Climate talks end in failure.
November 25, 2000 12:24 PM   Subscribe

Climate talks end in failure. How shocking.
posted by Mr. skullhead (16 comments total)
"The US has behaved appalingly." -- Friends of the Earth.
posted by holgate at 1:07 PM on November 25, 2000

For one, I'm glad. The ratification of the Kyoto treaty would, in my opinion, further legitimize junk science while significantly harming economies the world over, including the US and developing nations. Of course, it's been a couple of years since I looked over the details of the treaty.

In any case, global warming, like the theory of global cooling before it, is just pure fiction. Granted, our earth-based thermostats seem to show an increase in the earth's temperature, but the vast majority of this "warming" occurred before the advent of the industrial revolution... hence, no greenhouse gasses to cause it. Also, these thermostats are usually at airports or other man-made structures where the layer of ground has been gradually replaced by concrete... which magnifies heat. Our most reliable measurements (those taken by orbiting satellites) measure absolutely no significant warming over the earth as a whole.

Just before the whole global warming thing started, scientists were scared of measurements which were showing substantial global cooling (the temperature of the earth eventually corrected and started heating up again... naturally). At the time, science was attempting to persuade government to undertake costly environmental measures to heat the earth... imagine if we had spent millions or billions of dollars to combat "global cooling", as they had wanted, only to then be faced with "global warming". Moderation is the correct path here, along with trust in nature's ability to heal itself.
posted by gd779 at 1:17 PM on November 25, 2000

Moderation is the correct path here, along with trust in nature's ability to heal itself.

'kay. I assume you don't live, say, in Bangladesh, where sitting back and waiting for nature to correct itself really an option.

Sure, a global emissions policy is only one area of attempts to deal with the issue of global warming, pseudo-science or not. But with the exploitation of flood plains, the erosion of riverbanks through deforestation, massive dam construction projects and other misguided attempts to bend natural forces to our will, we see "nature" healing itself in increasingly cataclysmic ways. Think locally.

And anyway, to talk of an anthropomorphic "nature" at work seems like fairly dubious Gaianism. The earth mother isn't soothing us; she's spanking us for being naughty.

But yes, we're screwed: this started in the 1600s.
posted by holgate at 1:46 PM on November 25, 2000

I think too many people think of the kyoto agreement as a solution to climate change - it's really a step in the direction of sustainable development. If the world is getting warmer, there's not a whole lot the agreement will do to remedy that. (the most siginificant greenhouse gas is not carbon dioxide, it's water vapour...)

The world is, however, moving towards an energy crisis. The rate of current consumption far outweighs the rate of renewable energy production. When our hydrocarbons are gone (or too expensive for general consumption) this economic growth is gonna come to a grinding halt.

The kyoto agreement is only superficially about emissions. It's really establishing regulations which can't be met with traditonal tail-pipe measures, and forcing industry & consumers to think about responsible consumption. It has only manifested itself in the form of emission control because the public happens to be exceptionally aware of this issue.

Our Ecological Footprint explains sustainable development very well, using easy to grasp concepts.
posted by alex - f at 2:56 PM on November 25, 2000

But with the exploitation of flood plains, the erosion of riverbanks through deforestation, massive dam construction projects and other misguided attempts to bend natural forces to our will, we see "nature" healing itself in increasingly cataclysmic ways.

Please don't interpret my comments to mean that I believe that mankind can be irresponsible with our natural resources and not expect consequences. Of course, we cannot. Global warming, however, is not such a case. According to the best science, it is the natural result of, um, nature, not a result of man screwing with things he shouldn't.

And anyway, to talk of an anthropomorphic "nature" at work seems like fairly dubious Gaianism.

For the record, the foundation of my comments comes not from a belief in an anthropomorphic nature, but rather in the belief that God designed nature, and that he designed it to last. Nature is a pretty durable thing, on the whole, often more durable than you'd expect. That doesn't mean that problems never occur, just that they always seem to solve themselves, even if the solution seems destructive at the time.

One last point I had forgotten: it seems that developing nations might not be hurt by Kyoto after all, given that many of them are almost entirely excluded from the treaty (somebody correct me if I'm remembering incorrectly). Given that developed nations are responsible for almost none of the growth in greenhouse gas emissions, a treaty without the developing nations would be ineffective anyway.

Just food for thought.
posted by gd779 at 3:08 PM on November 25, 2000

That doesn't mean that problems never occur, just that they always seem to solve themselves, even if the solution seems destructive at the time.

Yes, nature is definitely here to stay, no doubt about that. Nature will simply make a correction and get rid of the humans screwing it up.
posted by lagado at 5:02 PM on November 25, 2000

I hate to say it, but "more research is needed". (That sounds suspiciously like an attempt to use Parkinson's second law: "Delay is the deadliest form of denial.")

But the situation here is that we really don't yet understand the situation well enough to actually start acting on it. The big problem is what is known as the "global carbon economy", which is an attempt to identify all the sources of gaseous carbon (primarily CO2 and methane) added to the atmosphere and all the sinks of those compounds which remove it again. Sources can be man-made (coal-plants) or natural (intestines of ruminants and termites, forest fires) and they've done a pretty good job of identifying those. They've been much less successful identifying the sinks. Right now, something out there is absorbing about 20% of the carbon being released, and they don't know what it is.

Another point is that some kinds of natural events can't be judged from a short sample. In the 12th century, there was a sudden event of global cooling which became known as the "little ice age". We're still coming out of it; it began to lift in the 16th century. We have not yet reattained the temperatures which were prevalent in the 11th century. Is the warming trend we're seeing part of something larger? Since no-one has the slightest idea what caused the mini-iceage, it's really difficult to know.

In the 1920's, when the American Southwest really began to develop, it became clear that fresh water was going to be a valuable commodity and by far the biggest source of it was the Colorado River. So they decided to figure out how much of it there was and divide it up.

They spent 15 years measuring the water flow on the river, and based on that divided it up: so much for LA, so much for Phoenix, so much for Mexico, etc.

Later someone went and did tree-ring analysis all through the Colorado river basin (which is immense) and discovered that by sheer chance, those 15 years were the wettest 15 years in the last 500. It turned out they'd overallocated the river by more than 20%.

The Colorado River does not reach the sea. In Mexico, most of what crosses the border is used (and they get a minority anyway) and what little is left turns to a stream, then a trickle, then dries up about 10 miles from the Gulf of California. As a result, the saline level in the Gulf of California is rising, and the ecology of the entire body of water is changing.

That's what happens when you make decisions about climate using too short a window of observation.

We've got reasonably decent climatological records extending back perhaps 100 years but those contain serious holes (geographical holes, in particular) and 100 years simply isn't long enough to make any kind of judgement on what's happening in climate.

In fact, for a few years recently, global temperatures went down. This was due to the release of dust and sulphates by the Pinatubo eruption. Eventually those things washed out of the air in rain, but then C02 also washes out of the air in rain. (And methane naturally oxidizes and turns into C02.)

The fact of the matter is that we really don't understand enough to act intelligently. We do understand enough to react hysterically, though.

For some people, that's enough.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 8:12 PM on November 25, 2000

The Great Salt Lake (in Utah) is salty because it is contained within a basin which has no release to the sea. All the water which appears in that basin ends in the Great Salt Lake and goes no further. No river drains out of the lake.

For quite some time, they were seriously concerned because it seemed that the lake was shrinking. There are famous photos of boat docks sitting high and dry. "Perhaps we're taking too much water out of the rivers feeding the lake," they said.

Well, no. Actually, it's just that the lake varies enormously over longer period of times. It's since made back all that was lost -- and then some. Now you can find houses on the edge of the lake which are flooded out.

The problem was simply that they were using too small a time window to try to make a judgement -- and making linear extrapolations on something which is actually quite variable.

posted by Steven Den Beste at 8:22 PM on November 25, 2000

The fact that we have yet to definitively answer the question of whether global warming is occuring (though the evidence which exists is enough to convince me) demonstrates that we don't understand the planet we live on well enough to risk pumping billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere. In the cosmic Vegas, we've put it all on the table and rolled the dice before bothering to find out the rules of the game.

posted by Mars Saxman at 11:45 PM on November 25, 2000

Sure its complicated, but despite the global warming skeptics, most scientific opinion is coming down on the side that

1. the C02 level is rising at a much faster rate now than in the preindustrial past.

2. this is likely to lead to a warming, best case: 1 degree, worst case: much, much higher.

This is a very difficult thing to prove and a lot of effort is now going into the models but I suspect that no amount of modelling will be complete enough to convince every skeptic. Especially when some of those skeptics are the coal and petroleum industries.

I'm not saying it's a bad thing to be skeptical btw. It's just that because we are dealing with chaotic, non periodic and notoriously unpredictable systems, I doubt that even the arrival of a widespread climate catastrophe will be proof enough.

posted by lagado at 3:53 AM on November 26, 2000

I think the reason we're(I guess I mean Americans in general here, since I can't speak for others) not too bent out of shape about this as a nation is that it doesn't really seem bad enough to warrant changing our actions yet. While scientists and concerned citizens are rightly worried, the populace at large is largely unimpressed.

I believe in that economic argument that as soon as something becomes more costly than the alternative, the alternative will be embraced. In this particular case, the costs of continuing on our merry way are the warming of our planet, and the myriad Bad Things that will happen from that. The costs of trying to stop it our finding and effecting a serious alternative to our current fossil fuel use, serious regulation of industry, and so on.

People just have yet to be convinced that the costs of not changing are really all that bad, yet. No one has yet to be killed by global warming(at least, in an unequivocal clear as day way.) Until people decide that, yeah, global warming is big problem that needs to be fixed Now, there will be no incentive for any serious change to occur. But if, say, fossil fuels start to really run out and become expensive, or if weather patterns change severely, or something similarly dramatic happens, I don't think any serious reform movement will find much popular support, and thus nothing much will happen.

posted by dcodea at 6:52 AM on November 26, 2000

The US continues to use up more of the world's resources than anyone else while turning a blind eye to the consequences. Why is it that economic self interest is always the priority?
posted by echelon at 10:19 AM on November 26, 2000

"I wouldn't say it's a failure - it's a non-success." said Danish Environment Minister Sven Auken.

That just cracks me up.
posted by ZachsMind at 9:48 PM on November 26, 2000

Mars is right. with the possibility of doing great damage, conservatism is in order. trying to curb our clearly damaging practices is sane, not 'hysterical'.
posted by Sean Meade at 9:15 AM on November 27, 2000

It's been said, in this thread, but I don't think it's been said in this manner. (Thus I am justified. :-)

Even if we aren't on the brink of causing a massive climate change, reducing pollution is a Good Thing.

alex - f: When our hydrocarbons are gone (or too expensive for general consumption) this economic growth is gonna come to a grinding halt.

I'm almost hoping for this day to come. As soon as hydrocarbons are too expensive for general consumption, the Big Bad Corporations out there (like car manufacturers, for an easy example) are going to have to get working alternative energy sources out the door to remain profitable.

And should that day come, it won't happen in the space of a day. We aren't going to fill up our car with gas one day, then the next wake up to riots and roving bands of nomadic vigilantes with funky makeup and feral boomerang tossing kids.

Gas prices will continue to creep up until people stop using their cars and start using public transportation, or start working from home more (telecommuting is approaching the level of Too Easy to Ignore) or biking to work, because to do otherwise will seriously cut into their paycheques.

For auto companies and "Big Oil" to remain these disguting, hated Evil corporations they'll have to suck us into needing them again. Best way? Cheap energy. They've got lots and lots of money, and they're currently investing a pretty good deal of it (admittedly, they could easily invest more) into solving this problem because they know it's going to come.

They don't think in terms of 3 month turnovers, they think of the bottom line 5 years from now, 10 years from now.

When we run out of commercially-viable hydrocarbons, we're going to take a great step forward in finding cheap energy. Cheap energy will end up relieving the burden of paying for hydrocarbon based fuels, and free up cash for other pursuits. Not quite creating a blissful world of singing children and eternal adults, but it'll open doors to many more aspects of energy and energy conversion we haven't encountered yet. When energy's free, there's no reason anybody should ever go to sleep cold. Or warm, for that matter.

God, I'm such a hopeless optimistic. It's much more entertaining than pessimism though. :-)
posted by cCranium at 9:59 AM on November 27, 2000

Unfortunately we have enough fossil fuels to last us for centuries in one form or another.
posted by lagado at 4:54 AM on December 2, 2000

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