Negotiations

Cancunhagen

Fourth dispatch from the United Nations Climate Change conference in Cancun

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Cancun—The once positive and constructive atmosphere at the Cancun climate change conference turned murky on Thursday. It appears that the president of the conference, Mexican environment minister Patricia Espinosa has asked a relatively small group of countries to hammer out new language for agreements on greenhouse gas emissions reduction commitments and climate change financing. She also wants to avoid the drama of a late night negotiating cliffhanger, so she has reportedly set a deadline for agreements for Friday morning.

The Ghost of Copenhagen Rises from the Grave

Speaking at the afternoon Friends of the Earth International (FOE) press conference, Meena Raman, secretary general of FOE Malaysia, acknowledged that no one outside of the negotiations has actually seen the draft documents. "We are concerned that this is not a transparent and inclusive process," said Raman. Apparently, the Bolivian negotiators were invited to participate, but they denounced the effort as contrary to the spirit of the United Nations and stalked out of the room.

Raman especially feared that what is being negotiated is a deal in which the emissions reduction pledges made under the banner of the Copenhagen Accord would essentially replace any future commitments to the Kyoto Protocol. If so, it would be the death knell of the Kyoto Protocol. Developing countries and environmental activists continue to pin their hopes on the Kyoto Protocol because it embodies the only process that binds countries to do anything about climate change. It is also the only treaty under which funds are disbursed to support various climate change programs in poor countries. Both developing country negotiators and activists fear that if the Kyoto Protocol goes by the way, there will never be another such treaty.

Raman's colleague FOE policy analyst Kate Horner somewhat bitterly commented, "Cancun will finally lay to rest the ghost of Copenhagen by anchoring weak mitigation pledges." In negotiation jargon "mitigation" refers to efforts to curb the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and "anchoring" refers to some method getting countries to somehow become officially responsible for the greenhouse gas reduction pledges they made the pursuant to the non-binding Copenhagen Accord.

One rumor is that both developed and developing countries might wind up simply listing their pledges on "information documents" as annexes to the Copenhagen Accord. Such information documents would be largely aspirational without much legal force.

Climate Negotiatons as Dadaism

Isaac Rojas, the coordinator of FOE's Forest and Biodiversity Program, was also worried, but he did say this: "President Evo Morales fills us with hope. He gives us strength." Rojas noted that the President of the Plurinational State of Bolivia has already called the conference, "Cancunhagen"—an allusion suggesting that this meeting could end up being much like last year's climate change negotiations fiasco in Copenhagen.

But what kind of hope might Morales be offering? On Thursday afternoon a proposal on draft decisions related a shared vision for long-term cooperative action was submitted to the conference by Bolivia. Negotiators from 194 countries have been struggling to reach an agreement on such a vision.

In the main document being considered by negotiators, one option for the shared vision is the recognition that "deep cuts in global emissions are required by science." Such cuts would aim to hold the increase in global average temperature below 1, 1.5, or 2 degrees Celsius (which is yet to be decided) above pre-industrial levels. Another option would aim to get greenhouse gas concentrations below 350 parts per million (carbon dioxide is already 390 ppm and in carbon dioxide equivalent terms, all greenhouse gases exceed 430 ppm now). Rich countries would also agree to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 80-95 percent by 2050.

One of the slogans recited incessantly by activists here in Cancun is that the conference needs "more ambition." It would be hard to be more ambitious than the proposed draft offered by the Plurinational State of Bolivia. In its proposed vision, rich countries are to take the lead in "returning greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere to well below 300 ppm" and stabilize global average temperature increase to a maximum level of 1 degree Celsius. Instead of allowing rich countries to dawdle with regard to cutting their emissions, the Plurinational State wants to require rich countries to cut their emissions by at least 50 percent by 2017 and by "more than 100 percent before 2040." In addition, climate reparations to poor countries to fund their adaptation, mitigation, and technology transfer efforts "shall be equivalent to the budget that developed countries spend in defense, security, and warfare." Keep in mind that when the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 280 ppm in the 18th century, the world was still enduring the Little Ice Age. One must admit that the Bolivian proposal exhibits a certain audacious Dadaist quality.

The Scientific Minority Speaks

The Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, a Washington, D.C.-based free market environmental advocacy group, held a press conference in the afternoon featuring University of Alabama in Huntsville climatologist Roy Spencer. Spencer is one of the principle investigators behind the global temperature data series based on measurements from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellites. He is also an outspoken skeptic of claims that accumulating greenhouse gases will massively warm the atmosphere. At the press conference Spencer acknowledged that he is in the scientific minority among climatologists.

Spencer is not skeptical about the fact that burning fossil fuels is increasing the carbon dioxide in atmosphere; that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas; or that, all other things being equal, increased carbon dioxide will produce more warming. Although some activists have called him and his colleagues "denialists," Spencer concurs that there is no scientific disagreement over the fact that the Earth has been warming. "What we deny is that we have any certainty about how much of the recent warming is due to man," said Spencer. "We deny that it's mostly man-made."

It is widely accepted that doubling carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere would warm the planet by about 1 degree Celsius. Climate computer models project higher levels of warming based on the amplifying effects of various feedbacks. One of the chief positive feedback loops in the models involves clouds. In this is case, warming causes fewer clouds which allows more sunlight to reach the surface warming the planet.

But Spencer argues that the models have mixed up cause and effect and asks, "What if the warming was caused by fewer clouds, rather than the fewer clouds being caused by warming?" In fact, in a study published earlier this year [PDF] Spencer and his colleague William Brasswell found that "when cloud changes cause temperature changes, it gives the illusion of positive cloud feedback—even if strongly negative cloud feedback is really operating."

After the press conference, I asked Spencer what kind of research program would be needed to resolve this cause and effect question. He said that the problem is so complicated that he doubted that one could be devised. I hope that he is wrong, because if he's right then the modelers have little incentive to change the way they represent cloud feedback. It would be interesting if modelers were to incorporate Spencer's negative feedback results to see how closely their models reproduce the climate of the past century or so. If the results were not so different from the actual record that would suggest, but not prove, that the cause and effect issue has not been resolved.

Finally, the latest news from the conference is that Russian negotiators are saying that their country will not to renew its commitment to the Kyoto Protocol.

So the president of the Plurinational State of Bolivia may be prescient: Cancunhagen is looking more likely.

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

NEXT: Watch Reason Editor Matt Welch Talk California Teachers Unions on Fox Business Network's Varney & Co. This Morning at 10:30 am EDT

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  1. The climate computer models that project higher levels of warming based on feedback.

    This cannot be emphasized enough. No one disputes that CO2 all by itself doesn’t cause catastrophic anything because of the saturation effect.

    To get to a politically charged level of warming, the warmists have to posit all kinds of unstable positive feedback loops.

    However, our climate is really quite stable, and seems to feature negative feedback loops that keep it largely homeostatic. Any claims that changing one variable (the CO2 level) negates this homeostasis and sets off positive feedback loops should be met with extreme skepticism and demands for very strong proof.

    1. I honestly don’t understand why carbon dioxide needs to be called into question. You’d think with massive shifts in land use patterns around the globe due to urbanization, argiculturalization (especially irrigation, which btw, emits water vapor, exactly the agent of “positive feedback”), there would be massive climate shifts, anyways.

  2. “The climate computer models that project higher levels of warming based on feedback.” What does that sentence mean???

    1. It means lets suck some more money from taxpayers.

  3. We obviously have to ban DHMO, it’s greenhouse potential is much higher than CO2 and its dangerous to children.

  4. “Gore Effect” on Steroids: Six straight days of record low temperatures during COP16 in Cancun Mexico ? more coming

    The irony, it burns. Do you think maybe Gaia is trying to send the U.N. and the delegates a message? One record low was funny, three in a row was hilarious, a new record low for the month of December was ROFL, but now six straight days of record lows during the U.N. COP16 Global Warming conference? That’s galactically inconvenient. The whole month so far has averaged below normal…

    Existing record lows for the next two days are:

    Dec 11 57 ?F (2003)
    Dec 12 55 ?F (2008)

    It is likely we will see a full week, possibly 8 days of record lows, and another new all time record low for the month of December is possible also.

    1. Record high temperatures are an effect of Global Warming. Record lows are, as well. And yes, temperatures that hold the norm are especially ominous signs of AGW at work.

      1. What fucking part of AGW causing global cooling except when its causing the warming do you low browed knuckle dragging fucks not understand? Carbon trading is the only solution to controlling teh capitalist er…climate.

      2. Global warming causes the seas to rise and massive tidal waves due to ice melting.

        Global cooling causes the seas to rise and massive tidal waves due to chunks of ice breaking off and falling in the ocean.

      3. “…this how ya do the Watermelon Crawl…”

    2. Al Gore isn’t there, so all the hot air is wherever he is.

  5. Realist: I have added what I hope is some clarifying language.

    1. Thank you but I think the word “are” is missing.
      “The climate computer models that project higher levels of warming [are] based on the amplifying effects of various feedbacks.”

      1. Realist: There were actually an extraneous “The and “that” — the text has been corrected. I hope.

  6. How’s the tan, Ron? What’s next, the “Too Hot To Stop” international conference in Cannes? I hope the Kochs are tight with the way you’re spending their money.

    1. Alan: It’s very hard to get a tan under the fluorescent lighting at the convention center. I usually wake up at 5 a.m. and go sleep at midnight (hardly ever see the sun). Besides as Mike M. notes above, it’s been pretty damned chilly down here. A lot of the tourists are wearing sweaters.

      I’ve never met any of the Kochs, but if you know them, please put in a good word for me.

      My next trip is the Reason Cruise.

      1. Yeah right! You go over to the koch brothers house every night and make plans to destroy equality.

    2. Given the power of the Koch Brothers, ensconced as they are on Mt. Doom, perhaps one of the feeble peasants should ask them just to turn the Sun down a little maybe?

  7. Thanks for the great news, Ron. I had a bad feeling that they were going to somehow pull a rabbit out of their hat with a wealth redistributing agreement of some sort.

  8. [T]he Plurinational State wants to require rich countries to cut their emissions by at least 50 percent by 2017 and by “more than 100 percent before 2040.”

    And to think that taxpayer money is being used to send US representatives to hear such unbelievably silly slop.

    1. How do you cut emissions by MORE than 100%? Breathing causes emissions. I guess they hate plants, because plants love our carbon dioxide!

      1. why emissions credits indulgences, of course.

    2. more “slop noise”…
      he, he

  9. After the press conference, I asked Spencer what kind of research program would be needed to resolve this cause and effect question. He said that the problem is so complicated that he doubted that one could be devised. I hope that he is wrong, because if he’s right then the modelers have little incentive to change the way they represent cloud feedback.

    You’re being too kind, Ron: Modelers have little incentive as IT IS RIGHT NOW, never mind if Spencer is right or not – those grant dollars do not fall from the sky if one does not pray hard enough to the Climate Change God.

    1. The current state of orthodox climate science reminds me of someone who has to jump through hoops to get their fixed-income welfare check from the probation officer/caseworker.

      More and more I suspect there is a lot of money slushing around to fund very good climate science.

      Its not a lack of capital, its a lack of ideas and institutional flexibility, kinda like the US economy right now.

  10. Isaac Rojas, the coordinator of FOE’s Forest and Biodiversity Program, was also worried, but he did say this: “President Evo Morales fills us with hope. He gives us strength.”

    What a sad spectacle of these modern times where people travel to a place to seriously hear a fruitcake like that give a speech or propose a solution to a problem, never mind if the problem is real or not.

    1. Old Mexican you are right on.

    2. What a sad spectacle of these modern times where people travel to a place to seriously hear a fruitcake like that give a speech or propose a solution to a problem, never mind if the problem is real or not.

      What irritates me the most is the fact that almost every one of the people who attended this event had to travel hundreds, even thousands, of miles to do so. Wouldn’t a video conference have poisoned Gaia a tad less? Oh, I forgot, that is meant for the little people

      1. Until Obama and his carbon-burning entourage decide to butt in on this conference. I know the Fearless Leader would love to give the final speech. CUN won’t have enough room for all those planes.

      2. Like Ted Turner telling us that couples should only have one child. Of course he has five so I’m waiting for him to tell us which four were mistakes.

  11. That a 100% increase in CO2 levels will result in a 1 degree C rise in temperatures is almost certainly wrong. We’ve increased CO2 by 40% and we’re already at 0.8 degrees C.

    1. Ben Wolf: A couple of issues: (1) a good bit of the warming over the past 150 years occurred well before the bulk of the C02 was added to the atmosphere, and (2) the claim is merely that CO2 by itself, without any of the postulated feedbacks, would increase the average temperature that much.

      1. You’re correct that the beginning of the Twentieth Century saw a good bit of warming due to primarily to increased solar activity. But the best estimates are that the previous warmth has been negated by aerosol sulfates reducing solar insolation. Combined with natural forcing which, absent human activity indicate we should be seeing a cooling trend, the 0.8 C is what we’re left with.

        You’re also correct that the estimate of 1 degree C climate sensitivity does not include feedbacks. My point is that if that estimate without feedbacks is too low, then our estimate of 3 degreees C with feedbacks is most likely too low as well.

        1. This estimate also assumes the recorded temperature measurements over the past 150 years plus I’m sure some statistical massaging (there would have to be) – to within a single degree C – is Canon.

        2. Still a 40% increase in CO2 leading to a 0.8 increase in actual temperatures doesn’t seem like that much. At this rate, as CO2 levels double, we should expect about a 2 degree increase in temperature, and that still would depend on nothing coming along that might have negative temperature effects or a saturation effect.

          1. Thinking like that will reduce the taxpayer paid trips to Cancun for overpaid bureaucrats. We are in a crisis people. If we eliminate a single perk for government work we will not be able to recruit and keep the best people.

    2. Luckily, we are at peak oil, and somewhat near peak coal, and natural gas will peak faster than you sneeze, so we won’t be able to dump much more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, unless, you know, we go all star trek and invent some seriously evil replicators.

  12. “He said that the problem is so complicated that he doubted that one could be devised.”

    Does this mean Dr. Spencer believes there is no way to isolate the system enough to extract causation from correlation with the current data, or is it more general?

    1. Brett L: Short answer is yes. Though he thinks that some bright graduate students could possibly come up with novel approach to the question that he hasn’t thought of.

      1. Thanks, Ron.

      2. Ron, i have interesting story for you. go talk to Intellectual Ventures about the solutions to global warming.

        1. Bucky: Thanks. Already written stories about their traveling wave nukes and geoengineering ideas. What else do you suggest?

          1. sorry, i am new to reason. whoops. new to Reason (not reason). do you have a link to your stories about I.V.

    2. Brett L: Short answer is yes. Though he thinks that some bright graduate students could possibly come up with novel approach to the question that he hasn’t thought of.

  13. “Isaac Rojas, the coordinator of FOE’s Forest”

    Fist of Etiquette has a forest?!? And a forest coordinator?!?!?!?

  14. That a 100% increase in CO2 levels will result in a 1 degree C rise in temperatures is almost certainly wrong. We’ve increased CO2 by 40% and we’re already at 0.8 degrees C.

    There is a saturation level, above which the additional warming associated with more CO2 drops off pretty sharply.

    That’s why all the models and whatnot positing various implausible feedback loops. If this was a linear system (Add CO2, increase temperature) with no limit, climate science would be pretty damn easy. But its not.

    1. Yes,the effects of CO2 increase are logarithmic. Each doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere (without feedbacks) is currently accepted as causing a 1 degree rise in global temperatures. So if you had 100 parts per million CO2, you’d have to double it to 200. If you wanted another degree, you’d have to double it to 400, etcetera.

      The problem with saturation providing an upper limit to the warming is the stratosphere, the part of the atmosphere out near space. There is natually very little CO2 up there, so you can keep pumping it into the atmosphere for a very long time before you reached any kind of saturation.

      1. I should probably mention that the infrared absorption bands of water and CO2 partially overlap. Because the stratosphere is bone dry, the CO2 that accumulates up there isn’t interfered with by water vapor grabbing some of the energy, so CO2 becomes an even more dominant player.

        1. The molar assay of the atmosphere is very consistent up and far past the stratosphere barring the % fraction of water vapor in said assay.

          1. You’re correct about the atmosphere being well mixed. What I’m saying is the stratosphere is very thin, so the CO2 we release has a disproportionate influence relative to other greenhouse gases. Saturation therefore doesn’t have much impact at high altitudes. Sorry if I wasn’t clear about that.

            1. Something I’ve always thought in that regard is the mechanical deposition of water vapor by contrails up at those altitudes. Only the biggest storms naturally put moisture in that phase that high. Thousands and thousands of jets are doing that as we speak.

              I personally believe that has a much more outsized input on anthropogenic thermal tweaking of our atmosphere than is appreciated in current GCM implementations.

  15. “deep cuts in global emissions are required by science.”

    Wow! Who would have thought that cutting global emissions was a law of nature analogous to the laws of gravity or thermodynamics!

  16. As an aside, NASA has just posted their data for last month. November 2010 was the warmest November on record, and 2010 is likely to be the warmest year on record.

    http://data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp/tabledata/GLB.Ts+dSST.txt

  17. yes,our climate is really quite stable, and seems to feature negative feedback loops that keep it largely homeostatic.

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