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Are the Durban Climate Talks—or Climate Talks in General—Doomed?

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

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durban-delegatesAfter more than 15 years of international climate negotiations, it has become ever more clear that all the carbon dioxide emitted to shuttle diplomats from city to city to hash out a regime to curb climate change has been largely wasted. The success of harried diplomacy in Kyoto in 1997 has given way to Japan buying its way out of emissions reductions in 2011—and refusing to sign up for more. The European Union will trade its way into greenhouse gas cuts, whereas Canada—among the globe’s worst emitters on a per capita basis—has decided to break its pledge to reduce. The U.S., the world’s largest emitter during the bulk of such negotiations, has never officially accepted any legally binding targets under international climate treaties. Nor has China, which has gone from being a developing nation to the planet’s biggest source of human-made greenhouse gases in that same span.

If the goal has been to reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases, climate talks have been a failure. The only things that have delivered real reductions are recessions such as the current one that began in 2008 or wrenching and unpalatable economic change wrought by industrial collapse—Russian emissions have been halved since the heyday of the Soviet Union.

In a few days, I will head (far) south for my fourth United Nations climate conference. The traveling circus touches down in Durban this year and is expected to oversee the end of the Kyoto Protocol, as participants continue the work of creating a successor plan, though not before 2015, according to the latest reports.

That’s because countries like Brazil, China and India want that time to continue economic growth, which means more emissions growth. Industrial countries, including the U.S., are looking to use the time to build domestic political support for curbing climate change. As a result of these ongoing delay tactics, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions have grown by nearly 6 percent since 1990, rather than declining, and countries like Canada and Australia now spew roughly 30 percent more. “The politics and policy are far from what the science is explaining is really needed in order to avoid the worst impacts,” says Jennifer Morgan, director of the climate and energy program at environmental group World Resources Institute. “Things are going in completely the wrong direction.”

Given that climate change will be determined by cumulative emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, we are guaranteeing a warmer world—and its attendant impacts. Already we are getting a taste of the kind of weird weather to come: downpours like Hurricane Irene that traumatized the northeastern U.S., a super-outbreak of tornadoes this past April that is among the most deadly weather-related events in U.S. history, or the ongoing, crippling drought in Texas. Ten people died from flooding in Durban itself over this past weekend. “We have experienced unusual and severe flooding in coastal areas in recent times,” South African President Jacob Zuma observed in opening the conference. “Durban must take us many steps forward towards a solution that saves tomorrow today.”

The only answer for avoiding catastrophic climate change is curbing greenhouse gas emissions, which mostly means burning less fossil fuel. Of course, because the world gets more than 80 percent of its energy from such burning—and 2010 saw the largest amount of such emissions ever—coal, oil and natural gas seem in no danger of being displaced, despite the rapid growth of renewables like wind and solar in recent years. After all, renewables have their own fossil-fuel requirements: steel and cement require coal; plastics come from oil. “A wind turbine is a pure embodiment of power from fossil fuels,” observed environmental scientist Vaclav Smil of the University of Manitoba at an energy summit this past June. Plus, some two billion people still need an energy upgrade from charcoal, wood or dung.

Just in case, however, Saudi Arabia has proposed being compensated for any loss in oil revenues if and when the world does phase out fossil fuels. Maybe that will come in Qatar, host of the next such climate conference in 2012.

Time is not on our side. Just last week the International Energy Agency warned that the world really had only until 2017 to stop the growth in greenhouse gas emissions to avoid global warming of more than two degrees Celsius. That is the avowed goal of recent international climate efforts, such as the Copenhagen Accord and the Cancun Compromise, which appear to be no closer to implementing actual emission reductions. Yet if emissions continue on their present path, that amount of warming— we’re already up more than one degree C worldwide—will have happened by 2040 in “large parts of Eurasia, North Africa and Canada,” according to a recent study in Nature Climate Change. Simply put, greenhouse gas emissions, which are now at some 48 gigatons of CO2-equivalent per year, must peak this decade and begin to fall.

The Republic of South Africa, the host of this year’s climate confab, perfectly embodies the challenge: it is both vulnerable to climate change and an abetter of it through the use (and sale) of coal, the dirtiest of fossil fuels. By the time South Africa and big emitters like China and the U.S. get around to restraining greenhouse gas emissions, it may be too late for some of the 190-odd other countries involved in these climate negotiations. “After a year of record emissions growth and the hottest temperatures on record, the push by the world’s largest carbon polluters to delay flies in the face of the overwhelming evidence in support of immediate action,” argued Ambassador Dessima Williams of Grenada, who heads up an alliance of small island states most threatened by climate change, in Durban. “It is a betrayal not just of small island nations, many of whom would be destined for extinction, but a betrayal of all humanity.” Now where have we heard that before?

Image: via Flickr / UNclimatechange

David Biello About the Author: David Biello is the associate editor for environment and energy at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @dbiello.

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

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  1. 1. bigbopper 5:23 pm 11/29/2011

    As usual, humans are having trouble making sacrifices now for long-term gain. Only this time the stakes are higher than for any previous such conundrum. Pay now or pay more later. My guess is we’ll continue to choose the latter.

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  2. 2. Marc Levesque 6:51 pm 11/29/2011


    “Tinpot dictators in Africa”

    When the international powers of the world, over the past hundreds of years, through bombs, economic submission, and government replacement, sow hate, death, and destruction, ruining whole countries, and shifting their borders, they make it possible for dictators to take power and stay in power, and so even today, and as long as we continue to pay lip service to peace, while we participate, look away, or implicitly sanction land and resource grabs by local and international military or economic entities, for the pleasure of the few, against the best interests of these countries’ citizens, then, we, are also responsible that all theses citizens have is a broken country, a tin pot dictator, and a tacit international support of the status quo.

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  3. 3. priddseren 12:32 am 11/30/2011

    Let’s hope these pointless climate talks are dead in the water finally. It has been nothing more than a scam to get money redistributed and as a way for the global warmists to get money via their bogus green companies they have all invested in.

    Maybe the author should visit a few world cities, choke on the pollution of some of them and then try to say Canada is the worst polluter or america is nearly as bad.

    The problem Mr Beillo is governments, politicians, diplomats and beaurocrats are the most incompetent and dishonest people on the planet. It is insane to believe this group can negotiate anything that would reduce actual polution. You can in fact be assured whatever they do come up with would cost massive amounts of money and increase pollution as well.

    So lets hope this climate nonsense is dead.

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  4. 4. Chris99 8:16 am 11/30/2011

    Yes. Are the Durban Climate Talks—or Climate Talks in General—Doomed?

    Until the “experts” stop fabricating results and account for the white fluffy clouds.

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  5. 5. sault 9:18 am 11/30/2011

    Re priddseren,

    What about the scam that fossil fuel companies get away with: dumping billions of tons of CO2 and other pollutants into our air, water and soil every year FOR FREE? Isn’t that just a way for these industries to offload their costs onto society as a whole to make their products artificially cheap? Isn’t this a way for the Koch Brothers and all the other polluters to get rich while everybody else gets particulate matter in the lungs and benzene in their well water? Seriously, add up the revenues / profit of the dirty energy sector and the clean energy sector. Tell me which one is bigger and maybe the answer will help you answer your question.

    “governments, politicians, diplomats and beaurocrats are the most incompetent and dishonest people on the planet.”

    Ummmm….proof? I would care to venture that right now, CEOs, business-types and their marketing spin-miesters are themselves very incompetent. What with the Ford Pinto fiasco, S&L scandal, Enron, Worldcom, Sub-prime lending, Credit-Default Swaps, bailouts, short-selling, Deepwater Horizon spill, etc.

    Incompetence IS widespread, but if you can find a few specific examples to back up your claims against government, I might be more inclined to listen instead of just tune out your rants.

    “It is insane to believe this group can negotiate anything that would reduce actual polution. You can in fact be assured whatever they do come up with would cost massive amounts of money and increase pollution as well.”

    What about the Montreal Protocol? Disproves your point. The original Kyoto Treaty? Disproves your point. The Nuclear Test Ban Treaty? Disproves your point…etc.

    These regulations hardly affect economic growth:

    And here’s the steak through the heart of the myth that regulations cost too much:

    Some of the regulations studied in the link above had a 22-to-1 benefit to compliance cost ratio! The only other investment with that kind of return is lobbying by the fossil fuel industry to protect its subsidies and stop these regulations that have such a great return!

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  6. 6. Catamount 9:29 am 11/30/2011

    Climate talks are dead, for the moment, and it’s because it’s a topic subject to meaningless opinionization and politicization that takes the focus away from the actual science.

    The problem is that expertise is no longer valued the way it once was, and particularly on this issue, you get the problem of non-scientists, who go and watch The Great Global Warming Swindle, or read a couple of paragraphs from some article by Steve Milloy or Roy Spencer, and suddenly they assume that they know as much as people with PhDs who have studied this topic for decades.

    Journalist Peter Hadfield once referred to these people as “Mcexperts” referencing what he calls the “fast food approach” to science, assuming expertise after gobbling down a few quick sound bites with little actual value.

    It becomes very difficult to convince people to listen to what actual scientists have to say when everyone, 98% of whom couldn’t tell you the difference between albedo and emissivity, things that they’re already experts, and already smarter than those very scientists.

    As a student studying evolution and environmental biology myself, I can say that I certainly understand how these climate scientists feel, because nearly everyone thinks they’re an expert in MY field(s) as well.

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  7. 7. bigbopper 10:55 am 11/30/2011

    @catamount: Agree that your comments are well taken in reference to the American politicization of this issue. But I believe in most countries there is reasonably good acceptance of the mainstream scientific opinion, just an unwillingness to gore one’s own ox, especially if there is a convenient excuse based on what “the other guy” is or isn’t doing. Japan and the EEU have been the exceptions in this regard.

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  8. 8. sault 12:06 pm 11/30/2011

    Look, CO2 traps heat and we’ve increased it’s concentration by 40%. ALL the best science on this issue says that we should lower our emissions as quickly as possible. If we stopped subsidizing dirty energy and instead incorporated the cost of the messes it causes into its price, that would go a long way towards solving this problem.

    Efficiency and clean energy are reaching cost parity NOW and continuing to tilt the market in favor of the dirty and established energy sources distorts the free market and keeps the playing field from being level.

    Offering a variety of transportation options for communities across the country instead of just relying on cars could cut our petroleum usage a great deal, while increasing vehicle efficiency and electrification can get us on the path of sustainability.

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  9. 9. David_Lewis 12:22 pm 11/30/2011

    A wind turbine isn’t a “pure embodiment of power from fossil fuels”. It puts out power that can be compared to all other power sources in terms of grams of CO2 emitted over the lifecycle per kWhr produced. I’ve never heard anyone almost claim, as you have Smil almost do here, that wind power puts out as much CO2 as burning fossil fuel. What is your point? Are you trying to convince us you don’t know anything?

    Nuclear power is almost as low as wind power when its lifecycle CO2 emissions per kWhr produced are compared. I noticed the word “nuclear” doesn’t appear in your article.

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  10. 10. Carlyle 6:57 pm 11/30/2011

    It will fail by any realistic test but be classed as a success by the delegates regardless. part of their modus operandi. If their concerns were genuine, they would go for the only proven technology first. Nuclear power. This would more quickly lower the Co2 emissions they pretend they are worried about without driving the developed world back into poverty as well as lifting the developing & under developing world out of poverty, if they can overcome systemic corruption.
    After the nuclear programme has the funding it needs, the green alternatives can have a very modest budget until someone comes up with a realistic alternative scheme. None exists at the moment except in the minds of those who are happy to accept fudged figures from interest groups like the socialist groupies gathering in Durban, flown in by their gas guzzling jets all on the public teat.

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  11. 11. Science Professor 5:51 pm 12/1/2011

    geojellyroll reflects the scientific ignorance that has slowed progress on a comprehensive climate treaty. Canada deserves its status as an international climate pariah, doing next to nothing domestically to reduce emissions and sabotaging international efforts to reach a deal. As a rich developed country our Prime Minister has decided to ignore the science in order to advance the interests of the oil industry based in Alberta. It is shameful and I and many Canadians are deeply embarrassed by our neglect of our ethical and moral responsibilities to reduce emissions.
    Lots of oil money tends to do that to people, they become self-centered and greedy.

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  12. 12. KiwiBuzz 7:40 pm 12/1/2011

    Climate talks are doomed because:
    1 although the work is born by nearly 1°, most of the was before carbon dioxide levels rose noticeably.

    2 all the evidence points to the fact that the recent warming–which stopped more than 10 years ago–is natural. Only flawed climate models indicate otherwise.

    3 The world has not warmed for the last 10 to 15 years, 2012 will be cool because of the large media of fact and beyond that, the declining sunspots and a length of the previous sunspot cycle both tell us that the next 20 or so years will show no warming. The British mess has now agreed with this.


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  13. 13. KiwiBuzz 7:47 pm 12/1/2011

    Climate talks are doomed because:
    1 although the world has warmed by nearly 1°, most of it was before carbon dioxide levels rose noticeably.

    2 all the evidence points to the fact that the recent warming is natural. Only flawed climate models indicate otherwise.

    3 The world has not warmed for the last 10 to 15 years, 2012 will be cool because of the lL nina effect and beyond that, the declining sunspots and the long length of the previous sunspot cycle both tell us that the next 20 or so years will show no warming. The British Met office has now agreed with this.

    4 climate gate 2.0, even more than the original, shows how allegedly reputable climate scientists have serious doubts about man-made global warming, have conspired against other climate scientists who dared to publish, for instance, the fact that the mediaeval period was warmer than now and have generally behaved quite disgracefully.

    5 the climate changes naturally, it has always done so and will continue to do so. The biggest risk is cooling because history tells us that this is always bad. History also tells us that warming is good. Only the IPCC scientists tell us that warming is bad. And much of what they tell us–for instance about malaria–is demonstrable rubbish.

    6 Western economies are in a bad state and cannot afford to continue squandering billions and billions of dollars in a futile effort to change the climate using totally ineffective and hugely expensive renewable energy.

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  14. 14. the Gaul 3:37 pm 12/2/2011

    @pridd The only ‘nonsense’ is that spewed by you.

    In reference to Canada, the story said ‘per capita.’ I realize that a person has to have a grade school education to understand the words used; you’ve failed that test.

    Governments, politicians, etc. ARE dishonest; in the U.S., they are predominantly Repubs, whose coffers are replenished only when they lie, obfuscate, and delay doing the RIGHT and NECESSARY things. It’s not at all difficult to follow the money… The worst polluters bought the politicians who will strive to allow them to continue to dump their pollution into our biosphere.

    But have no fear, pridd. You will be able to live the rest of your miserable life in a world that will slowly grow worse and worse. The effects will be so gradual that you will easily be able to shrug off the occasional climatic disaster. But your grandchildren – they will curse you all of their days.

    ANYONE with two functioning brain cells realizes the problem, the stakes, the solution. You’ve failed that test as well.

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  15. 15. the Gaul 4:14 pm 12/2/2011

    @buzzer As for what you wrote . . .

    1. You will not find anyone who does not realize that the planet warms and cools naturally. That much is about the only relatively truthful statement you’ve made. Connecting the dots is most certainly not one of your strong points. The idea that carbon dioxide rose during a time of natural warming DOES NOT eliminate, or even reduce its role in climate change. See if you can grasp this: additional, man-made carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere is NOT natural. Got that? Nature does not build smokestacks. Nature does not mine, then burn coal.

    2. see 1.

    3. Considering that a vast majority of the warmest years on record fell in the last decade, your sentence is an outright lie.

    4. & 5. More garbage from where? Fux News? If you spent ANY time reading what you’re complaining about, you would understand cherry picking. You might even begin to be ashamed of the lies that you hold so dear. But I doubt it.

    6. Non-renewable energy is only cost-effective because its subsidies are hidden from public view. Developing renewable energy is an economic plus – not the reason that economies are in their current state. That would have to do with the mishandling of other issues by politicians, and banks. But since you are a flaming denier, then you also don’t fault the real cause of our economic disaster.

    Trying to reason with empty heads is a useless endeavor.

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  16. 16. drgray 5:07 am 12/4/2011

    The “Global Warming” talks that have become so circular that they are following an inevitable winding down to nothing is due to nothing more than inadaquate scientific evidential support. That is support that we know nothing of since, in reality we do not have all the factors to prove that carbon monoxide is absolutely a global warming factor. Water vapor, however; is. Shall we get rid of all of the water vapor?
    Of real concern to the astronomers who study our only primary source of energy past, present and future is the little star that we term the sun. History has shown that when the sun spots disappear, solar radiation slows. The astronomers are not absolutely certain that the current absence of sunspots will continue and they certainly hope not. They will have to wait till 2013 to be better assured that we are not headed into a mini ice age. I believe in a “Higher Power” because I can not explain a universe that has no beginning nor end. I pray that some “Higher Power” will restore the sun spots and let us avoid a mini ice age. In the meantime, it might be wise to develop as many nuclear power plants as we can and as for the U.S., consolidate and develop our energy reserves in such a manner as to not be dependent on other nation’s energy reserves. We have 500 years in natural gas reserves and some suspect that the Oklahoma earthquakes may have opened some new oil reserves there. Meanwhile, we best forget about carbon dioxide and let the trees use it for our oxygen supply. By the way, we all know about the R-12 and R-22 refrigerant hoax now. Watch the weather report and each day the primary pollutant is ozone B. Ozone A is still out there and the hole in the ozone A layer is still enlarging and shrinking as it always has.
    Now, what is the next “scientific scam” to make money on?

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  17. 17. drgray 5:10 am 12/4/2011

    Let me add an OOOOPS! I meant carbon dioxide and not monoxide.

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  18. 18. stephen.cohen 12:20 pm 12/7/2011

    @Catamount I could not agree more…

    It would be of great value if McExperts graciously removed themselves from the discourse. My expertise is in mechanical engineering, and have only general understanding of the atmospheric sciences. My science background allows me to follow the scientific conversation, but my lack of expertise regarding our climate means that I should not be among those leading this particular conversation.

    My greatest source of frustration stems from the scientific illiteracy of those disseminating scienctific information, be it in the media, or on this message board. A little bit of science education would show McExperts that they are in no position to lend their voice to this discourse. It would empower them to follow the discourse from the sidelines, and endow them with respect for the actual science experts in this very important field, whose voices are muddled amidst too much noise.

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  19. 19. jsobry 1:31 pm 12/7/2011

    A lot more OOOOPS are required.

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  20. 20. jsobry 2:14 pm 12/7/2011

    Here are some questions related to your various points.

    1) The CO2 has increased from 180 ppm 20,000 years ago to just about 400 ppm now. That is more than a 100 % increase. Also the average temperature has increased by 6 degrees Celcius since that time.
    How do you come to your conclusion???

    2) What evidence ???

    3) How do you know that the world has cooled in the last 10 to 15 years?
    As far as I know there was another heat wave in Russia and Texas was burning and drying out simultaneously. Not to mention all the other evidence such as glaciers melting, floods in Australia, Pakistan, Thailand etc. and permafrost disappearing all over the place.

    Also your points 2 and 3 are contradictory and confusing. If the recent warming was due to natural causes, how come the last 10 or 15 years were cooling? Which part of the recent was warming and which part of recent was cooling???
    What do you mean by recent? What do you mean by the last 10 or 15 years?????

    4) This statement makes it very hard to tell which scientists are claiming what. Please clarify.

    5) Finally a true statement: the climate changes naturally. But we are part of nature and so we can change the climate as well as any other part of nature if not better.
    Your argument about cool being bad and warm being good is totally inadequate. Some people and I like it cool even cold and some people like it warm, even hot. But at either end of the scale things will get out of hand and nobody will like it. So both extremes are BAD.

    6) I did not know that western economies squandered billions of dollars on renewable energy. All I know is that we have squandered billions of dollars on energy, … period. Even a small effort in using energy more efficiently would improve the economies of the western world enormously regardless of whether it is fossil fuel based energy or renewable energy.

    I am awaiting your reply …

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