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Environment

The Climate Change Narrative

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorFebruary 1, 2010 9:31 PM

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In 2008, it was shaped by Copenhagen and the proposed U.S. congressional cap & trade legislation. That makes sense, since major political events (especially protracted ones) tend to propel narratives. (Ordinarily, climate science drives the global warming narrative, but 2008 was akin to a presidential election year for climate change.) Sure there were new public opinion polls and plenty of fresh, alarming scientific findings that fueled media coverage, but the master narrative flowed from the political dealmaking done in the U.S and on the international stage. The storyline in 2009 is shaping up to be something much different. Marc Morano can continue to insist that global warming is a hoax because of the hacked emails or the latest IPCC screwup, but no amount of screaming headlines on Climate Depot is going to alter the firm scientific consensus that anthropogenic global warming is real, or the minds of a majority of people who think it's real (if not an urgent problem). So there's still going to be a debate on how to curb greenhouse gases this year. The question is, will cap & trade remain a central theme? I'm guessing no if the U.S. climate bill gets put on the shelf with healthcare legislation. What does that mean for the next round of international talks in Mexico City? Remember, it's a given that a world treaty hinges on the U.S. passing a climate bill. So what happens if cap & trade is eliminated from congressional legislation, which seems increasingly likely? What if the whole bill is scuttled? What's the climate narrative then, leading up to Mexico City? How do you negotiate an international cap & trade mechanism with carbon reduction targets if the world's second largest emitter isn't on board? I thought that Mike Hulme laid out an intriguing scenario in this recent Nature piece. Hulme speaks to the growing sense that a clearer path emerged from the chaos of Copenhagen, one that

reflects a new political reality [where] politics and power will win out. My view is that this was a good outcome from Copenhagen. I think that people may well now see that there is more progress to be made by pursuing options outside of the formal structure of the UN.

Along these lines, Hulme said he would

like to see more radical thinking. Different climate forcing agents might be best attended to in different ways. One could have two separate treaties: one controlling short-lived agents such as black soot and methane, and one concerned solely with carbon dioxide.

So far so good. I can imagine climate advocates in the U.S signing up for that. But then Hulme suggests a mitigation strategy that would require a whole new institutional and political mindset:

I don't hold out a great deal of optimism that market-based mechanisms "” especially with [only] a proportion being auctioned "” provide a strong enough downward pressure on emissions. For that reason, I wouldn't mind too much if [the climate bill] doesn't get through the Senate if it forces other types of thinking. I've come around to the view that we need to set near-term targets that are pragmatic and technology-based, and they should be achievable on the basis of credible social, technical and economic analysis, not aspirational targets driven by IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] science. It's better to be pragmatic than to be overly aspirational; surely the lessons of the 12 years since Kyoto tell us that?

Now if this perspective catches on, we got ourselves a whole new climate narrative. UPDATE: Soon after writing this post, I recalled the news last year of Republican Senator Inhofe's concerns about black soot. Hulme raises the idea of a separate treaty on this noxious pollutant. Perhaps there is common ground between climate advocates and skeptics on black soot? UPDATE 2: David Roberts of Grist is becoming a true climate realist:

It's now fairly clear that the long-time environmentalist dream of having a binding international treaty that imposes ambition on participating countries is forlorn. The iron law of geopolitical relations is asserting itself here: countries will do what is in their own best interests based on their own circumstances ... and no more.

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