State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

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End the Politics. Let Scientists and Engineers Lead.

This is the fifth of a continuing series of essays and interviews from Earth Institute scientists on the prospects for a global climate-change treaty. Check with us daily for news and perspectives, and to make comments, as events unfold throughout the Copenhagen meetings.

jeffsachsWe can only marvel at the disarray. Here we are, 17 years after the signing of the UN framework convention on climate change, two years after the decision in Bali to agree a new climate policy, one year after Barack Obama’s election, and days out from the Copenhagen conference. Yet a real global strategy to avoid catastrophe remains elusive.

Yes, there is some progress. The Obama administration has now offered a 2020 and 2050 target on emissions reduction. China and India have stepped forward with commitments to slow the rise of emissions, and Mexico has tabled creative proposals for climate financing. New technologies offer the possibility of low-cost abatement of greenhouse gas emissions. Through the fog of policy speeches, international meetings and domestic debates, one can begin to see a path to a low-carbon economy.

The mayhem, however, is at least as great. Greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere continue to mount, and will do so for years or decades to come. The Wall Street Journal, America’s biggest circulation paper, rails each day against climate science. Backroom deals in the U.S. Congress with industrial lobbies threaten to eviscerate already watered-down proposals for limiting carbon emissions. A vote on the U.S. legislation has been postponed till next spring at the earliest, and a similar bill has just been defeated in Australia.

The truth is that even if we reach a political agreement, we’re not yet on track to achieve practical, significant and sustained progress. Whether it’s the U.S. debate that ricochets among activists, deniers and lobbyists, or the global debate – which veers between empty agreements and bitter finger-pointing – we’ve somehow turned a life-and-death challenge into a scrum. After Copenhagen, which probably will be concluded with a patch-up accord, it will be vital to change paths from the one we’ve been on essentially since before Kyoto in 1997.

jeff_earthsky_audioWe’ve debated for years about who should control emissions, by how much, when, and according to binding or non-binding commitments. Yet we can’t settle these issues without also getting into the details about the deployment of low-carbon technologies, social behaviors and the quantitative realities of energy systems, transport technologies, food production, water scarcity, and population trends. We will continue to go around in circles until we are much more systematic in bringing scientific and engineering realities to the table. Our negotiations need much greater grounding in our true options and their costs.

These issues are tough and complex. Each nation’s plausible choices depend on what technologies will be available and when. It’s pretty vacuous to spend a couple of years debating whether the emissions target for 2020 should fall by 20%, 30%, or 40% compared with 1990, or perhaps 2005, without knowing how and with what extra costs and disruptions such targets might be achievable.

We will need, in short, a lot more brainstorming than negotiation, at least until the world’s plausible options and trade-offs come into view. When can low-carbon power plants truly be brought online? When will electric vehicles be ready for mass sales? Will carbon capture really work and if so, where? Which countries and regions within them have the right kind of geology to store carbon underground, and who is going to monitor it? Dare we advocate a massive revival of the nuclear power industry, in a world fraught with nuclear proliferation? During two years of lead-up to Copenhagen, the official negotiations never gave a place for such questions to be posed, much less answered.

Here, then, is a proposal for the post-Copenhagen attempt to square up national and global policies so they add up to something more than more years of empty promises. Let’s start by recognizing that most of the human-made crisis emerges from a few pivotal human activities: how and what we grow to eat; how we mobilize and distribute energy; how we transport ourselves and our freight; and how we build our buildings and lay out our cities. Each related sector requires its own intensive strategy – to identify the kind of research and development activities, public infrastructure investments and public policy to accompany a positive price on carbon emissions, through permits or taxes. Countries would have a lot to share – for instance in new technological options – and a lot that would distinguish them, according to geography, resource base, development level, and more.

We have spent a lot of time debating the merits of tradable permits versus taxation but have failed to understand that operational policies must go far beyond either instrument. The future of nuclear power, for instance, depends not so much on tradable permits as on issues of safety, reliability, and risks of proliferation or terrorism. Similarly emissions trading may eventually spur the use of carbon capture and sequestration, but only after several such plants have been tried on the public expense, to investigate the real engineering and costs of possible technologies, and the real feasibility of safe, long-term storage in geological sites. The scale-up of solar and wind power will depend on land use choices, the future of the power grid, and the ability to store power.

The costs of these approaches can only be judged after more thorough testing and analysis. Thus the side payments that rich countries will have to make to poor ones to adopt such technologies can’t yet be determined precisely. When the EU or any country announces their contribution to the poorer countries in Copenhagen, the number will be pulled out of the hat, and probably far too low. It’s past time to do any of the real financial homework.

Perhaps it’s no surprise we are stuck. Climate change is the most complicated issue the world has faced. Complex – but not hopeless. It’s time to put the expertise at the front table, not to supplant public debate and discussion but finally to inform it. Copenhagen should be the end of negotiation by politicians with technical issues kept in the shadows or ignored. Let’s get scientists, engineers and ordinary citizens involved in a true discussion about our common future, and especially the tradeoffs, costs and choices. Together we can prove that our world is still capable of reaching long-range agreements when our children’s lives and wellbeing hang in the balance.


Jeffrey D. Sachs is director of The Earth Institute, Columbia University. This article originally appeared in The Guardian.

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Diana Bronson
14 years ago

Jeffrey Sachs says; “The costs of these approaches can only be judged after more thorough testing and analysis”. Unfortunately, the draft language on technology in Copenhagen omits any notion of proper assessment of technologies, meaning that many technologies with very negative environmental and social consequences will get a funding and institutional boost. THis could include high-risk, planetary-scale geoengineering, technologies, so called second generation biofuels that depend on the massive exploitation of limited “biomass” and nuclear power. International civil society groups are calling for much more in a declaration called “Lets Look Before We Leap” — found on http://www.etcgroup.org. Check it out and sign it if you care about the future of the planet!

Art Hobson
14 years ago

As usual, Jeffrey Sachs is right on the mark. But who is responsible for getting the technical information that he asks for, and who is responsible for providing it to the public and the government? As a scientist, I suggest that it is us, the scientists, who need to do this. But by and large we haven’t been doing this. Instead, we focus on narrow professional research, and we avoid contact with the public or with the government. The typical university science professor focuses on his or her own narrow research first, on PhD students second, and enters undergraduate classrooms as seldom as possible. Most scientists’ only involvement with government is concerned only with narrowly-focused research grants. The great majority of scientists do not learn about, teach about, or inform the government about the important issues that Sachs mentions: carbon storage, nuclear power, renewable sources of energy, etc. We are not interested in scientific literacy for the general public or for government officials, and we avoid the “burden” of teaching scientific literacy courses. We scientists must step up to the plate and help solve the problems of which Sachs so rightly speaks. – Art Hobson, Professor Emeritus of Physics, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville

Ding Ding
14 years ago

I cannot agree with you more, Art–most scientists and researchers do not talk in the same frequency hence do not resonate much with the general public or the grassroot government officials. Yet, the grassroot public and officials are exactly the integral part of the solution that is overlooked for too long. Jeff also mentioned “social behavior” as one of the solutions. One one side, we are tempted to think it is just to hard to induce social behavioral changes. on the other side, these are probably the most low-hanging fruits. For example, behavioral energy conservation, one of the negative-cost solution that most people do not bother to think about or call for.

although Copenhagen started with finger-pointing, I’m still hopeful that at least at the end, each party would agree that climate change is happending, we need to do something about it, and we at least could start with large scale awareness raising and environmental education for the general public to induce social behavioral changes and to empower the grassroot officials to make more informed decisions.

C Dunn
C Dunn
14 years ago

He mentions electric vehicles and when they will be for sale. GM had a good one that people loved, but they destroyed them. Why do we need more study on the subject? Just to keep academia busy?

With the ever increasing winds that the earth is producing,ironically due to climate change, more investment in wind power would be a good start. Seems like some countries are embracing this technology. It also doesn’t need more study!

The concept that more study is required is simply a stalling tactic to do nothing.

Ding Ding
14 years ago

I agree “more study is required” should not be the excuse of inaction or procratination. meanwhile we also need to acknowledge we need to develop more knowledge and capacity to develop holistic and effcient solutions. electric vehicles do not make sense unless electricity is largely decarbonized. That’s not an easy thing to achieve. yet we need to do it, without procrastination.

Uwe Ohlendorff
Uwe Ohlendorff
14 years ago

I agree to Jeff Sachs in all points. Now the scientists and the engineers are asked more than ever. As a layman and as an intensive observer, I would like to generate some comments that irritate me, and probably some others.

Apparently not all scientists agree that the climate change, which is already set in motion, is caused largely by human hands. Let’s leave aside the question of whether the sceptics concern to so-called “pseudo scientists”, so by people who act only half-heartedly and without knowledge of all available information, or whether they concern scientists who operate in the service of lobbyists. That irritations can lead to uncertainties within the populations of all nations. On the other side there are so-called “alarmists” which cause horror scenarios under ignorance of all scientific knowledge and appear with excessive and disoriented demands which drives the industry to more powerful lobbying activities in politics.

I am persuaded of the fact that there also requires among scientists and engineers a moderate treatment of this awkward subject and that a demarcation to groupings of both sides is conducive. A transparency of the science is asked now.
I am absolutely sure that on the part of the science nearly everything is already insightfully finished or is intensely in treatment and that the scientists and engineers are ready to take the responsibility from the politicians and to present and to install an adequate model which protects our environment sustainably and which carries the economics sphere of interest into account.

However, it also requires of the pressure “from below” to persuade politics and lobby. To mobilize the population of putting pressure on the respective governments to operate, finally, with sustainable effect instead of reacting, is in my opinion a not to be underestimated challenge. And there I see another deficiency: The layman gets to know about forthcoming or carrying out climate disasters by the well known media. He gets to know about the climate summit by the press. He reads headlines, written by journalists and reporters who return on the one hand the argumentations of the scientists and of the politicians with own words and comments. On the other hand they are depend on the viewing rate of their channel or the sales results of their newspaper and magazine.

Qualitative and independent information, exposed coherently, are essential in my opinion. This includes a detailed description of measures that have to be taken in practice. They could be designed like manuals or textbooks or something like that. Thus the parameter of the science and the pressure of the citizen could take influence to the politics. But I fear this is a very long way accompanied by almost insurmountable obstacles in this complex interplay between politics, economics and ecology.

C Dunn
C Dunn
14 years ago

“Decarbonization” is definitely the way to go! For example, Canada has a 3 trillion kilowatt capacity from wind power alone and we little or nothing to harness this. I’m ashamed of BC, who has less wind power than PEI.

Ironically, oil baron Alberta is moving ahead rapidly with wind generation and actually provides incentives to develop it. As the Danish point out, their success in wind power generation is because the government believes in it.

I think our government does not understand the long term incentives to go clean energy and is too much at the behest of big oil.

Ding Ding
14 years ago

My advisor, Prof. Jim Williams had an amazing “scientist-style” comeback for a climate change skeptic last week in his talk. He said “if you don’t believe in climate change, you should not bother to use microwave, because they work in the same physics”^_^