The most recent Conference of the Parties meeting (COP) conference in Doha has now come and gone. As has been dissected at necessary nauseam, more or less nothing was accomplished. Some will see this as a failure, as I do, and others will (correctly) note that this meeting, the 18th such COP (see historical note below) was never intended to get something significant done. That important event, is now, being reserved for COP 20, in 2015.
Of course the “milestone agreement” was to have been signed at the now-infamous COP 15 in Copenhagen, where no deal was reached.
While books and dissertations have already begun to analyze the failures and weak points in the climate negotiating process, we need to take another look at the larger context of negotiation, climate science, climate economics, and the politics of inaction.
First it is sadly clear that “simply” having an overwhelming weight of evidence of climate change science, and seeing early and not-so-early signs of climate change in the form of storms, droughts, fires, and ecological change is not sufficient. If it were, we would have acted, because we have overwhelming data on all those fronts. A summary of the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – a group I am proud to have served in a number of roles for the past fifteen years – is presented in Figure 1. Note, in particular that as the physical climate change metrics have progressed, the words – shown at right – have slowly but surely progressed.
Despite this, we have failed to act collectively to any degree.
So, let’s note where important change really has finally taken place.
In what I hope will become a defining moment of transition, the World Bank commissioned a report on both the likely extent of climate change, and the impact of that change. That report  says nothing new scientifically, but perhaps that is its strength. There is no need to debate the science, which the authors, from the Potsdam Climate Institute (PIK) review. In fact, their finding is a word-smithed relative of the findings of AR4, the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment report that is included in Figure 1, below.
“The Earth system’s responses to climate change appear to be non-linear,” points out PIK Director, John Schellnhuber. “If we venture far beyond the 2°C guardrail, towards the 4°C line, the risk of crossing tipping points rises sharply. The only way to avoid this is to break the business-as-usual pattern of production and consumption.”
What is important, and deserves repeating to all agencies involved in international development and the financing of health, education, infrastructure and other drivers of economic growth appears in the Preface of the report written, quite brilliantly by the new World Bank President Jim Yon Kim:
… most importantly, a 4°C world is so different from the current one that it comes with high uncertainty and new risks that threaten our ability to anticipate and plan for future adaptation needs.
This statement warrants careful discussion. Not only is President Kim affirming the results of the PIK study, and by direct extension the IPCC (because the same authors at PIK are also central to the work of the IPCC), but he is clearly noting that while scientists rightly talk about the 2° line, the path the world is currently on, namely 4 – 6°C will be catastrophic. This may come as too soft to the science community, but it is where the world is sadly headed.
So where are we?
The science is largely clear, and clear enough to act.
The economic damages are being tallied.
And now, core lenders and donors to the development enterprise, namely at the 14,500- employee World Bank, where many future financial leaders around the world work at some time during their careers, have come onboard to clearly warn that the path we are on is totally inconsistent with a livable world for rich and for the poor.
Historical note: The Kyoto Protocol was adopted on 11 December 1997 in Kyoto, Japan, and entered into force on 16 February 2005. As of September 2011, 191 states have signed and ratified the protocol. The United States signed but did not ratify the Protocol and Canada withdrew from it in 2011.
Above: A superposition of the state of climate science in three key data sets, and the dates of the First, Second, Third and Fourth Assessment Reports (FAR, SAR, TAR, and AR4, respectively) plotted as vertical lines. At right are the key statements from each of these reports, along with the conclusion of the Special Report on Renewable Energy (SRREN, completed in 2011) which found that up to an 80% decarbonization of the global economy was possible if we can enable and launch a large-scale transition to a clean energy system consistent with what a number of ‘leading edge’ cities, regions, and nations have already accomplished or started.