The Politics of Climate Change

With only a week until the 21st UN climate change conference in Paris, you would be forgiven for thinking that the agenda has merely been copy and pasted from the last one in Lima. And the one before that in Warsaw. So what makes this one any more special?

To negotiate a treaty that maintains the effect of global warming to less than 2 C is still the main aim, and the public pressure on world leaders has been present since the failure of the 2009 meeting in Copenhagen. But it is now 18 years since Kyoto, and even longer since the Montreal protocol, neither of which really made huge inroads into controlling CO2 emissions. Short lived climate pollutants, which also influence climate, but are

Will world leaders finally come to an agreement this time round?

One of the major issues is, as always, money. No country wants to go alone and take an economic hit that they would suffer by reducing cheap, dirty energy production, and replacing it with clean infrastructure that takes a lot of money to implement, especially if other countries aren’t going to do the same. Along the same lines, previous meetings have seen newly developing countries wanting those countries that are already developed, and have been responsible for large amounts of historic CO2 emissions, to help financially. This would ensure that those countries could continue to develop and compete globally in the financial markets. In 2009, $100 billion was promised to some of the developing nations by 2020, but more nations want this to be extended.

A compromise between development and climate has always been a stumbling block in previous conferences

A second major issue is the legality and binding commitment required. Some countries want tougher decreases on carbon emissions, others are relying on cheap and plentiful coal-powered energy to fuel their growth out of poverty, and so are unwilling to give definitive dates for the phasing out of coal and gas power. How to legally bind countries to any new deal is also an issue. The EU wants a UN-led binding contract, whilst the USA and China would prefer a treaty that was binding only in domestic laws, and in the Japanese submission for the process, there is no mention of it being legally binding at all.

So how come, despite all these sticking point, there is a quiet optimism about Paris that hasn’t been seen since Copenhagen?

A poster parodying Mobil reads:
The funding of fossil fuels based industries by governments is also likely to be under scrutiny in developed nations

Well firstly, Copenhagen caused a lot of governments a great deal of embarrassment, as did previous failures. The public backlash from another failed  meeting would not go down well in many countries, particularly the USA, China and UK. This is also the last chance that Barrack Obama has to attempt to make a difference, especially given the fear that the next occupant of his office may be much less amiable to the climate change community. Secondly, the number of small deals done between countries outside of the UN framework has increased pressure on this meeting to work. It also means that several nations now have a better idea at what each others needs and wants are. Most importantly though, it seems that the big players (China, USA, EU and Japan) are now at a stage where some compromises to national interests may be made in order to reach an agreement, whereas previous meetings have seen national interests come first at all times.

Whilst there is hope that a legally binding deal can be found in Paris, it remains prudent to say that whatever is done, it will only be the beginning of a long process to attempting to rebuild a cleaner atmosphere.


Forecasting light showers and a P45

This week, a French TV weatherman was fired from his job after releasing and then promoting a climate change-sceptical book (no, it’s not Michael Fish). The presenter in question, who has dismissed the label of  being a “climate-sceptic”, and opened his dismissal letter on a video on social media. Doing so, he said  “I decided to open it with you, in front of you, as it concerns everybody, in the name of freedom of speech”.

French TV weatherman Philippe Verdier has been taken off the air for writing a book chall
Phillipe Verdier, France 2 TV’s chief forecaster, failed to see the storm of controversy that his book would bring

The concept of being fired for having different views is not a new one. Even the idea of being dismissed, or publicly ridiculed, for having different scientific views is not new or unusual. Many of the greatest scientific discoveries, such as Gallileo’s heliocentric system or Hutton’s geological time theory, were initially thrown out of scientific discussions due to their extreme viewpoints compared with the knowledge at the time.

In America, prominent academic researchers and scientists can gain tenure, which not only affords job security in a volatile sector, but also determines that scientific dissent is not a reason for dismissal. This is known as the right to academic freedom. The idea of it is that it promotes original ideas to arise and questions to be asked of previously accepted work that may have flaws. Essentially, you can have your own views and say what you want, providing you can get the funding to work on it and attempt to prove it.

In most of the rest of the world, no similar system exists, either in Academia or outside agencies. In 2010, an Israeli government official was sacked after denying climate change and evolution. However, just a year ago, the UK Minister for the Environment was a staunch climate sceptic, and refused a meeting with leading scientists to discuss climate change after pushing a 40% cut through. And a health professor in Canada retained her job despite teaching her university classes warning that vaccines were dangerous and caused autism despite the paper being dismissed after the author admitted lying about results in order to get his conclusion.

Sir Henry Raeburn - James Hutton, 1726 - 1797. Geologist - Google Art Project.jpg
James Hutton, the father of modern geology, faced stark criticism and struggled to get his theories published when he first suggested the Earth was much older than the bible

So which of these situations is sacking the offender justified, and when is it not? Should government ministers in charge a department be required to have a viewpoint that follows scientific consensus? Should those in positions of celebrity, or have the responsibility of teaching have to be vetted to prevent extreme views being taught? And what of those who in academia, whose very job it is to question things?

Should politician’s be forced to followed the advise of neutral scientific advisers, rather than create their own in order to follow their own policies?

An issue arising from the sacking of the French weatherman is that he has a platform to put forward his case. The book has sold well, mostly thanks to the publicity he has got from the media, and from his celebrity status. Without it, it would undoubtedly not sold as well. And that in itself is dangerous. In a world where what celebrities say has a large influence over the young minds of the world, then it is understandably worrying when someone with that influence goes against what is scientifically believed.

It’s a dilemma that France 2, the TV station in question, should never have had to face however. Because weather and climate are different things. And although Verdier wrote a Masters dissertation on Climate Change and the Media, it was back in 1992, and he has not had a role in climate science since. Why should someone not at the forefront of the field be given an equal platform to discuss his theories? Surely those with the most knowledge about a subject should be the ones who’s views should be given most publicity and be allowed to discuss the pro’s and con’s of it all?

Verdier himself, in his dissertation, remarked “The dubious amalgam between weather and climate is the most common mistake in the media”.  Who is better placed to take advantage of it for his own gain than him then?