Initial Responses to UN Global Warming Report

As you doubtless know by now, on February 2, the UN issued the first of four reports due out this year by the Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change. The paper, six years in the making, draws on the work of over 2000 highly respected climate scientists from 113 countries. And the conclusions are pretty unambiguous: the authors have a 90% certainty that human activity caused most of the rise in temperatures over the last fifty years.

Here’s a summary from the Washington Post:

Declaring that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal,” the authors said in their “Summary for Policymakers” that even in the best-case scenario, temperatures are on track to cross a threshold to an unsustainable level. A rise of more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels would cause global effects — such as massive species extinctions and melting of ice sheets — that could be irreversible within a human lifetime. Under the most conservative IPCC scenario, the increase will be 4.5 degrees by 2100.

Richard Somerville, a distinguished professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and one of the lead authors, said the world would have to undertake “a really massive reduction in emissions,” on the scale of 70 to 80 percent, to avert severe global warming.

The BBC has already noted the disparity between official reactions in EU and the UK versus the US:

Governments around the world have called for urgent action to tackle climate change, after a major report said mankind was very likely the cause.
The EU said it was the starkest warning yet, while the UK said climate change threatened world peace and prosperity.

The US administration said the report was “valuable”, but rejected mandatory controls to reduce greenhouse gases.

We’ve only seen the beginning of editorials and commentary, but the gap in governmental responses seems to be echoed in the national media. The Financial Times has a long editorial:

We need a clear and predictable price for carbon

Man-made climate change is “unequivocal” and demands urgent action. Yesterday’s report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change underlined the former point, while discussions at the World Economic Forum in Davos last week demonstrated the growing consensus on the latter. The challenge now is action.

The IPCC’s warning is stark: temperatures are likely to rise by about 3°C by 2100, with a range of 2°C to 4.5°C. The latter would be close to the difference between the last ice age and today.

Adaptation is going to be part of the response, not least because a substantial rise in temperatures is already on the way: the stock of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is already 50 per cent above pre-industrial levels. But it is also essential to mitigate growth in the stock, ideally to keep it below 550 parts per million, which would still be double the pre-industrial levels.

On present trends, the atmosphere is likely to reach such a concentration in just three decades. To prevent levels rising further, emissions will need to be reduced to at least 50 per cent below what Sir Nicholas Stern called “business as usual” – that is, the continuation of historic trends – by then.

The good news, suggests the UK Stern review of climate change, is that the economic costs of achieving these objectives might be as little as 1 per cent of global gross product. The bad news is that big changes to long-lived investment decisions will be required soon, particularly in the power sector.

For this reason, the world – and business, above all – needs a predictable and effective replacement for the Kyoto protocol, which expires in 2012. If this is to happen, negotiations will need to be completed by 2010, so progress this year, particularly in discussions between the leading high-income countries and five significant developing countries (Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa) is essential

Much depends, however, on the US, which is responsible for a quarter of all emissions. Without willing American engagement, the chances of an effective international agreement are minimal. The US does not have to sign a treaty. But it does need to put in place an effective scheme for emissions control that can be linked to a global one.

Then, and only then, are the important developing countries likely to be drawn into an effective framework. But they will not agree to the same limits as the high-income countries – and rightly so. Not only have they not caused the problem, but they have overriding development objectives.

The way forward is a framework that compensates developing countries for the costs they bear, but also encourages the most efficient possible use of energy resources. The buying of rights to emit by high-income countries from developing countries is one way to achieve this result. A common tax regime, with accompanying cross- border transfers, would be another.

The crucial requirements, however, are three: a clear and predictable price for carbon emissions across the world; much increased investment in research and development in renewables, nuclear power and carbon capture and storage; and arrangements for transfer of best technology across the globe.

This is a huge, long-term and global challenge that involves difficult questions of justice both within and across generations. Humanity’s ability to address it is a test of its capacity to manage the consequences of its own actions. So far it has failed. It can afford to do so no longer.

By contrast, there is no New York Times editorial on this topic (even Barbaro got an editorial). Maybe the powers that be deemed the first page news coverage to be sufficient (but hey, Barbaro’s death was a first page story too).

Surprisingly, the news summary on the Wall Street Journal’s website (at this hour, usually a good predictor of what will run in the print edition) says:

U.S. government scientists said the long-term outlook for global warming may be more dire than suggested by this week’s United Nations’ report, which they say doesn’t fully address the impact of clouds and melting glaciers.

This item appears to prove the typical (but not universal, as we have discussed) independence of the Journal’s news reporting.

However, the very fact that the government scientists think the IPCC report is understated is predictably undercut on the editorial page, by a commentary, “Political Science,” by Phillip Stott, professor emeritus of biogeoraphy, University of London. While he makes an interesting point, that achieving a stable climate is a false goal (does the report stress that?) which may narrowly be true but fails to marshal any evidence that opposes the report’s findings. Instead, it verges on ad hominem attacks (again, not directly, just via innuendo). The first paragraph give you the flavor:

I confess I was afflicted by a profound world-weariness following the release yesterday of the latest gloomy machinations from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The U.N.’s global-warming caravanserai, founded in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Program, had this time pitched camp in Paris, in order to issue the “Summary for Policy Makers” relating to Working Group One of its “Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007.” This is the group that focuses on “The Physical Science Basis” of climate change, and its summary was greeted with the usual razzmatazz, the Eiffel Tower’s 20,000 flashing bulbs being symbolically blacked out on the evening before. Further IPCC reports are due this year, one in April from Working Group Two, on the impacts of, and adaptation to, climate change, and another in May, from Working Group Three on climate-change mitigation.

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