I recently did a little interview for Newsround about the Copenhagen summit. They filmed it before the conference had started so I tried to be upbeat and optimistic about the outcome. As it turned out, the summit was a bit of a disappointment. The Copenhagen Accord seems a bit lame, especially pages 4 and 5, which are a couple of blank tables shoved on the end. It reminds of the kind of thing you would do at school if you had no results but wanted to make your report a bit longer.
Looking back, I had absolutely no reason to be optimistic about Copenhagen. My relatively short education/career in weather and climate science has been littered with events that should’ve made me more realistic. Here are a few such events…
1997 – Kyoto
In 1997 I’d just started my physics degree and was really interested in environmental issues. I followed the Kyoto negotiations. The big problem here was the unwillingness of the USA to ratify the agreement. Even before the protocol had been finalised, the US Senate had decided not to ratify anything that did not include binding targets for developing nations. This failure is not surprising given that the way members of the Senate fund their election campaigns – they are left with a responsibility to the interests of organisations who are resistant to big changes. Al Gore, as vice-president, nonetheless signed the protocol in 1998.
2000 – George W. Bush
I was an MSc student in 2000, studying environmental science at UEA. Knowing Bush’s background, his election seemed a big step backwards in the political negotiations regarding climate change. It was.
2001 – IPCC Third Assessment Report and the “hockey stick”
Just as I was starting my PhD in Antarctic climate science, the 3rd report of the IPCC was finished. The high media profile given to the report was an inspiration for my work but one of the details in the report has been under intense scrutiny since 1998 when it was first published in Nature.
The level of scientific and media analysis of this work must be unprecedented. The attempts to discredit the science and reputations of the scientists involved with the Hockey Stick graph has continued right up until the UEA email theft in 2009. However, the science has stood up to all the questions asked of it.
2003 – European heat waves
These heat waves were one of the clearest signals of a changing climate in Europe and resulted in an estimated 30,000 deaths. 30,000! Most of these people were probably ill or vulnerable but the press coverage of this never seemed to reflect the scale of the disaster.
2004 – George W. Bush, again
2007 – Bali
Maybe the 2007 UNFCC conference would result in a better outcome? Well, there’s Yvo de Boer (Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC) breaking down in tears at the final press conference. Not a high point.
Ok, so Bali wasn’t so bad – some sort of agreement was cobbled together at the last minute but there was certainly no sense of pulling together. So why is this all going so badly? In 1987, with the Montreal protocol, World leaders managed to get together and solve the global CFC/ozone problem. That process happened quite quickly but how long will it be before the solution to the climate problem starts to even get on the right track? Will it be before the end of my career? Regardless, Copenhagen was not that point.