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Copenhagen climate conference kicks off

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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copenhagen-climate-conference-logoTo be or not to be? That is the question. Will 192 world governments agree in the next two weeks on a framework to cut emissions of greenhouse gases and thereby combat climate change? Or will they dither and divide at the Copenhagen climate summit, as they did with previous efforts, including the ineffectual Kyoto Protocol?

The science is clear. Whatever one may make of the recent stolen emails from the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit, the world is still warming (up 0.7 degrees Celsius over the course of the 20th century), its ice is still melting away (sea ice is down to as little as 1.59 million square miles at the North Pole), and even spring has sprung forward. Most importantly, there is no credible alternative hypothesis to the simple physical explanation for this climate change offered by most scientists: infrared radiation trapped by carbon dioxide and other greenhouse molecules in the atmosphere. Not variations in the sun’s strength, not the urban heat island effect, not even cosmic rays.

"The costs of responding to climate change will become progressively higher as time goes on, therefore we must take action now," said Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and co-recipient of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, at the opening gathering Monday.

I’ll be headed to Copenhagen from December 10 through December 19 to join the 15,000 participants, and while there I’ll be observing how negotiators factor in the science as they deal in the "art of the possible," as politics has been described. Initial signs are more hopeful than you might think: the U.S. has a (weak) proposal on the table and President Obama will lend his weight to the final day of the proceedings along with 109 other world leaders; the world’s leading emitter—China—has agreed to reduce its emissions intensity by at least 40 percent (and some government officials have even talked of an emissions peak by 2040); and the world is focused on preventing the deforestation and destruction that makes Indonesia and Brazil (which has pledged its own cuts) leading emitters and may offer up the hard cash to allow a different development path.

"Never in 17 years of climate negotiations have so many different nations made so many firm pledges together," said Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. "Industrialized countries meeting under the Kyoto Protocol need to raise the level of ambition of developed countries with regard to individual targets," specifically he’d like to see them parcel out among themselves global reductions of at least 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. That said, the gap between what countries have proposed and what is needed is just 2 billion metric tons, according to a new analysis by economist Nicholas Stern of the London School of Economics and the UN Environment Programme.

There are plenty of things each of us can do on an individual level, whether it’s buying a more fuel-efficient car or bulking up the insulation in our home. Put that all together in just the U.S.: Americans could cut emissions by 7 percent—as much as all the pollution spewed by aluminum smelters, petroleum refineries and iron and steel works combined. Combine that with some other "wedges" such as more electricity from renewables or electric cars and suddenly the U.S. begins to approach the 80 percent cut necessary by mid-century to avoid catastrophic climate change.

The only thing stopping us is indecision, and we certainly don’t want to end up like Hamlet. By the end of the conference, said Danish Prime Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen, "we must be able to deliver back to the world what was granted us here today: hope for a better future."





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  1. 1. sirebral 3:57 pm 12/7/2009

    Carbonhagen

    1,200 limos, 140 private planes

    I guess only the working class are going to pay for this massive change to the world’s economic and industrial structure. The guys with money to buy "carbon credits" will still be able to do what they like.

    I’ll bet they will still be booking flights on Brtanson’s Spaceship 2 while families of 4 are forced to cram into "Smart" cars.

    Brilliant.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Soccerdad 3:58 pm 12/7/2009

    The hot air resulting from this august body will be more detrimental to the world’s people than the issue they seek to solve.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Mike54 5:37 pm 12/7/2009

    I’m glad you referred to the release of evidence of the global climate fraud.
    You still seem to believe the lies of that fraud!
    Think… the level of CO2 is under 1% of the atmosphere we contribute less than 2% of that.
    It makes NO sense that Man released CO2 is a factor in climate change.

    Get your facts straight, humans do NOT effect the climate with OUR CO2 emmisions.

    TAXING us will NOT fix it. It IS the SUN that has the major effect on our climate.

    Please don’t promote this fear mongering. The tax will put you out of business also!

    Sincerely
    Mike L.

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  4. 4. eco-steve 7:14 pm 12/7/2009

    1,000,000,000 people are starving. Another billion live below poverty level. There are over 6 billion people on this earth. The desperate plight of two billion people show that Democracy has failed, as the majority allow themselves a good life, but the minority are just ignored. The Copenhagen Conference should take this into consideration, as a humanitarian crisis could confront the whole world unless real measures are adopted.

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  5. 5. lracco21 7:26 pm 12/7/2009

    Mike,

    Yes, carbon makes up a very small percent of our atmosphere. However, what the percentage doesn’t tell you is that the percentage of carbon is low due to the fact that it is constantly cycled through the atmosphere through natural biogeochemical cycles.

    These cycles are carefully adapted to control the level of carbon in the atmosphere, and we are messing up the process by burning reserves of carbon that took 400 million years to form in a matter of decades. For obvious reasons this is not natural, and chances are we are going to pay for our negligence unless we take actions to reverse this impact.

    Yes, the intensity of the sun is increasing, but it has been increasing for the 4.6 billion years that the earth has existed, and despite this increase the earth has stayed at remarkable constant temperatures. We are the ones warming the planet, and it is our duty to cool it.

    We do have the facts straight. We ARE effecting the climate with our CO2 emissions.

    Link to this
  6. 6. mo98 11:37 am 12/8/2009

    Value versus cost. How to value the totality of the world population where many, for at least a moment during their lives, aspire to a lifestyle frought with the habits of a few who often appear to lack self discipline to look in the mirror and to teach by example? How many world leaders are ready to say that individual comfort need not be associated to a proportionality of resource usage, waste, and emission increase? Where is the "high" to get cracking on all fronts proportionally?

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