Tuesday, 1 December 2015

COP21 - A New Hope

This week in Paris, the latest round of Climate Change discussions kicked off.  The usual suspects are there – environmentalists including Sir David Attenborough and Prince Charles, politicians led by Obama and Cameron, climate scientists on both sides of the argument, and representatives of island nations who fear for their very existence as rising sea levels wash their tiny homelands away slowly but seemingly inexorably.  Plus of course hundreds of protestors, journalists and tv crews.  

But will it all do any lasting good? 

Let’s leave aside the fact that apart from the protestors, who probably caught the Paris Metro to the conference centre, all the attendees flew in on carbon emitting aircraft of varying sizes, thus adding to the CO2 pollution in the atmosphere that is apparently at the root of most of the problem, and are now being ferried around by gas-guzzling limo’s, adding still more hydrocarbons to the mess.  Does that count as irony or hypocrisy?  You decide. 

This is not the first such gathering, but the optimism surrounding this two week-long jamboree seems higher than in the past.  But this is something I’m not sure I follow.  Just because the US and China, who are the biggest polluters in the world, are now talking to each other does not seem to me a major breakthrough.  Obama, for instance, leaves office in a little over a year from now, so any commitments he may make now, given in good faith though they undoubtedly are, will probably cut little ice with his successor.  If Hillary gets the nod, then maybe little will actually change (I’m not clear what her position is on this topic to be honest) but if it’s the idiot Trump, then they will probably be consigned to the trash can on his first day in office.  To suggest the oaf is a sceptic is putting it mildly – his position is clear: the whole issue of climate change is a scam, designed to hurt American interests, it’s just weather, why the hell should I commit a dime to a problem that doesn’t exist?   At least we know his position, which is more than can be said for other Presidential candidates, it seems to me.

Then we have India, the third biggest polluter.  On one hand they have pledged to cut their carbon emissions significantly over the next 10 years or so, which is all well and good.   But then on the other hand, they have equally (and simultaneously) pledged to increase just as significantly their production and use of coal power, the most polluting energy form of all, on the grounds that unless they do so then their particular economic miracle will stall and the majority of their poverty stricken population will remain just that.  So which hand do you believe?  

The third obstacle is the sheer number of interested parties.  Nearly 200 separate nations are involved, each with its own separate agenda.  Most of them will be making separate addresses to the Congress over the next week – I’ve not seen a timetable but I would think the delegates will be working 20 hour days this first week just to get through all the speeches (or most of those scheduled after about Wednesday 17:00 will be addressing an empty hall).  Then all the leaders will bugger off home (as they are already, nipping off as soon as they have finished speaking) and leave it to their negotiating teams to come up with a working and acceptable solution in the remaining time left for Conference. 
Now does anyone seriously expect that 200 delegates can really come to any form of agreement by next Friday 11 December, when Conference ends, let alone one that will make any difference to a dire situation?  The last such attempt, in Copenhagen back in 2009, came up with a raft of measures that looked good on paper but in practice have made no difference, largely because a lot of them have either been only partially implemented or simply ignored by the nations who agreed to them amid much fanfare and back slapping.

Then we have the science itself.  Someone once said that statistics can be used to prove whatever you want them to prove.  This certainly seems to be the case for the numbers that are being rattled off here.

One group of highly eminent meteorologists and climate scientists uses the numbers to prove incontrovertibly that the global greenhouse gas emissions are adding X degrees Celsius to mean temperatures that guarantee a melting of the global icecaps within 50 to 100 years raising sea levels by anything from 2 metres to ten times that amount, washing away entire nations like the Maldives and the Cook islands and a good portion of the Netherlands, whilst changing the coastlines of the rest of the world significantly.  This will also lead to the entire Iberian peninsula and much of Africa becoming a desert incapable of supporting agriculture or even life itself,  which will trigger a mass migration of people that makes the situation currently raging in Europe (and suddenly no longer front page news….) look like no more than a trickle.  

Nonsense, say other specialists, it won’t be like that at all. Archimedes’ theory of water displacement proves that melting ice will have no effect whatsoever on sea levels, and in any case long before that happens the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will be so thick that sunlight itself will be blocked and another ice-age triggered.  Not sure about you, but that does not sound like a particularly pleasant alternative…….

A good mate of mine is convinced that even amongst the scientific community there are vested interests that use such statistical trickery to justify their particular point of view.  This may well be true, although beyond an improved personal reputation, possibly at the expense of someone else, I can’t really grasp why they would do such a thing or what they might gain,   But I don’t discount the possibility – jealousy is of course one of the Seven Deadly Sins that comprise the human condition.  My mate is also very adept at using statistics to support his own point of view, and this lends to some enjoyable and entertaining on-line discussions between us – without really changing our own particular beliefs on iota.

I am no statistician – maths has never been (and never will be) one of my talents.   My belief in the reality of climate change is based solely in my own observations as I’ve trundled around the world in my work.  In particular I like to cite the marked change in the weather patterns in Poland, where I have lived for the past 15 years.

I first landed in Warsaw one hot summer’s evening in late July 2000.  I had  left a typically cool and wet London two hours earlier, and journeyed to a country that I had envisioned as being similarly cool and damp.  I had in my baggage thick sweaters and an umbrella.  I used none of them – during the two weeks of my visit the temperature never dropped below the high 20s Celsius.  I was subsequently assigned to a long term project there (one that changed my life) and over the next couple of years experienced similar long hot summers – you could almost set your watch by the sudden change between winter and summer.  The following year some friends invited me for a long weekend at the Baltic coast over the 1 May Bank Holiday.  The day before we left it was cool, wet and windy, and as we packed I remarked at the lack of thick sweaters and rainwear going into my friend’s case.  I was told not to worry – it will be fine – tomorrow is 1 May, it will be the start of summer.  And it was, and we had a great beach weekend.  That happened for the next four or five years.  The summers stretched endlessly through to the end of September, hot and sunny with the occasional monsoon thunderstorm.

Similarly, the first few winters were brutal.  Snow tended to arrive sometime during October, and lasted through to the end of March.  In the city centre we could expect maybe a metre of the stuff, and in the suburbs or out of town two or three times as much.  Temperatures below freezing were the norm, and extended periods of -20 or -25 not unusual, particularly in January and February.  I remember walking from my apartment to the metro station, heading due east into a wind howling in from the Urals, and my beard, eyebrows and eyelashes turning to ice – even my eyeballs felt frozen solid.  But I got used to it, to the extent that on visits to the UK I would be happily strolling around with my jacket open in temperatures around freezing while friends and family were complaining about the bitter cold to me.

Then it all changed.  Over a period of maybe three years the extremes disappeared, and the climate became more like Britain’s.  That is to say, summers got shorter and cooler with more rain, and winters got longer with less snow.  The lovely warm springs and golden autumns that show the Polish countryside and forests at their beautiful best are drastically shortened.  We haven’t had a white Christmas, at least in Warsaw, for perhaps five years, and what snow has hit us has lasted for no more than a few weeks over January and February.  Even the ski resorts in the Tatra and Beskidy mountains that border the Czech Republic and Slovakia are increasingly reliant on snow machines to keep the slopes open.  Last winter the only snow I saw was over New Year’s Eve, leading to a lovely stroll along the white beach at Sopot to feed the swans and welcome 2015.  It had all gone by January 2.  I didn’t even get out sledging on the hill near my apartment with the kids.

In isolation, this is not proof of climate change of course.  It is an indication of a change in weather patterns at most, a change that could reverse itself and go back to “normal” at any time.  But couple it with well documented examples of glaciers in the Swiss Alps melting and retreating by hundreds of yards over the last fifty years (and the length of a football pitch in the past 5 years) as documented on BBC World recently, of an island in the South Pacific becoming uninhabitable because the sea level has risen to the extent it has washed away or inundated its centre (below historically normal sea-level – thanks again to BBC World for the story) and it seems to me there is a more widespread change happening.  

The polar ice caps are indeed melting, both North and South, and this is clearly documented by satellite observations and pictures.  The Aral Sea has shrunk dramatically over the last twenty years.  Drought is commonplace across parts of Africa and Asia, and even wealthy California is experiencing more severe drought conditions year on year – as is Australia.  The length and severity of the hurricane season in the Atlantic and Caribbean is more irregular than ever with more extremes, and the monsoon season across India and Southeast Asia less predictable.

Something is changing –whether simply weather patterns as our friendly oaf Trump and other sceptics would have us believe, or a more serious shift in the entire global climate as most people seem to accept remains open to debate.   But clearly something needs to be done: the question is what?

In either case, it seems too late to change or reverse it, no matter what measures can be agreed and forced through in Paris to limit carbon emissions and use of other fossil fuels.  Given the attitude so far of major polluters like the US, China, India and Russia, it seems unlikely to me that any kind of agreement will be reached that will have any major impact on that situation.  So in my view what is happening will continue to happen, whether we like it or not, for the foreseeable future.
It seems to me that rather than looking at ways to change or reverse the phenomena our political leadership, environmentalists, industrialists and scientists need to explore ways of helping people cope with the inevitable impact on their lives.  Reducing carbon emissions and moving to renewables is part of it, and whether they like it or not politicians will need to accept the investment needed, and we consumers need to accept higher energy bills to pay for it.  

There must also be an acceptance that people will eventually need to move from endangered locations, no matter how heart-breaking that may be to the victims (for want of a better word).  These people will need a new place to live, and it’s beholden of all us to help them find somewhere.  Migration right now, thanks to the events across Europe and elsewhere this year, is almost a dirty word, and the reluctance by so-called affluent countries to accept them seems to grow by the day.  This situation will need to change if the new category, the climate migrants, are to have a chance of a new life.

Does the political will exist to take the difficult decisions needed?  Can the scientific community put aside their differences long enough to help formulate a course of action that will help?  Will we, the general public, be prepared to accept higher prices, more inclement weather, and more strangers entering our lives from exotic and drowned or scorched countries far away – and be more welcoming to them than other migrants so far?

Addressing these, and a hundred and one other issues like them, is what COP21 is all about, in my view.   I don’t expect agreement on most of them, but the optimist in me says that there will be enough will and courage evident to make good and practical choices that will offer at least the hope of some progress and a sensible plan of action for the world to follow.
But the pessimist in me is not convinced.