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Don’t forget the “global” in global climate change

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

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There was a fair amount of chatter on the internet about the lack of climate change in the first presidential debate, popularized as #climatesilence. I weighed in last week saying that I didn’t think climate change should have been brought up. I expect it will be brought up in the second or third debates, where the focus moves to foreign and domestic policy (debate #2) and foreign policy (the final debate).

Andy Revkin at Dot Earth followed up by directly addressing the climate change/debate question head-on:

But in the context of greenhouse-driven climate change, too much of a focus on domestic policies or legislation can obscure bigger realities:
In Australia, for example, a domestic carbon price has been set but carbon exports (Australian coal flowing to Asia) aren’t counted.
Consider this Financial Times headline: “U.S. coal exports to Europe soar.” While campaigners have focused on stopping coal export projects in the Pacific Northwest targeting Chinese demand, there’s a boom in American coal exports to Europe (hey, wasn’t Europe a leading supporter of the Kyoto Protocol?).

Without taking the international consequences of our policies in to account, we’re only looking at a limited part of the issue, which is why I wrote that I didn’t miss climate change in the domestic policy debate.

With that in mind, I also want to point you to remarks made by Todd Stern, the U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change, at Dartmouth College this summer. Climate change is a vast, unwieldy issue, involving economies and politics of every country on Earth. To not consider the global nature of climate change would be missing the complexity of the issue. Mr. Stern explains how the past several climate negotiations, while largely panned, have been successful at embracing the global nature of the issue:

For us, the pivotal features of the Durban Platform that will shape the contours of the new agreement are that it is to be “applicable to all Parties” and that it applies to the world of the 2020s. “Applicable to all” matters because it means the 1990s firewall, according to which commitments were only applicable to some, is finished. The 2020s matter because by that time we will be 30 years removed from the original 1992 division of countries, making that division ever more anachronistic.

None of this means that all countries will be expected to limit emissions in the same way. Differentiation among parties is an accepted premise of climate diplomacy. But in the world of the Durban Platform, it can no longer be the differentiation of two distinct categories of countries; rather, it will have to be the differentiation of a continuum, with each country expected to act vigorously in accordance with its evolving circumstances, capabilities and responsibilities.
These initial observations about the Durban Platform are the only the start of the discussion. A live and active debate is just beginning about the kind of legal agreement that should take effect after 2020.

For many countries, the core assumption about how to address climate change is that you negotiate a treaty with binding emission targets stringent enough to meet a stipulated global goal – namely, holding the increase in global average temperature to less than 2° centigrade above pre-industrial levels – and that treaty in turn drives national action. This is a kind of unified field theory of solving climate change – get the treaty right; the treaty dictates national action; and the problem gets solved. This is entirely logical. It makes perfect sense on paper. The trouble is it ignores the classic lesson that politics – including international politics – is the art of the possible.

This approach allows for flexibility in letting each country craft a solution tailored to their individual economies and politics. Imposing limits on greenhouse gas emissions for each country on a strict timeframe might make us sleep better at night, but it as the high likelihood of gridlock and failure. And also, because it is flexible, goals can be updated as countries emerge from developing status, or other unforeseen circumstances.

It’s keeping the rest of the global community, where each country has its own funky domestic policies and politics and development goals, in mind with our goals for prosperity and development. Mitt Romney essentially articulated this point when he answered the question on climate change. He said:

The reality is that the problem is called Global Warming, not America Warming. China long ago passed America as the leading emitter of greenhouse gases. Developed world emissions have leveled off while developing world emissions continue to grow rapidly, and developing nations have no interest in accepting economic constraints to change that dynamic. In this context, the primary effect of unilateral action by the U.S. to impose costs on its own emissions will be to shift industrial activity overseas to nations whose industrial processes are more emissions-intensive and less environmentally friendly. That result may make environmentalists feel better, but it will not better the environment.

Will climate change come up in next debates? It should. It’s the most important long-term environmental issue facing this planet, affecting economies and people around the world.

David Wogan About the Author: An engineer and policy researcher who writes about energy, technology, and policy - and everything in between. Based in Austin, Texas. Comments? Follow on Twitter @davidwogan.

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

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  1. 1. blindboy 4:03 pm 10/8/2012

    So more or less business as usual then and let the grand kids worry about it?

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  2. 2. priddseren 4:30 pm 10/8/2012

    How about we keep to solutions to mitigate global warming instead of an article about methods to obtain wealth and power in the name of saving the climate.

    This nonsense about creating a “right” to pollute and licensing it, then regulating and making treaties on it and no where is a single solution presented to actually reduce CO2, because there isnt one. Spewing out political demands, regulations and money changing hands when there is no actual solution available, note not one regulation considers the possibility that a country doesn’t want to issue pollution rights and would rather have a technology to mitigate.

    Isnt this racketeering or something? Create a fake problem or use a real one for those believers and blame it on a natural substance. Then knowing there is no actual solution to be found anywhere to truly reduce CO2 output, you make regulations and laws to take money and power. No there is no solution, just a bunch of theories, totally ridiculous plans and maybe an overly expensive and ineffective technology.

    Warmists your theory is totally being made unbelievable because of this nonsense here. You dont get to solutions by government regulation and taxing, the fact that after decades of crying about the sky falling, the best answer you have is governments creating pollution rights and taxing it. This is why you have no credibility.

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  3. 3. Sisko 4:47 pm 10/8/2012

    The best question(s) to discuss/debate:
    1. What is the most likely change in average temperature going to be over the next 50 years

    2. What will be the likely change in conditions (positive and negative) in specific countries as a result of the conclusion reached in #1, and what is the evidence to support this conclusion?

    3. Based on the conclusions reached in #1 and # 2, what government policies are suggested for a specific country and why do these policies make sense

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  4. 4. blindboy 5:08 pm 10/8/2012

    Sisko I don’think it would be too hard to come up with reasonable existing predictions for 1 and 2. The problem with 3 is that no government has been prepared to make the development of these policies a priority that over rides vested interests. Until that happens we’re just fiddling while the planet starts to burn.

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  5. 5. the Gaul 5:15 pm 10/8/2012

    blindboy, I believe you can take “start” & “to” out of your last sentence, move the “s” to the end, & then it will be accurate.

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  6. 6. sjn 9:00 pm 10/8/2012

    We should be hearing about climate change constantly & in all the debates. It characterizes, perhaps more than anything the difference between Romney’s your each on your own & the free market will save you, & Obama’s some things we best do together & government has a strong role.

    IF you accept the scientific consensus on global warming, every year the observed data shows significant changes happening faster than early models predicted. It will take investments on the scale of a war-time economy to develop the technology base to address these issues on the time line needed. Yet Romney has a basic head in the sand approach & Obama continues his timid & limited counterpoints. The question should be – short of a nuclear war can you see any more significant threat to the future of our country than the impacts of global warming.

    If summers like this, where 60% of the country is designated as drought disaster zones, becomes the new normal instead of once in 30-50 year events, it will just be the start.

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  7. 7. way2ec 12:23 am 10/9/2012

    Have to agree with sjn… it will just be the start. Does not bode well for the young and the yet to be born. My long term and best hope is that at some point in a future where the consequences of climate change will be so horrific that the best and the brightest will force or be forced into a new global political alliance. Sustainable lifestyles are not “optional”, they are mandatory, pay now or pay later. My father fought in WW2, in the South Pacific. One of my best friends was a radar specialist in England. It was difficult for them to readjust their world views from Japanese expansion and Nazi Germany’s world domination aspirations to today’s realities. It took one or two generations. 20 million lives in Europe, I don’t know the numbers in the Pacific. This next “Worldwide War” WW3? with 7 billion and counting this time around, with far too many in vulnerable environments, the CO2 “gas war”? And when my pessimism prevails, the Earth will absorb it all, with timelines that will outlast the evolution of our species. T. S. Elliot’s “The Hollow Men”, This is the way the world ends, Not with a bang but a whimper.

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  8. 8. way2ec 12:35 am 10/9/2012

    Should have done my “homework” before posting. From WW2, world wide casualties about 63,185,500. Makes asking the question “What WILL it take?” really really scary.

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  9. 9. blindboy 4:18 am 10/9/2012

    History will look back on us as, to use HST’s phrase, ” A Generation Of Swine”. A hundred or so years of reckless abandon, a thousand years of climate instability! Science has known this was likely since Arrenhius first analysed the situation in the early 19th Century. The lack of action since the 1970s, when it was so well understood that I was discussing it with my high school physics class, is simply criminal. Perhaps as well as “war criminal” we should have the category of “climate criminal” and send Bush, father and son, to The Hague.

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  10. 10. Sisko 9:52 am 10/9/2012

    It is interesting that those who comment and believe that there is some dire potential problem are also unable to reasonably accurately answer the 3 basic questions I asked earlier on this thread.

    If a person cannot reasonably accurately describe the changes in conditions (positive and negative) in specific countries as a result of the conclusion that it will get warmer, why should the people in those countries believe it is important to take actions that will negatively impact their lives today?

    Those who fear this issue need to consider being more realistic in their suggested action plans!

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  11. 11. Bird/tree/dinosaur/etc. geek 3:43 pm 10/9/2012

    @ Sisko: Parts of Norfolk, VA, already flood at high tide. The Sahara is spreading yearly, at an increasing rate due to climactic disruption. Need more? Don’t forget Pacific islands.

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  12. 12. Sisko 4:34 pm 10/9/2012


    Please try to learn more before commenting. There is currently no issue regarding sea level rise. It is, and has been rising at the unalarming rate of a bit less than 1 foot per century. People claimed that therate of sea level rise would accelerate due to it getting warmer, but the truth is that this has NOT happened.

    Regarding the situation in Norfolk (or anywhere else) The relationship between the land and the sea any specific location is impacted to a much greater amount by changes in land height than actual changes in sea level. LOL- perhaps you think that all that extra CO2 in the atmosphere is pushing the land down in Norfolk.

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  13. 13. Bird/tree/dinosaur/etc. geek 4:52 pm 10/9/2012

    Sisko, 1 foot per century is many times faster than any time in the past. You need to a) check your “facts” and b) recognize that you just made yourself look like all three Stooges at once.

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  14. 14. Postman1 9:19 pm 10/9/2012

    Bird- “there is presently no evidence of a statistically significant increase marking an acceleration in
    RSL rise at any of the five bay stations.”
    from the paper:
    Finding that fully 2/3 of the sea level rise in Norfolk is actually due to subsidence.

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  15. 15. way2ec 12:09 am 10/10/2012

    @Sisko, IF I could “answer” the questions, there are those who would try to negate every single item, from changes in sea level, melting ice caps, receding and disappearing glaciers, droughts, expanding deserts, increased intensity in storms, changes in biorhythms (earlier flowering, earlier migrations, etc), expansion of insect “plagues” (such as pine beetles), acidification of the oceans, bleaching of corals, disruption of agriculture… AND they would still claim that I am an alarmist, data or no data. And IF more and more people would and could accept the data from around the world, the next round of debate/attack/denials would be about the rate of change, how bad this year, how much worse 10, 20, 30 years out and anything beyond that is no man’s land. THEN would come the question of “impacts”… the “costs” which would degenerate into how many deaths are directly and indirectly attributed to any one or all of the climate “changes”, how many deaths will become “acceptable”… thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions, hundreds of millions? From there it degenerates into financial costs, an even uglier can of worms. An island nation disappears, rates of extinction, loss of or irreparable changes in ecosystems… incalculable losses. I would put your three questions back at you Sisko, are you prepared or able to tell us YOUR predictions, your calculations of climate changes, down to specific countries, with some governmental policies that make sense, even if they only make sense to you? Perhaps you are a complete denier, and I personally have no problem with that if you come right out and declare it. And for those that believe the Earth is 6,000 or 9,000 years old, dinosaurs lived between the time of the Garden of Eden and Noah’s Flood, that humans were made to have “dominion” over the Earth? The Bible doesn’t say a thing about C02, nor global warming, although some say that the rainbow is the symbol that He won’t flood the ENTIRE world again… but keep melting the icecaps and we’re going to see some SERIOUS flooding. Sisko, what ARE your thoughts when you see a graph of rising C02 levels, 400 ppm and rising, with NOTHING that suggests it will level out, but plenty to suggest it is rapidly increasing? And one more, related to your sarcasm about C02 pushing the land down… rising sea levels and their effects on plate tectonics?… melting icecaps and glaciers and subsequent rising of land masses… I will be the first to admit we are basically clueless as to what we have done and continue to do, having burnt half the planet’s oil reserves and continuing to burn the rest, and we are just beginning to make a dent in the coal reserves. Do you have ANY data that might help us to think that there is a) no cause for alarm b) there is no need to DO anything c) it’s business as usual? Just asking.

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  16. 16. Bird/tree/dinosaur/etc. geek 7:27 am 10/10/2012

    Mailman, the data shows that you and all other AGW denialists are utterly wrong. Your fellow denialist, Sisko, shows that you’re wrong. Please do at least a modicum of research before proclaiming yourself an expert.

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  17. 17. Postman1 5:12 pm 10/10/2012

    Bird- Never said I was an expert, thank you for your confidence. Obviously you did not bother to read the attachment, and that is just as well, you would continue to deny the science anyway. Your mind is made up and we are at fault for your woes. However, having spent time in the area, and with a daughter involved in the study, I know the paper to be factual. The relative sea level is rising in the Delmarva at a higher rate than average global rise, due to subsidence, which is tied to an ancient crater. Read the linked paper if you want to find out more.

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  18. 18. Bird/tree/dinosaur/etc. geek 5:44 pm 10/10/2012

    Mailman, the point is that denying AGW is no longer skepticism–it has become stupidity as all of the rational arguements against AGW have been eliminated.

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  19. 19. notafraidofthetruth 2:20 pm 10/14/2012

    Global Warming is All Political You Idiots

    Global warming stopped 16 years ago–chart-prove-it.html

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  20. 20. Bird/tree/dinosaur/etc. geek 2:59 pm 10/14/2012

    @ notafraidtolie: Find me some evidence from a more trustworthy source than the Daily Mail, and I’ll read it. However, I bet that you won’t respond to me, because you are a denialist troll.

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