CAT | COP15
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The COP15 was certainly a worthwhile experience all-around for me personally. Before I left I was incredibly skeptical that anything positive would come out of the conference. I left the conference not only skeptical but also angry and fearful; angry that just about any group with an agenda used climate change as an impetus for promoting their cause and fearful that in this environment something would actually be drafted.
Well something was in fact drafted and that was the Copenhagen Accord, a pretty short document about 5 pages total. After reading this document a certain phrase came to mind, altruistic hubris. I say altruistic because I try not to doubt the intentions of individuals or organizational bodies especially ones I have no immediate personal relationship with and also the people I did meet overwhelmingly seem to be there for the positive reasons. The arrogance, however, is evident simply in the wording with phrases like “…with a view to reduce global emissions so as to hold the increase in global temperature below 2 degrees Celsius.” Just to take a step back, this language is one of management of the global temperature, a role I think no one or body should be in charge of. Of course the counterpoint is that we have already “controlled our climate through emissions” so we have to do something. I agree to the extent that we necessarily should reduce emissions but temperature is a marker of increased emissions and not a necessary consequence. What if we do go above 2C, can we wholly attribute the gradual 2C rise solely to anthropogenic emissions? If not (because climate attribution ultimately comes down to probabilities not absolutes), then does it make sense to hold temperatures below 2C? So when documents are drafted describing the necessity for controlling global temperatures this should give us pause at the arrogance of understanding of the climate system. The issue is emissions, in my humble opinion, and that is what should be the focus not the language of geo-engineering global temperatures at all.
Apart from the outcomes and documents, of course the thing that made the conference truly enjoyable in the end was hanging out with the Michigan delegation.
As COP15 comes to a close without a clear path forward forward from Kyoto, it is difficult not to become dismayed at the growing gulf between the urgency of climate science and the pace of international negotiations. While it provides little solace, there is little doubt that the economic calamities of the past two years played a significant role in the ultimate fate of the conference. Out of fear that we were on the precipice of another Great Depression, economic and social concerns have been the primary focus of many of the world’s legislatures, particularly countries such as Australia, Canada and the United States. Considering that the swift response to the failure of the banks last fall seems to have averted the worst of these fears from being realized, it is hard to argue with this approach.
At the same time, when historians reflect upon the three year process which culminated in COP 15, I feel many may see another connection between these two events: a similar inability to understand complexity, a propensity to discount the future, and an failure to properly value risk. One can only hope that we don’t need to have the ecological equivalent of the collapse of Lehman Brothers to drive us to act.
Our world is complex, and we better get used to it.
The roots of the economic meltdown can be found in the increasingly complex instruments created to diversify risk. While these instruments succeeded in diversifying risk, they also created numerous negative feedback loops. These unintended consequences weren’t seen by these best and brightness in the financial industry, let alone those whose jobs it was to regulate them.
The complexity of the challenges posed by climate change makes the financial crisis look like child’s play in comparison. For example, the underlying science requires modeling on some of the most sophisticated machines ever developed by man, and laying the ground work for a low carbon economy will require the most coordinated global political interaction humanity has ever attempted. These political decisions will impact nearly every aspect of our daily lives as individuals and the global economy as a whole.
I feel that it is this degree of complexity and challenge that makes the issue so difficult for the majority of people to truly appreciate. As a species, we have spent the vast majority of our evolutionary history evolving to address the threats which were most immediately pressing: those posed by the our local surroundings in the immediate future. Contemplating, appreciating, responding, and yes, sacrificing, to avoid a global threat which will play out over decades is unfortunately not something we have the coding for.
While the United States and other developed countries have come a long way in protecting our planet since the birth of the environmental a half century ago, it is nearly impossible to cite an example of legislation which was passed prior to a major catastrophe such as Love Canal, Bhopal, or the discovery of a giant hole in the ozone. In each case, the complex chemicals we created caused unforeseen consequences which had to be redressed after serious harm was done.Unfortunately, in the case of climate change, we don’t have a chance to “fix it after breaking it” like we have in these other cases.
On Wednesday, Renee Willoughby and I served as the lead ushers at the REDD+ Gala at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen, an awards ceremony honoring various environmental and political leaders for their work in the United Nations Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (REDD) Program (We did not actually get a chance to watch the ceremony, however, so we could better fulfill our volunteering obligations). Among the persons honored at the ceremony included our own University of Michigan Delegation member Gabriel Thoumi, the presidents of Papua New Guinea, Guyana, and Gabon, along with the president of the Natural Resources Defense Council Francis Beinecke, Rainforest Alliance Senior Vice President Richard Donovan, Bonobo Conservation Initative President Sally Coxe, and Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall designer Maya Lin, and many more. It was an honor to be among such people who are working to save millions of acres of forests around the world through various projects.
Before the ceremony and continuing throughout the night and the following day, around three inches of snow fell in Copenhagen with more in some areas by the coast, delaying train schedules. I thought it was metaphoric that as I was walking out of the Royal Theatre at midnight to catch one of the last trains home, the snow was untouched and gave me the feeling that the following day, when more of the world´s important leaders would arrive to the Bella Center, there would be clean slate. However, by the next morning when they would begin to gather, the snow had become blackened by cars, snowplows, road salt and de-icing compounds, making what had looked promising in the beginning turn to a mess.
On a different note, we learned last night the police in the town seem to have been given almost Martial Law-esque orders to arrest anyone who even looks remotely suspicious. Multiple conversations with people on the bus have supported this, with one teenager saying he was detained and essentially strip searched likely because he was wearing all black outerwear with his hood up due to the cold.
Links to the videos and photo´s I have taken at the various events at COP15 will be posted on here as soon as I get back to Michigan, which will not be until Monday morning at the earliest as Ben Roberts and I had our flight home canceled this morning, so we will not arrive in Michigan until Sunday night at the earliest. The videos will include Naomi Klein, Al Gore, along with footage from the temporary protestor detainment facility and more.
– Adam Ellsworth