The Durban Deal: Everything and Nothing

The thing about the "Durban Platform for Enhanced Action," is that it simultaneously manages to both exceed expectations and demolish any remaining hope for real action. In effect, it tells us everything we need to know about geopolitics of climate change.

As the name implies, this is an agreement for further negotiations. The basic idea is the world will talk for another four years, with the ultimate goal of some kind of undefined "legal" agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions beginning in 2020. Given how far apart are the developing and developing worlds on who is responsible for doing what, this represents a major diplomatic achievement. Really. It may not sound like much, but it's being called "historic," "a great result," and a host of other hyperbolic superlatives, mostly by those who see the world through the lens of finance.

Even Scientific American's David Biello inexplicably swallowed the Kool Aid:

"For the first time, all major nations--developed and developing--have agreed to a roadmap that would combat climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions...

But those who pay attention to less mutable factors involving the laws of thermodynamics are taking the opposite view.(Perhaps, to use a climatological metaphor, we could say the business-oriented elements are concerned with feedbacks, while climate-change activists are interested more in forcings.) Critics point out that the Durban deal basically commits the planet to a post-industrial temperature rise of more than 2 °C sometime in the next few decades. One thing it is most definitely NOT is "a roadmap that would combat climate change." It is a roadmap to a unknown strategy that may or may not produce a plan that might combat climate change.

While still theoretical possible to limit warming to less than two degrees, that gets absurdly expensive if we wait until 2020 to start doing something about the cause of the warming,
Here is the take of the Climate Analytics group:

We are heading toward a global emissions pathway that will take warming to 3.5degC, and far from a cost-optimal pathway to keep warming below 2degC, according to the latest analysis from the Climate Action Tracker, a joint project of Climate Analytics, Ecofys and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

With the current pledges taken under the Cancun Agreements, global emissions would be on a pathway where, in 2020, we would be emitting 55 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent a year (GtCO2e/year), way above the levels consistent with a 2degC pathway of below 44GtCO2e/year....

...leaving mitigation decisions until 2020, i.e. staying with the current pledges, would mean those emissions would need to be reduced by 3.8% a year after 2020...

That's well above what most analyses suggest the world could tolerate without suffering serious economic disruption. So now we are either committed to "catastrophic" changes in climate, or catastrophic changes in our standard of living. Well, actually, it's worse than that. If you factor in the cost of dealing with climate change, it turns out that the costs of delaying action by nine years are daunting either way:

The International Energy Agency's "World Energy Outlook 2011" carries a similar message. It indicates that for every US$1 of investment not spent on reducing emissions in the power sector before 2020 an additional US$4.3 would need to be spent after 2020 to compensate for the increased emissions.

So what we really saw in Durban wasn't really a tradeoff between protecting the environment and protecting the economy, it was a decision to transfer all the pain to the future. Simple as that. Thomas Homer Dixon call it "a pathetic exercise in deceit." Sounds about right.

The brilliantly timed annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union last week saw plenty of material that support this interpretation. Here's a NASA summary of the work of some of its own presented just as the negotiators at Durban were scrambled to come up with their groundbreaking plan not to save the planet.

In recent research, [James] Hansen and co-author Makiko Sato, also of Goddard Institute for Space Studies, compared the climate of today, the Holocene, with previous similar "interglacial" epochs - periods when polar ice caps existed but the world was not dominated by glaciers. In studying cores drilled from both ice sheets and deep ocean sediments, Hansen found that global mean temperatures during the Eemian period, which began about 130,000 years ago and lasted about 15,000 years, were less than 1 degree Celsius warmer than today. If temperatures were to rise 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial times, global mean temperature would far exceed that of the Eemian, when sea level was four to six meters higher than today, Hansen said.

"The paleoclimate record reveals a more sensitive climate than thought, even as of a few years ago. Limiting human-caused warming to 2 degrees is not sufficient," Hansen said. "It would be a prescription for disaster."

Hansen focused much of his new work on how the polar regions and in particular the ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland will react to a warming world.

Two degrees Celsius of warming would make Earth much warmer than during the Eemian, and would move Earth closer to Pliocene-like conditions, when sea level was in the range of 25 meters higher than today, Hansen said. In using Earth's climate history to learn more about the level of sensitivity that governs our planet's response to warming today, Hansen said the paleoclimate record suggests that every degree Celsius of global temperature rise will ultimately equate to 20 meters of sea level rise. However, that sea level increase due to ice sheet loss would be expected to occur over centuries, and large uncertainties remain in predicting how that ice loss would unfold.

Hansen notes that ice sheet disintegration will not be a linear process. This non-linear deterioration has already been seen in vulnerable places such as Pine Island Glacier in West Antarctica, where the rate of ice mass loss has continued accelerating over the past decade. Data from NASA's Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite is already consistent with a rate of ice sheet mass loss in Greenland and West Antarctica that doubles every ten years. The GRACE record is too short to confirm this with great certainty; however, the trend in the past few years does not rule it out, Hansen said. This continued rate of ice loss could cause multiple meters of sea level rise by 2100, Hansen said.


The human-caused release of increased carbon dioxide into the atmosphere also presents climate scientists with something they've never seen in the 65-million-year record of carbon dioxide levels - a drastic rate of increase that makes it difficult to predict how rapidly the Earth will respond. In periods when carbon dioxide has increased due to natural causes, the rate of increase averaged about .0001 parts per million per year - in other words, one hundred parts per million every million years. Fossil fuel burning is now causing carbon dioxide concentrations to increase at two parts per million per year.

Oh yes. There's also this report from Russia about methane escaping from the near-shore floor of the Arctic Ocean.

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Thank you for the insight of the so-called climate agreement and Dr Hansen and Dr Sato paper and the unsettling news of the maasive and rapid changes we may be causing due to the cargon level increase.
With the population set to raise by at least another 2 billion to 9 and continued consumer culture and fossil fuel infrastructure buildup, diaster is for certain. The political system is not able to cope with this problem of the "commons". Each is pointing the finger at the other and expecting action. Is our financial system capable of a "no growth" mentality?
Unfortunately, time is not on our side and our response is too slow. How many decades will it take to convert to a non-carbon energy society? Jeremy Rifkin could answer that one and it is not in our favor.

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