07 December 2009

Politics in the Traders Port

The recent hacking into the email exchanges of scientists at the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit--and the continued furore over their contents--shows how much is at stake in designing climate change policy. Too often the debate is described in the media as sceptics versus believers. The debate is much more nuanced---there are several dividing lines which generate a complex picture.

1. Is the earth’s changing temperature exhibiting a long term upward trend?
2. If there is a trend, does it have anything to do with human activity?
3. If it is human activity, do we need to change behaviour or will technology--working silently in the background-- solve most of it?
4. If we do need to change behaviour, does it need to be done quickly (i.e. perhaps sacrificing some growth today) or not?
5. If it does need to be changed quickly, do we only act nationally if it is within a multinational agreement?
6. Whether or not we only act within a multinational agreement, do poorer countries deserve help given that they have not caused the problems?
7. Whatever the actions we take, do we rely primarily on market forces or on governance agreements to incentivise behaviour change?

These choices describe at least 11 positions and there are many more with further twists.

The scientific consensus as described by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Assessment Report 4 is that “Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic GHG concentrations”. Even this is contested by some. Beyond this, the evidence becomes less
certain. The projections look bad for most regions and especially bad for regions such as sub-Saharan Africa that have the least capacity to adapt. But in the wake of the economic models that could not warn us of the global financial crisis, rightly or wrongly, many people have lost confidence in the ability of equations to forecast anything.

We know that the use of science is political. Many would also say that the governance of science is vulnerable to ideology and the tribalism it brings. Given the state of climate science, it is surprising that there have not been more political science analyses of climate outcomes.

One analysis that has been getting a lot of airtime is by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita in the Nov/Dec issue of Foreign Policy. Bueno de Mesquita is a professor of political science at New York University. His game theory analysis of the talks at Copenhagen suggests failure. His argument centres on the assertion that anything which 192countries can agree to--without the clarity and urgency of the barbarians at the gate--will not ask them to do very much or, if it does, will not have any enforcement mechanism.

If the threats were more visible, even if we did not know their likelihood, then surely most would be willing, in effect, to buy a planetary insurance policy. But at the moment, too many people are willing to play Russian Roulette with the livelihoods of future generations. It is tough to convince people to buy insurance for something that has never happened before.

But all hope is not lost—far from it. Many think that if the US, EU, China and India can engage in a series of enforceable bilateral agreements on climate and trade then some kind of global deal can be worked out post-Copenhagen.

Back in the 12th century Copenhagen was called 'the Traders' Port'. Over the next 2 weeks there will be a lot of horse trading going on in that city. Let’s hope it is underpinned by real leadership from the big 4, otherwise the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) may end up generating a feelgood roadmap to a very bad neighbourhood.

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