FT Climate Experts' Forum: The Copenhagen agreement - disappointment or relief?
IPN Opinion article
Financial Times (Energy Source blog)
Financial Times: The UN conference in Copenhagen finally ended on Saturday morning with a global deal on climate change, although it was a non-binding agreement and far from unanimous. Is the agreement a disappointment or a relief?
Julian Morris: The Copenhagen accord is a work of monumental hubris. Article 2 states: “We agree that deep cuts in global emissions are required according to science, and as documented by the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report with a view to reduce global emissions so as to hold the increase in global temperature below 2 degrees C, and take action to meet this objective consistent with science and equity.” But “science” does not assert that it is necessary to “hold the increase in temperature below 2 degrees C”. That is an arbitrary political goal. Moreover, “science” does not say that “deep cuts in global emissions” would be necessary in order to achieve that goal. Again that is simply an assertion that has been repeated mantra-like by a wide range of interests – from business people to academics to politicians.
There remains considerable disagreement among scientists as to what impact rising greenhouse gas concentrations will have. While most agree that there is likely to be some warming, leading experts, such as Richard Lindzen at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, argue that the impact will be small. Others, such as James Hansen at Nasa, argue that it will be large. The debate centres on the direction and extent of feedbacks that currently are poorly understood.
If atmospheric temperatures rise gradually, even a 4ºC rise is probably quite manageable at relatively low cost. As long as people are able to develop and utilise new technologies, both agriculture and forestry will adapt without too much difficulty. Meanwhile, rising seas and increasing flood risks can be contained by building appropriate defences. Finally, the impact on water scarcity and disease are best addressed through better management: hundreds of millions of people lack regular, reliable access to clean water today because of poor management. Solve that problem and any extra stresses induced by climate change will become manageable. Likewise, disease: the World Health Organisation estimates that about 10m children die every year from preventable or easily curable diseases. Some of those diseases might in principle be made worse by climate change (though this is hotly contested by experts such as Paul Reiter at the Pasteur Institute); but if those diseases are eliminated – as they have been in rich countries – then climate change will not lead to an increase.
If, on the other hand, atmospheric temperatures were suddenly to lurch upwards, adaptation would be much more difficult and for some may well be impossible. While this might be slightly more likely to occur if the global mean temperature rises by 2ºC (above which base temperature?), we have no way to evaluate the change in probability of such catastrophe at different temperatures. Maybe 1.5ºC – or even 1ºC – is too high. It might be possible to construct alternative metrics that do act as proverbial canaries in the coalmine (attempts have been made to do this), but relying on global mean temperature is a very risky endeavour. The more so given recent revelations about the manipulation of data by the statisticians charged with developing long-run temperature records.
To the extent that policy can address such potential catastrophe, a growing body of work suggests that geo-engineering is the most cost-effective approach. Controlling carbon emissions is likely to be enormously expensive. As the discussions in Copenhagen over the past two weeks have demonstrated, the political hurdles may prove to be insurmountable.
Unfortunately, even after the Copenhagen debacle, we appear still to be locked into a policy path that is to say the least sub-optimal. A combination of carbon controls, which benefit a small number of highly concentrated industries at the cost of everyone else, and massive transfers of wealth (in the name of “adaptation”) from taxpayers in rich countries to the political elites of poor countries, is a recipe for disaster.
Julian Morris is an economist, author and director of The International Policy Network.