State of the Planet 2010: What's Up With Climate Change?

What is the state of the planet in 2010?  The Economist, The Earth Institute at Columbia University, and Ericsson held a conference last week in an attempt to answer that question.  Climate change showed up in each of the four sessions, which covered poverty, economic recovery, and international systems as well.  What were the experts talking about?

Three main themes emerged from the panels.  They included the need to communicate better with the public about the effects and science of climate change, region-specific clean energy technology, and how to craft an effective global climate treaty.

Communicating Climate Science

The first panel of the day at the State of the Planet was devoted exclusively to climate change.  It featured Mark Cane and Wallace Broecker, two climate scientists from Columbia University as well as panels in New Delhi and Beijing.  Mr. Cane first brought up the challenge of communicating climate research.  He stated that scientists are "not the right people" to convey messages about scientific findings and their policy applications.

This is true to a certain extent.  On the one hand, scientists are not trained as either communicators or policymakers.  On the other hand, even though communication isn't part of a science PhD, that doesn't exonerate scientists from working to communicate their findings in easier-to-understand terms.  Sound application of climate research findings will be crucial to bridging the gap between science and policy.  If scientists aren't willing to explain their findings in this context, then labs and research organizations need to be willing to hire people who will.

Both Mr. Cane and Mr. Broecker also mentioned that the public will likely need to see climate change happening before supporting strong policy actions.  This simply reinforces why science needs to be better communicated.  Mr. Broecker used the idea of sea ice disappearing in 20 years as an example of something that "send a very strong signal things are happening."  However, there are other strong signals right now from changing migration patterns to ocean acidification that will have major impacts on people's lives.  These trends are understood and documented but poorly explained and thus poorly understood by the general public.

Technology Saves the World?

The second theme talked about in great detail was the need for region-specific clean energy.  Climate change negotiations have devoted a lot of talk to technology transfer from rich countries to poor countries.  While this is admirable, many of the panelists mentioned that what works in one place doesn't always work in another.  For example, wind turbines work well on open plains but may be a problem in mountainous environments due to erosion.

Regional specific technology can take local environmental and cultural concerns into play.  For example, the panel in New Delhi mentioned how biogas digesters, which run on cow dung, are bringing electricity to rural parts of India in a way that respects societal norms and also helps keep the local environment clean.  Other farming-oriented cultures in both developed and developing countries could benefit from this technology.

Any new climate treaty will have to take these issues into account.  In addition to taking local factors into consideration, it can also foster more cooperation between developing countries and lead to innovation.

The International Climate Regime

This leads to the third theme, which is international climate negotiations.  Almost all parties agreed that international negotiations are still an important avenue for dealing with climate change.  There are many important questions that remain unresolved about how to go forward

Jyoti Parikh, from the New Delhi panel, noted one of the big challenges in moving forward with international negotiations is setting a baseline year for emissions.  The Kyoto Protocol was based on 1990 level emissions.  The Copenhagen Accord let countries chose different years, though.  The US would prefer 2005 to be the baseline.  Fifteen years might not seem like a lot of time, but it makes a world of difference in terms of emissions reductions.  Settling on a date and sticking to it will help move things forward.

Scott Barrett, a professor of natural resource economics at Columbia, brought up another interesting idea.  He proposed that it might be better to deal with the components of climate change (mitigation, adaptation, etc.) as individual treaties rather than trying to craft a broad treaty covering everything.  He cited the Montreal Protocol, which only addresses ozone-depleting chemicals, as an example of a successful treaty that solved an international environmental problem.  This approach could work for climate change by providing manageable goals while giving the public reasons to stay engaged with climate change.

For all the hopeful talk, the state of the planet in 2010 still feels somewhat disparaging. Jeffrey Sachs, head of the Earth Institute, noted that while a UN program for malaria bed nets is still looking for $1 billion to keep people healthy and productive, Wall Street bonuses totaled more than $20 billion in 2009.  I'm not ready to write off the state of the planet just yet, though. There were great ideas brought up at the conference.  With some help, they may turn into actions, and become drivers for real social and environmental change.

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