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Expertise on climate is a terrible thing to waste

by Kevin Rafferty

Special To The Japan Times

Doha, the capital of the oil state of Qatar, might be regarded as the most appropriate host for the climate change talks that have started, given that it is a living, breathing testament to the oil and gas-guzzling modern economy.

It offers up free electricity, traffic jams of SUVs and a profusion of steel and glass high-rise buildings that have tamed the 40-to-50-degree (Celsius) heat into comfortable air-conditioned bliss.

In consequence, Qatar is the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases per person, more than twice those of the United States. But the government has no plans to take action on climate change.

Is it a savage irony or just a sad joke that the latest attempt to reach an international agreement to curb the greenhouse gases that threaten the future of fragile planet Earth have opened there?

Delegates from 194 countries plus armies of experts from the United Nations and its agencies have started two weeks of creating a lot more hot air and trying to find a successor agreement to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which was stillborn because the U.S. refused to ratify it after signing it.

The best hope is that Doha will be a steppingstone on the way to a new climate change treaty, which will be agreed by 2015 but will not come into force until 2020. However, skeptics are unsure whether even this leisurely pace toward an agreement can be achieved.

Christiana Figueres, the executive secretary of the U.N. climate convention, admits that “We are far behind our targets in every single report.” Nevertheless, she is hoping that, in Doha, possible institutional arrangements for a deal will be put in place.

She has already prepared optimistic closing remarks for the Doha meeting. She told The New York Times: “I’m going to say, ‘This is another firm step in the right direction, but the path is still a long road ahead.’” If this is the best case, the world is in big trouble. It is. Time is running out. Time has already run out.

All of the best scientific research is pointing in the same direction — that world leaders are doomed to failure when it comes restricting the rise in Earth’s temperatures to 2 degrees above pre-Industrial levels. The United Nations has noted that greenhouse gas emissions are 14 percent higher than they should be if the world is to keep the temperature rise to 2 degrees. The World Meteorological Organization has reported that greenhouse gases have reached a record 394 parts per million, way above the 280 ppm of the pre-industrial era, and is rising rapidly from the 389 levels of 2010.

The uncomfortable fact is that human beings are spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere faster than at any time in the past 55 million years. The World Bank this month warned that the world is on track to be 4 degrees higher, and some scientists claim that the temperature rise may even reach 6 degrees.

The consequence is not merely that the Earth will become unbearably hot. The rise in sea waters will mean that some cities and countries may be swamped; others will have to live with the possibility of regular storm surges reaching several meters high.

It is not merely writing on the wall. There have already been savage visitations from Nature. This year has seen huge floods in China, India, Australia and Nigeria, while the United Kingdom had drought in the spring and is now suffering flooding. Even the skeptical U.S. has seen its hottest year on record and blistered crops. The final stages of the U.S. election campaign were interrupted by super Hurricane Sandy, which wreaked damage worth an estimated $40 billion.

Bloomberg Businessweek heralded the storm with a cover picture of floods and a bold headline that yelled, “It’s Global Warming, Stupid!”

But American politicians are wrapped up in immediate issues. They rushed to give succor and aid for victims of Sandy — and President Barack Obama drew plaudits from the Republican governor of New Jersey for his promptness and energy — but promises to do something about global warming or the threat to the Earth were missing from the election campaign.

At the global level, leaders are pussyfooting around. Even if they can achieve agreement on a new protocol and implement it immediately by 2015 — which is not on the agenda — it will almost certainly prove too little and too late.

Critic Bjorn Lomborg, the Danish academic and director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center who was named as one of the world’s top 100 thinkers by Foreign Policy magazine, makes an important point in claiming that “An extremely optimistic Doha climate outcome could cost half a trillion dollars a year, with benefits of only three cents on the dollar.”

More controversially, he asserts that a successful conclusion of the other Doha discussions on trade, which unfortunately are almost as dead as a dodo, could lift developing countries by “$3 trillion in 2020 and about $100 trillion annually by the end of the century.”

That is a useful reminder of the failure of political leaders — from Beijing to Washington, Brussels to Doha, and Delhi and Tokyo — either to think ahead or to think outside the box.

There is no easy solution to the horror of climate change. One country or group of countries imposing a carbon tax is a false solution if industries then migrate to cheaper countries that do not impose a tax and the carbon emissions increase there.

What is needed is a mixture of heavy investment in clean energy and careful consideration of the possibilities with geo-engineering techniques that might launder carbon dioxide and other greenhouses gases from the air and give some breathing space, literally.

Some of the techniques are controversial and would have potentially dangerous side effects. Others would be expensive, so the ideal is to find a simple, cheap and noninvasive method that will not backfire.

Most of all, it is time to take the issue of climate change seriously and to put it on top of the global agenda, not for partial solution in 2015 going on 2020. We are all in this together.

Choking pollution originating in one country spreads across the winds and tides worldwide without stopping for immigration or customs checks, even if politicians wish that they would stop and go back where they came from.

Where are the brave thinkers who will prod the politicians to realize that this is a global problem affecting us all — African, American, Asian, European, rich or poor — and needs to be tackled now?

Where is Japan, original host for the Kyoto Protocol, which seems now to be running away from the world or any responsibilities for sharing or solving common problems?

It is a terrible waste given the rich technological knowledge and expertise.

Kevin Rafferty, editor in chief of PlainWords Media, is the author and main editor of a book on climate change meetings in 2008.