Jun 12, 2009

The Wrong Trousers (Common Ground on Kyoto Between Climate Change Skeptics & Believers)

I recently re-watched the Academy Award-winning animated short Wallace & Gromit in The Wrong Trousers. Like other titles produced by the Aardman Animations company, the film is non-stop eye-candy.

My reason for re-visiting it is a 2007 paper authored by a pair of professors from Oxford University and the London School of Economics. Titled The Wrong Trousers: Radically Rethinking Climate Policy, this 47-page document accepts the premise that dangerous global warming has, indeed, commenced and that the planet faces long-term harmful consequences as a result.

Personally, I consider said premise debatable. But that's a separate issue. The professors, Gwyn Prins and Steve Rayner, say they purposely named their paper after the Wallace & Gromit film. In their view, the mechanical trousers that start out as a cool invention but end up kidnapping Wallace, are an apt metaphor for the Kyoto Protocol.

Their main argument: "the Kyoto Protocol has also marched us involuntarily to unintended and unwelcome places."

Their writing is intelligent and eloquent. It's also direct. Kyoto, they say, was always a "fundamentally flawed" instrument that "was doomed from birth." Due to its single-minded focus on reducing emissions, they feel Kyoto made discussing other responses to climate change "taboo." Kyoto has assumed the status of "creed" and "dogma" they say and, as a result, the world has "wasted fifteen years."

Their paper is a fabulous demonstration of the old adage that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. It also reveals that there's plenty of common ground between individuals who believe dangerous global warming is occurring and those who remain unconvinced.

Like Prins and Rayner, many climate skeptics believe our focus should shift to adaptation. Encouraging populations to prepare for the risks associated with droughts, floods, hurricanes and tsunamis is guaranteed to save lives - since such events will continue to be facts of life irrespective of global warming.

Like many skeptics, Prins and Rayner argue that Kyoto's emission-reduction targets were always too low to have had any significant impact on the big picture. Moreover, their paper demonstrates that, while some countries have worked hard to meet their Kyoto obligations, these efforts have been neutralized by other factors.

For example, because the European Union allowed national governments to distribute unlimited carbon emission permits:

"European governments did what governments seeking popular approval always do, namely look after their own national interests. They therefore issued permits to European industry to the value of more than the then estimated total European carbon emission...There were many guilty parties. But the worst culprit was the Italian government, which showered this free subsidy onto Italian industry on a heroic scale (close to the total estimate for all of Europe). The carbon price crashed from over 30 Euros/ton to 20 cents in the spring of 2006."

It's sobering for the authors to admit - and for us to read - that:

"The failure of Kyoto in its own terms is most eloquently attested by the finding that the (working) Montreal Protocol on CFC reductions may have had a larger net physical impact on the greenhouse effect as an incidental consequence, than Kyoto would have had if it had been fully implemented. Perhaps even more startling is that the Bush Administration’s “Methane to markets” programme, launched before the Kyoto Protocol was activated, may have done more to reduce emissions than all of Kyoto."

A meeting is scheduled for this December in Copenhagen. Its purpose is to help establish international policies to replace the Kyoto Protocol when it expires in 2012. In tune with climate skeptics, Prins and Rayner are adamant that more of the same is not the answer.

But here's the problem. More of the same is exactly what's being promoted loudly by activist groups. Greenpeace Canada is running a campaign called KYOTOplus. The petition Canadians are urged to sign targets emissions exclusively. As usual, Greenpeace's language is apocalyptic:

"Global warming is the greatest threat to life on earth...only urgent action can avert uncontrollable, runaway climate change."

According to the US-based Environmental Defense Fund's website, four elements are critical with respect to the Copenhagen meeting: "The first is clarity on how far industrialized countries are willing and able to cut their emissions, and the second is what developing countries are willing and able to do. The third is clarity on what financing will be available to support developing nations, and the fourth is a governance framework for implementing the agreement."

In other words: emissions, emissions, emissions, emissions.

Friends of the Earth International has its own website petition regarding the Copenhagen meeting. It calls on governments of the rich world to do three things:
  1. cut emissions by "at least 40%" by 2020
  2. refrain from purchasing carbon credits or offsets from the developing world
  3. finance clean energy solutions in poorer countries and help such countries cope "with the floods, droughts and famines caused by climate change"

While the final clause in the final point is encouraging, it's clearly an afterthought. The main focus is dramatic emission cuts over an unrealistically short period of time.

It's difficult not to sympathize with Prins and Rayner. Like skeptics, they find themselves at odds with activists who remain deaf to reasoned argument and new perspectives. Like skeptics they, too, worry about the consequences should their efforts to change minds fail:

"Both writers of this essay began to be engaged with the issue of climate change in the mid-1980s when the task was to gain any audience at all for the discussion...Today, we find that we are like coachmen on a runaway stage-coach, trying to rein back bolting horses, crying “Whoa! Whoa!” before an accident happens."