The mask slips

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The Durban meeting shows that climate policy and climate science inhabit parallel worlds.

It says a lot about the outcome of the UN climate talks in South Africa at the weekend that most of the immediate reports focused on the wrangling that led to an agreement of sorts, rather than the contents and implications of the agreement itself. Late-night talks, later-night arguments and early-morning pacts between battling negotiators with the apparent fate of the world resting on their shoulders give the process a melodrama that is hard to resist, particularly for those who experienced it first hand in the chaos of the Durban meeting (see page 299).

Such late finishes are becoming the norm at these summits. Only as nations abandon their original negotiating positions and reveal their true demands — throwing international differences into stark relief — does a sense of urgency develop and serious negotiation take place. Combined with the consensus nature of the talks, which demands that everyone agrees to everything, the result is usually a cobbled-together compromise that allows as many countries as possible to claim victory and, most importantly, provides them with a mandate to reconvene in 12 months' time.

So it was this time. In the search for a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, we now have the Durban Platform, which comes on the heels of the Bali Road Map and the Copenhagen Accord.

It takes a certain kind of optimism — or an outbreak of collective Stockholm syndrome — to see the Durban outcome as a significant breakthrough on global warming, as many are claiming. Outside Europe — which has set itself binding emissions goals over the short and long term beyond what it will inherit under its stated plan to carry on with unilateral cuts under an extended Kyoto — there will be no obligation for any nation to reduce soaring greenhouse-gas emissions much before the end of the decade. And that is assuming that all flows smoothly in future UN talks, and that a global deal with binding commitments proves easier to find in talks due to start in 2015 than it has so far.

The Durban deal may mark a success in the political process to tackle climate change, but for the climate itself, it is an unqualified disaster. It is clear that the science of climate change and the politics of climate change, which claims to represent it, now inhabit parallel worlds.

This has always been true up to a point, but surely the mask of political rhetoric has now slipped so far, to reveal the ugly political reality underneath, that it can never be replaced. How can politicians talk now with a straight face of limiting global warming to 2 °C? How will campaigners frame this result as leaving yet another 'last chance' to save the planet?

That does not make the political process redundant — far from it. Introducing policies to curb emissions was never about saving the planet or not, or stopping global warming or not. It is about damage limitation — the 3 °C or 4 °C of average warming the planet could experience in the long term, according to some analyses of the Durban outcome doing the rounds, is clearly much worse than the 2 °C used as shorthand for dangerous at present. But it is preferable to the 5 °C or 6 °C that science suggests is possible if emissions continue to rise unabated.

To prevent that outcome will be just as difficult politically as was the now abandoned attempt to find a global successor in time to follow Kyoto. But it remains possible — and there were at least encouraging signs in Durban that previously obstinate countries recognize that it is necessary, even if it is delayed. Those, including this journal, who have long argued the scientific case for the need to control greenhouse-gas emissions should back this new political mood to the hilt. But as the Durban Platform crowds with politicians, the climate train they wait for has left the station.


  1. Report this comment #34028

    Jeffrey Thaler said:

    Well written editorial, and unfortunately too accurate. There is a theme arising out of Durban on the limits of legal-political processes, as well as the growing gap between scientific and political "realities". How to bridge that gap, so we are not just mitigating significant harms to the world our children inherit, is the still-to-be-resolved challenge that requires work outside of the big conference halls. Time and growing GHG emissions are not waiting for any of us.

  2. Report this comment #34039

    Fred Singer said:

    The Nature editorial (Dec 15; The Mask Slips) talks about science and policy in parallel universes. Quite correct ? if you mean ?separate? and ?disconnected.? COP 17 was never about climate, let alone science. It was all about money: (1) How to assure continuing government careers for 200 delegations, with annual vacations paid by taxpayers. (2) How to transfer $100 billion a year from industrialized nations to LDCs (or more precisely, to their kleptocratic rulers), using ?climate justice? or ?climate guilt? (depending on who is doing the talking). (3) How to gain a national advantage by setting differential emission limits.

    By now it should be obvious that (1) the enshrined temperature limit of +2degC is based on fiction and has no scientific basis. As an annual global average, climate models tell us, it will mean warmer winter nights in Siberia and Canada; perhaps -35deg instead of -40; and little warming in the tropics. (2) It should also be obvious that even strenuous and economy-killing efforts at mitigation, will have little effect on atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, let alone on climate. If a demonstration is needed, just look at the lack of warming since 1998, in spite of rapidly rising levels of greenhouse gases.

    So, yes, I would agree with the editorial, if properly expanded.

  3. Report this comment #34049

    Kevin Matthews said:

    Yes, great editorial. Coming from the world's leading scientific journal (which of course would prefer not to have to say such things) one would hope that authorities and media around the world take significant notice.

    Thinking about the whole UN climate negotiation process, and how complex and cumbersome it is to seek unanimous agreement from 194 countries....

    Then comparing what has come out of the COP17 cycle – significant and landmark progress, even if still sharply insufficient to the urgency of need – to what has come out of the U.S. Congress over the last several months or more, with its supposedly streamlined and results-oriented binary democracy approach – practically nothing.

    And suddenly – surprise! - consensus (in this entirely limited comparison) looks pretty darn effective – just from a simple results-accomplished perspective.

    For which differential, there is, in turn, good scientific reason.

  4. Report this comment #34146

    Patrik D'haeseleer said:

    I think it is very clear that the "global consensus" approach to dealing with climate change has failed.

    I may be time for those countries who are willing to do something about it to band together and go it alone. And then start charging tariffs on any goods imported from countries not part of the coalition, proportional to the amount CO2 pollution caused by those countries.

    If we can get Europe, Africa and the island nations on board, I don't think it would take too long for China and India to follow suit.

  5. Report this comment #34154

    Michael Lerman said:

    I do not subscribe to the concept of global warming induced by human activities. About a 1,000 years ago Greenland was green and cows brought by the Vikings polluted the clean Arctic air. Instead of global warming Greenland got frozen till today. I often go to The Canadian Arctic and indeed can testify that the mean temperatures in July are higher than previously (~10 years ago), and though my Inuit friends blame the US government, I argue and try to persuade them their view is wrong. Michael Lerman, Ph.D., M.D.

  6. Report this comment #34314

    Karin Green said:

    I find this comment in the article troubling: "Those, including this journal, who have long argued the scientific case for the need to control greenhouse-gas emissions should back this new political mood to the hilt", especially when you say something like " there were at least encouraging signs in Durban that previously obstinate countries recognize that it is necessary, even if it is delayed".

    To me, this bodes ill for an open minded and unbiased editorial policy!

  7. Report this comment #34516

    Jeffrey Eric Grant said:

    The COP people have been at it for a long time! I would think that if the science is solid, then the arguements would have moved foreward, at least a little. Instead, we are still talking about the evidence of global warming, and how to mitigate against it.
    AGW is all based on atmospheric rise in CO2 that was put there by human activity.So, now we have closed the talks in Durban, still with no agreement on the cause of the increased CO2 that will, someday, maybe, eventually, turn the world temperatures a little warmer. Not in my lifetime; maybe not even in yours!
    I challenge anyone on this thread to answer either of the following two questions:
    1) direct me to a recent empirical scientific study that concludes that increased atmospheric CO2 caused the inclease in atmospheric temperatures more than about 2C/100yr?, or
    2) Since water retains less CO2 when it is heated, how can the worlds oceans be both warmer and more acidic at the same time?

  8. Report this comment #34770

    Heather Landin said:

    As sad as it is, I think the solution that sustains a survivable equilibrium for life on the planet will be based on the system response to increased emissions and human intellect will have little to do with it. I'm anticipating that the climate will trigger social and biological catastrophe for the overgrown human population on the planet, bringing the CO2 emissions way down. The political and intellectual cooperation inherent in our species is not sufficient to mitigate this more personal catastrophe for the global population anymore than we are able to address our environment as a species. Whether this bottle neck in our evolution eliminates us or makes us more adaptable is impossible to predict. I am guessing we can survive a great deal of change as small groups, but I don't have much hope for civilization as we know it.

  9. Report this comment #34776

    Heather Landin said:

    to Jeffrey – need to study equilibrium in chemical and biological systems as well as human history and psychology. One piece of data is not going to answer your question. It's a big picture think sort of thing. We need shamans, not linear thinkers to get through this. Dump a can of fish food in your aquarium and think of it as petroleum and see what happens.

  10. Report this comment #35130

    Arno Arrak said:

    I fully agree with Fred Singer's comments, the most important of which is that no attempt to use science to justify COP 17 was made. I will hereby bring in the relevant science that should have been considered prior to writing this panegyric to UN climate talks. First, taken for granted by the public is that the greenhouse effect of carbon dioxide is warming the world and will lead to dangerous global warming that will fry us. There are both observational and theoretical objections to this naive view. The simplest observation is that carbon dioxide is still rising at the same rate it has been since 1954 but global temperature has not changed at all for the last ten years. This means no actual greenhouse effect for ten years, and yet it did not stop the meeting as Singer points out. This temperature information comes from satellite measurements that have been available since December 1978. In all that time satellites have observed only one short spurt of warming. It started with the super El Nino of 1998, in four years raised global temperature by a third of a degree, and then stopped. It was oceanic, not greenhouse in nature. A third of a degree is half of what IPCC has allotted to the entire twentieth century. It was this warming and not an imaginary greenhouse effect that was responsible for the record-breaking temperatures of the first decade of our century. Which means that we have no direct observations of the greenhouse effect at all for the last 31 years. I know what global warming advocates will now say: greenhouse effect follows from Arrhenius law who promulgated it in the nineteenth century. Natural forces can temporarily interfere with it but it is guaranteed to return. Keenlyside et al. (Nature 1st May 2008) applied this idea to the present warming pause. Wait, he says, his climate models prove it is only temporary and warming will be back in force by the year 2015. But all this is just speculation based on models, no observational data to support it. There is much observational data, however, for the opposite case. Ferenc Miskolczi, a Hungarian scientist at NASA, used NOAA weather balloon observations that go back to 1948 to prove that the transparency of the atmosphere in the infrared where carbin dioxide absorbs has not changed for the last 61 years. During that same period the amount of carbon dioxide in the air increased by 21.6 percent. This means that the addition of this amount of carbon dioxide to the air had no effect whatsoever on the absorption of IR by the atmosphere. And no absorption means no greenhouse effect, case close. This is an empirical observation of nature, not derived from any theory. Any theory that predicts results that do not agree with this observation must be modified or abandoned. And the theory that is used to predict dangerous greenhouse warming ahead is just such a theory. It simply does not agree with what is happening in nature. Which takes away the raison d'etre of the entire UN climate meeting. There are of course a few apparent loopholes, one of which is abundant proof that the Arctic is warming. This, unfortunately, does not help the case for greenhouse warming either because can be proved that Arctic warming is not greenhouse warming but is caused by Atlantic Ocean currents carrying warm water into the Arctic. (A.Arrak, E&E vol 11 issue 8, pp. 1069-1083 (2011)). There is more, but that is the missing science the editors should have taken into account before they wrote that editorial.

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