India's electricity is produced by burning coal. Ramesh then flatly asserted, "Coal will continue to be the mainstay of India's energy economy." He added, "It is the height of romance to think that wind and solar will meet our energy requirements." 

There has been a lot of talk recently about adding refrigerants called HFCs to the list of greenhouse gases to be eliminated under the UNFCCC. Ramesh pointed out that his country had just phased them in after banning their ozone damaging and globe-warming predecessor chemicals—at considerable cost. Ramesh told reporters that India is "not going to accept including HFCs in the UNFCCC or the Kyoto Protocol under any circumstances." By the way, this is the same Ramesh who not-so-refreshingly groused to the Guardian that rich countries hadn't handed over billions in climate change aid to poor countries as they'd promised. But as an advocate, Ramesh can bluntly say what he thinks is in the best interests of his country.

While the diplomats temporized, a series for lectures about the science of climate change provided some interesting fodder. The release of a new United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) report [PDF] on the global state of mountain glaciers was particularly interesting. This issue has a history of controversy; the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change undermined its credibility when it published in its Fourth Assessment Report the assertion that Himalayan mountain glaciers could all disappear by 2035. The source of that claim turned out to be a speculative quote from a popular science magazine in 1999.

Given that background, the UNEP report is a bit more circumspect. The report notes that glaciers around the world have been melting since the end of the Little Ice Age around 1850. Recent research suggests that the rate of melting for the majority of glaciers has sped up since 1980. The increase in melting is most likely due to warmer average global temperatures. In some areas of high precipitation, such as Norway, the South Island of New Zealand, and the Karakoram Mountains along the borders of Pakistan, India, and China, glaciers are growing. Nevertheless, the overall trend is melting.

With regard to Himalayan glaciers, Madhav Karki, deputy general director of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, told reporters that they will be "with us for a long time to come." Melting glaciers do pose problems requiring adaptation like floods and in some areas reduced flows in the rivers they feed. The report suggests that as glaciers disappear, countries will want to figure out how to store water for later release. The basic thrust of the new report is a plea for more money for research.

Another science lecture of note was a presentation from the Hadley Centre, Britain's premier climate research group. At the Bali climate change conference in 2007, I was impressed when Vicky Pope, a climate modeler who is one of the founders of the Hadley Centre, made some risky predictions based on the Centre's updated climate computer model. Three years ago, Pope said, "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." That 0.3 degrees Celsius temperature increase prediction was pretty ballsy considering that the rate of increase had been about 0.2 degrees per decade. In addition, Pope was predicting in 2007 that three of the next six years would exceed 1998's highest ever recorded average global average temperature. The Hadley Centre model foresaw global warming accelerating in the near term.

So during the question and answer period, I quoted her prediction back to Pope and asked if the Hadley Centre still stood behind it. Pope didn't remember the specific 0.3 degree increase prediction, but did say that the Centre was still predicting that half of the 10 next years would be warmer than 1998. Although 2010 is a relatively warm year, it most likely will not exceed the 1998 record. For the original Hadley Centre prediction to come true, three out of the next four years will have to be warmer than 1998. In a private chat after the talk, Pope said that she didn't know what the Centre thought about the 0.3 degrees prediction now. She also said that as far as she knew, her colleagues at the Centre have not gone back to check how well the prediction about number of years exceeding the 1998 average is faring.

Pope did not make any predictions in Cancun. Instead she talked about the puzzling fact that "the rate of warming globally has decreased." Since the late 1970s, the rate of warming as recorded in the Met-CRU [Met Office Hadley Centre-Climatic Research Unit, University of East Anglia] record has been about 0.16 degrees Celsius per decade. (I note parenthetically that this is down from the 0.2 degrees Celsius rate). Pope noted that, depending on which temperature data set you pick, theirs, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies' set, or NOAA's National Climatic Data Center's set, the rate of warming has dropped to as low as 0.05 degrees per decade or 0.13 degree per decade over the past 10 years. Pope notes that runs of some climate computer models finds that such pauses in projected warming occur at a rate of about one decade in every eight. Thus she concludes that the recent decrease could simply be caused by natural variability and warming will soon resume.

On the other hand, Pope notes that the decline in Arctic sea ice cover was the lowest ever recorded in 2007. Since the satellite record began in the late 1970s, the rate of decline in summer sea ice has been about 0.8 million square kilometers per decade. Pope did hasten to say that the recent large increases might well be the result of natural variations, specifically mentioning that the large 2007 decline seems to have been the result of a specific weather phenomenon. The summer Arctic sea ice may well recover. She also dismisses some of the more alarmist claims that Arctic summer sea ice could disappear by 2030. However, if average temperatures continue to rise as the Hadley Centre computer models suggest, the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free in the summers by 2070. This is 10 years earlier than Hadley projected at the Bali conference.

Pope also mentioned that the IPCC's Fourth Assessment Report projected that sea levels might rise by between 21 and 59 centimeters by 2100. Newer evidence suggests that a sea-level rise of 2 meters cannot be ruled out, but an increase of more than 1 meter is currently viewed as unlikely.

Monkton and Frostpaw

One further observation: There has been a lot less climate apocalypse theater at the Cancun conference than at previous ones. However, Frostpaw, the spokes-Polar Bear for the Center for Biological Diversity, did make an appearance at the Cancun Messe convention center. Frostpaw was hunted down by self-described climate realist Lord Monckton. Monckton asserted that polar bears are not endangered by global warming, claiming that their populations have increased from 5,000 in the 1970s to around 25,000 today. Given the remoteness of their habitat it is hard to accurately count polar bears. I will note that in 1971, The New York Times reported that the total population had dwindled to just 10,000 bears and that Alaskan hunters were killing 1,500 annually. More recently, the Polar Bear Specialist Group tried to estimate the world's polar bears population. Looking at data for populations in 15 out of 19 regions, the group estimated that there are around 18,000 polar bears in those areas.

Tomorrow, I will try to figure out a bit more about how the negotiations are going and may drop by the Climate Change Village to assess how glum or gleeful activists at the conference are.

Reason Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey will be filing daily dispatches from the Cancun climate change conference for the rest of this week.