30 November 2011

Unlike the UNFCCC climate change negotiations, Neville Chamberlain only went to Munich once

In which I discuss the Durban UNFCCC international climate negotiations through a historic lense of the Second World War and the Rio 1992 Earth Summit.

In a very considered comment on the Hot Topic blog , David Lewis questions whether the Durban UNFCCC international climate negotiations can come up with a binding treaty that effectively reduces GHG concentrations, given the existing public will.

"I don’t see how negotiations on an international climate treaty can proceed to an agreement that would actually stabilize the composition of the atmosphere at a level that would not cause [dangerous anthropogenic interference] without more demand for such an agreement coming from the global population"

David Lewis compares the global demand for action in the international climate change negotiations with the changing British attitudes to 'Total War' with Hitler's Germany in 1940. Lewis implies that in the climate change negotiations, each government is "trapped in a circumstance where it can’t generate the national will that’s necessary".

In terms of the purposes served by international climate change negotiations, I would go a step further than that thoughtful comment from David Lewis. I say that the negotiations have never had the goal of producing a binding treaty to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations. Governments instead use the negotiations as one of their reasons for not reducing emissions of greenhouse gases and for continuing with 'business-as-usual'.

Let me summarise my contention using another reference to the Second World War.

Q. Whats the difference between Neville Chamberlain's negotiations in 1938 with Hitler in Munich that lead to the annexation of Czechoslovakia and the UNFCCC international climate change negotiations?
A. Neville Chamberlain only went once to Munich.

In making my argument I am influenced by a paper my late father Robin Johnson wrote in 1992 about the political-economy of the Rio Earth Summit. Robin uses the term "political-economy" to indicate he is considering the various groups with interests in the Earth Summit and asking what interests were served by the outcomes.

Robin noted that the expected outcomes of the Rio Earth Summit were binding signed international conventions on climate change and biological diversity. However, the actual outcome was a "framework convention...full of resounding phraseology and generalities".

Robin says the reason for this outcome was the fundamental split between the 'North' (developed countries) and South (developing country) blocs. Neither bloc was was willing to put global interest ahead of national interests. Instead, the outcome of the Earth Summit consisted of "non-binding language ... adopted to get all major nations to sign".

No agreement except on non-binding rhetorical statements! Sound familiar, doesn't it? Isn't that whats happened with all the subsequent climate change talks?

Robin's paper uncannily predicts much of the next 19 years of inconclusive negotiations. He wrote "Prior to meeting in Rio, some governments expressed concern that the Earth Summit would become a "pledging conference" where world leaders would be expected to step to the podium and announce their country's contribution." Copenhagen 2009, anyone?

Robin concluded "The challenge for those seeking action will be to channel the outcomes of Rio into concrete action by member states". Substitute "Bali 2007" or "Copenhagen 2009" or "Cancun 2010" for "Rio", and we can re-use that conclusion for all subsequent international climate change negotiations.

So, from a political economy point of view, the climate change negotiations have had the effect of ensuring that international opinion stays "behind the demand curve” for decisive action. After all, that is the function they have served in the 19 years since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.

So I think we need to let go of the idea that the negotiations as they are currently constituted and conducted will make any useful contribution to the kind of decisive international action that is required. We need to accept that the negotiations are just another forum for business and politics as usual.

24 November 2011

International climate change negotiations planning to fail

Climate Change Minister Nick Smith seems perfectly happy to pretty much ignore the science (as visualised in the excellent graphic of future emissions pathways) and see the UNFCCC/Kyoto process fail.

Here is a statement he made to Parliament where he implies the lack of an international climate change agreement, after Kyoto ends in 2012, is fine with him as it enables him to tell Kennedy Graham (Greens MP) that there will be no cost after 2012 to the taxpayer from giving emitters free emissions units.

"This member and other members make the gross error of trying to claim that not exposing industries or consumers to the full price of carbon over all their emissions is somehow a subsidy. A subsidy implies that there is a cost to taxpayers. That is not true. It is not true, and members opposite who attempt to run that argument ignore the fact that there is no international agreement beyond the end of 2012 for reducing emissions at this point, and without it, there is no cost to the New Zealand taxpayer."

To me Smith seems to be saying "It's no big deal if the UNFCCC/Kyoto process fails. In fact, we are relying on failure in the crazy design of our NZETS".

As well as basing the NZETS policy on a bet that the Durban conference will continue 18 years of stalemate, Smith is also wrong in fact about costs to taxpayers. The NZ emissions units are owned by the Crown on behalf of taxpayers. Giving them away free to emitters is a transfer of wealth from all taxpayers to emitters. Or a cost.

22 November 2011

Can we defuse the global warming time bomb?

In June, 2003, James Hansen gave an address titled "Can we defuse the global warming time bomb?" to the Council on Environmental Quality in Washington, DC.

I have found a version on the web in html: http://naturalscience.com/ns/articles/01-16/ns_jeh.html.

14 November 2011

Swallowing the elephant flogging the dead horse

Apologies to the Little Prince
A snake swallows the elephant in the room and then flogs a dead horse - The politics of climate change in the 2011 New Zealand Election campaign

So whats happening with climate change in the campaign for the 26 November 2011 election?

I was originally thinking about writing a wonkish post comparing climate change policies between parties. You know the sort of thing. e.g. see Interest.co.nz

Which parties have policies that reflect the seriousness of the impacts the science predicts? Who has got the science wrong? Which politicians are all talk and no action? What are the minute details of the each party's NZ ETS policies. Such as delays to sector entry dates, partial price obligations and varying free unit allocation regimes...MEGO, anyone? (My Eyes Glaze Over....)

Then I thought, Nah! I am looking through the wrong end of the telescope.

You know what really strikes me about climate change in the election?

It's the absence. It is as if climate change is nearly completely absent from the campaign. When climate change does pop up, it's portrayed in simplistic soundbites.

Nick Smith says anthropogenic climate change is real and complex and 'wicked'. But promises more moderating, balancing and delaying of the NZ ETS. Labour says anthropogenic climate change is real and we will fiddle with some NZ ETS details for agriculture slightly earlier than National as farmers don't vote for us anyway. The Greens say anthropogenic climate change is real and we have a detailed wonk-friendly exposition on our website, but for this election we are running with "jobs, kids, rivers". oh no..... MEGO....

What's happened is that climate change, the 'elephant in the room', has been swallowed up whole by the 'snake in the room' -- politics. Along with all other serious political issues.

This snake is the real theme of the election. Russell Brown calls it the politics of absence. Brown says "cultivated political absence...shapes the almost unprecedented popularity of John Key". John Key's political success is because of this successful strategy of "de-politicising" himself. Key's politics-free radio chat show was the perfect example.

The media have largely just played along with the politics of absence. The election is discussed as a poll-driven horse race. Or a rugby game "of two halves" with "kicking for touch". Who looked confident? Who had the best sound bites? Who mispronounced his/her New Zild the least or most. Restructure or "reeshrukcha"?

The media have trivialised and objectified political debate. I give this example. The most discussed electoral contest in 2011 appears to be Auckland Central which the Herald calls "the battle of the babes" as the candidates, Jacinda Ardern and Nikki Kaye, are both relatively young women, whose shared Herald columns are called "Broadsides". Do I need to say more?

After the snake has swallowed the elephant in the room, the snake becomes the dead horse that needs some more flogging.

Climate change has been politically institutionalised. Its now "flogging a dead horse". Everyone has a policy (a horse). Everyone talks their policy. No one does anything.

These policies all have a narrative that explains the problem (the horse is under-performing) and a 'narrative' solution (keep flogging the horse).

It is here that the metaphor of "flogging the dead horse" fits so well. Firstly, the probability of the two main political parties really acting to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases is the same as the probability of the flogged horse springing back to life.

The second reason is that the best dead horses can be repeatedly flogged.

Take the Resource Management Act (RMA). It's the ultimate flogged dead horse of NZ politics. In its 20 years of life, it has been in an almost eternal state of being vilified from all sides: for environmental failures and for economic inefficiency.

Both National and Labour have both been subjecting it to interminable reviews and amendments. The basics remain the same. Plans are written with lofty goals. Plans don't reflect consent practice. But then consent decisions rarely reflect plan goals. Consents are needed for some activities not others. Some consents need more evidence and take longer than others.

The NZ ETS is the new dead horse in the flogging stable. Its perfect. Like RMA issues, the NZ ETS is fiendishly complex. To most people, the NZ ETS is a MEGO topic. My Eyes Glaze Over. A recital of any of the detail of the NZ ETS is usually enough to induce that response. Thus deflecting most criticisms.

Being complex, if not incomprehensible by design, the NZ ETS can be fitted, usually negatively, into any political viewpoint. Farmers can still oppose it with vitriol despite their generous treatment. It is just as good a political punching bag as the RMA.

National's 2009 amendments institutionalise that most Kiwi of practices -- a five yearly review by committee. To me this is the statutory recognition of the near-permanent state of "fixing" the RMA is subject to. Labour have said they will continue the 5-yearly reviews if they become Government. Thus they have bought into Nick Smith's approach of eternal moderating of the NZ ETS. Labour get a payoff of needing less specific policies.

So debates on the NZ ETS, like this one, between Nick Smith's soundbites and Russel Norman's observations on perverse price incentives, on TV One's Q and A programme, don't really matter politically. The debate itself is just more MEGO. The snake swallows the elephant.

Interestingly, TV One had Jeanette Fitzsimons as their 'pundit' for the Smith/Norman debate. She cut right through the snake punditry by analysing the NZ ETS on the meta level. She said the NZ ETS was now so weak and distorted that it no longer mattered what tinkering Smith did to it. "It's like driving a car fast towards a cliff and arguing whether to go in fourth gear or fifth".

The horse is dead and no amount of flogging will make it trot again.

10 November 2011

Temperature time series BEST and GISS

The Berkeley Earth Science Temperature (BEST) project has made quite a splash. There is a good summary in Skeptical Science. See also Mother Jones and The Economist.

I have made my own charts of the Berkeley Earth Science Temperature data using R.
I downloaded the data as a two-column text file from the Wood for Trees website.
Here is a chart of the BEST global land monthly temperature anomalies from 1800 to 2010. What is plotted for each month is the difference from the January 1950 to December 1979 mean. Clicking on each chart will open a 650 by 550 pixel png image in a new window.

BEST average global land temperatures

Okay, but what is the trend in the data. Maybe I should add a moving average trend line.
BEST average global land temperatures with trend

Then I would like to compare the BEST data with the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (NASA GISS) data.

NASA GISS average global land temperatures

BEST vs GISS smoothed

09 November 2011

Nick Smith spins on emissions trading basics

New Zealand Climate Change Minister Nick Smith has confirmed that agriculture will be unlikely to enter the New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme. The news has as they say gone around the world with coverage in the NZ Herald, Reuters, Bloomberg and the Sydney Morning Herald.

Gareth of Hot Topic puts it this way.
"Hon Dr Nick Smith... explained the recent decision to indefinitely delay bringing agriculture into the scheme, stating the technology to do so practically does not yet exist"
Nick Smith yet again gets away with a soundbite of spin that is contradicted by the orthodox economic rationale for having an all-sectors all-units and all-gases international emissions trading scheme for greenhouse gases.

Just for the sake of argument, let's ignore the Sustainability Council's work on agricultural emissions reduction and assume that Dr Smith is correct that there are no practical technologies that will enable the agricultural sector to reduce emissions.

Let's go back to basics. Why do we even have emissions trading including all greenhouse gases across all sectors and across national borders?

The whole point is so that 'cheaper emissions reductions' can, in the short to medium term, largely carry the can for 'expensive emissions reductions', in meeting emissions limits or caps.

In economics speak, a sector of an economy with 'expensive emissions reductions' options is more or less just the same as a sector without practical technologies to enable reductions of emissions. Agriculture, for example, according to Nick Smith!

To paraphrase from another Nick, Lord Stern, in a well-functioning "deep and liquid" market for emissions permits, emitters with expensive mitigation options become buyers of permits and purchase permits from emitters with cheaper mitigation.

The role of the all-gases ETS, is to provide a wider variety of cheaper markets for emissions reductions, than would be the case in a single-gas ETS (such as a ruminant methane ETS, if there was one).

So the role of the emitting industries with fewer mitigation options (or more costly options) is to provide a flow of funds to reward those industries that have the cheaper emissions reduction options!

Logically, the lack of immediate practical mitigation technology in any one sector, is not a valid reason for leaving a sector out of an all-gases ETS.

07 November 2011

Estimated historical emissions vs future IPCC scenarios--how ... on Twitpic

Michael Tobis discusses poor media coverage of the highest annual emissions of greenhouses gas ever. He asks why can't the media explain using some good charts?

Here's a chart comparing actual emissions of carbon with various predictions from the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report of 2007.

Estimated historical emissions vs future IPCC scenarios

Estimated historical emissions vs future IPCC scenarios. Provided by Katharine Hayhoe via Twitpic.

The quality is pretty bad though. Try this. From Johns Cook's Skeptical Science website.


Figure 1: IEA global human CO2 annual emissions from fossil fuels estimates vs. IPCC SRES scenario projections.  The IPCC Scenarios are based on observed CO2 emissions until 2000, at which point the projections take effect.

Skeptical Science discuss this issue in the post IEA CO2 Emissions Update 2010 - Bad News