Durban, South Africa: The UN’s climate talks bring little to no progress on the issue, the U.S. is taking a hard line

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From the Los Angeles Times (Neela Banerjee):

…halfway through a two-week round of climate talks in Durban, South Africa, that excitement has disappeared. Weakened by reversals in Congress and the ailing economy as a presidential election looms, the U.S. delegation has staked out a position that has confused and frustrated environmentalists and other nations.

Doubts have arisen about Washington’s willingness to cut emissions more substantially and its commitment to follow through on helping developing countries already battling climate change, people at the talks said.

The U.S. has shown up “empty-handed, with questions about whether it will be able to meet the emissions-reduction pledge President Obama put forward before Copenhagen,” said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“The question now is whether the U.S. will facilitate progress or block it,” said David Waskow, climate change program director at Oxfam America.

The administration and some allies have pushed back against the mounting criticism, pointing to new rules the U.S. adopted to cut auto emissions and progress at last year’s climate talks in Cancun, Mexico, to aid developing countries.

“The United States is committed to meeting the climate challenge,” said Todd Stern, U.S. special envoy for climate change. “Thanks in significant part to U.S. leadership, the Cancun agreements reached last year included commitments for the first time from all major economies, developed and developing alike, and principles for a system of transparency so that all countries can see whether others are meeting their commitments. There is, of course, much more to be done, but we have made an important start.”[…]

On Wednesday, the chief executives of 16 major environmental groups sent U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton a blunt letter asking that the United States abandon its negotiating positions. “America risks being viewed not as a global leader on climate change but as a major obstacle to progress,” said the letter, whose signatories include the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife and the Environmental Defense Fund. “U.S. positions on two major issues — the mandate for future negotiations and climate finance — threaten to impede in Durban the global cooperation so desperately needed to address the threat of climate change.”[…]

The U.S. has a history of playing hardball at climate talks. But this time, participants are dismayed that the Obama administration insists on preconditions to negotiations for a legally binding agreement that major emitters such as China and India are unlikely to accept. For instance, Washington seeks unconditional commitments from developing countries to reduce emissions to certain levels, when it remains unclear whether they will get the financial or technological support to do so.

“I think the Americans are nervous that the Republicans are watching what they say and do,” [Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists] said from Durban. “They are being very careful so that their position can’t be distorted and used against the president on this issue. That’s perhaps why they’re being more hard line.”

From the Associated Press via The Washington Post:

The top U.N. climate official said Saturday she is confident industrial countries will renew their pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions after their current commitments expire next year…

“Countries are here these two weeks exactly talking about how they are going to go into a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol,” U.N. official Christiana Figueres told The Associated Press.

“The discussion this week is not about the ‘if,’ it’s about the ‘how.’ That doesn’t mean that we are out of the thick of it,” she said. Delegates are discussing participation, the legal form of the rules and all of the conditions that will define the second commitment period, she said.

The Green Climate Fund, designed to help developing nations with clean energy resources, may be a casualty of the 2012 Presidential election. Here’s a report from Kevin Rawlinson writing for The Independent. Here’s an excerpt:

There is still significant disagreement over how to run the Green Climate Fund, intended to channel billions of pounds to help poorer countries take on climate change, with the US and Saudi Arabia said to be standing in the way.

But climate campaigners said yesterday they were hopeful that a deal would be reached without formally reopening debate on the essentials of the Fund, which would delay agreement about how to implement it in practice. Such a hold-up would jeopardize the chances of securing international consensus on what to do when the main provisions of the Kyoto Treaty expire at the end of next year.

“Some of the poorer countries would be unlikely to sign up to any agreement to take over from the Kyoto Treaty without the promise in place to set up some sort of provision to help them grow at the same time as tackling their carbon output, such as the Fund. Because it is so important, people can use it as a football,” said a source at the conference in South Africa.

In a bid to avoid potentially disastrous delays caused by reopening official negotiations on the Fund, the summit’s president – South Africa’s international relations minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane – is holding a series of informal meetings between the parties. Talks to get to this point have already taken almost a year.

The disagreement surfaced on Wednesday night when delegates from the US and Saudi Arabia said they would not sign off on a report stating how to run the Fund. It is hoped the fund will channel much of the £63bn wealthier countries have pledged to give to their developing neighbours to offset the economic difficulties of limiting their carbon emissions.

They were followed by representatives from Venezuela and other South American nations who expressed doubts about handing a leading role to the World Bank, intended to act as the Fund’s interim trustee, because of its perceived links to the US. Nigerian officials also said they were worried that private sector influence would limit poorer nations’ ability to decide what to spend the money on.

More coverage from BBC News (Richard Black):

The world’s poorest countries have asked that talks on a new climate deal covering all nations begin immediately…

These three developing world giants believe talks on a new mandate should not begin now because developed nations have yet to fulfil existing commitments.

But their smaller peers believe there is no time to lose.

“We put forward our mandate for a new legal agreement today to get things moving quickly in an effort to respond to the urgency of our challenge,” said Selwyn Hart, lead negotiator for Barbados, which chairs the Alliance of Small Island States (Aosis).

“We can no longer afford to wait. We need to conclude the new deal in the next 12 months.”[…]

The 48-country Least Developed Countries bloc (LDCs) includes drought-prone states such as Ethiopia and Mali, those with long flat coastal zones such as Bangladesh and Tanzania, and Himalayan mountain states including Bhutan and Nepal for whom melting glaciers pose serious dangers.

The 39-strong Aosis includes a plethora of Pacific and Caribbean islands, some of which are very low-lying and vulnerable to sea level rise.

The draft mandate that the LDCs launched into the current UN summit in Durban, South Africa, says that talks “shall begin immediately after 1 January 2012 and shall conclude… by COP18 (next year’s summit)”…

Brazil and India have argued that no new process should begin before 2015; and China is also known to be resistant. Along with Canada, the US, Japan and Russia, they have also argued that the current pledges on curbing emissions, which most countries tabled around the time of the Copenhagen summit two years ago and which run until 2020, should not be adjusted before that date.

More coverage from Michael Jakobs writing for The Guardian:

When psychologists identified the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance – the ability to believe two contradictory things at the same time – they might have been describing the world of international climate change negotiations.

Only this month, two authoritative international agencies have pointed out that the world has only a few years left in which to begin taking sufficient action to combat dangerous global warming. The United Nations Environment Programme’s Bridging the Emissions Gap report shows that, even if all countries implement their emissions targets for 2020 to their maximum extent, total emissions in that year will still exceed the level required to hold global warming to the UN’s 2C goal. Further action is needed now, it pointed out, if this emissions gap is to be closed. At the same time, the International Energy Agency warned that the world has only five years seriously to start replacing fossil fuels by low carbon energy and energy efficiency. Failure to make the required investment by 2017 would “lock in” high future emissions to such an extent that the 2C goal would become unattainable.

Yet at the UN climate talks in Durban, delegates are arguing about whether a new round of negotiations should not even begin until 2015, and not come into effect until after 2020. Some countries appear to be throwing the 2C goal away even as they rhetorically reaffirm it.

The positions being taken on this give the lie to the lazy view that climate talks are always a matter of developed versus developing countries. On the one side of this argument are the countries most vulnerable to climate change – the small islands and least developed nations – and the European Union. These want negotiations on a new legal agreement to begin next year, to conclude in 2015, and to enter into force as early as possible thereafter (the EU has said no later than 2020). On the other side, advocating that no new negotiations should start until after 2015 at the earliest, is an unlikely alliance of the usual developed country laggards – the US, Canada, Russia and Japan – and two of the largest emerging economies, China and India.

Here’s a look at Margaret Thatcher former Prime Minister of England and her take on humankind’s influence on the planet, from Michael McCarthy writing for The Independent. From the article:

Nothing wishy-washy, nothing bunny-hugging, nothing lefty about the Iron Lady. And this is what she told the assembled fellows of the Royal Society on 27 September 1988: “For generations, we have assumed that the efforts of mankind would leave the fundamental equilibrium of the world’s systems and atmosphere stable. But it is possible that with all these enormous changes (population, agricultural, use of fossil fuels) concentrated into such a short period of time, we have unwittingly begun a massive experiment with the system of this planet itself.”

Funny old world, innit? These days, if you’re a right-wing Conservative, or a right-wing commentator or blogger, it is virtually a badge of honour to proclaim that all this global warming stuff, and action taken to counter it, is a load of cobblers, nay, more: it is a fraud, perpetrated upon a deceived public by free-spending liberal or left-wing politicians who don’t have Britain’s own best interests at heart, and who are backed up by scientists exaggerating the problem so that they can ensure the continuation of their research funding.

Yet the woman regarded by right-wingers as their icon thought just the opposite. She was at the forefront of those who first perceived, in the late 1980s, that our increasing production of greenhouse gases was posing a real and mortal threat to the stability of the atmosphere and thus to the welfare of human society itself. Her Royal Society speech, passionate in its rhetoric, set off the second wave of environmentalism in this country (after the first one in the late 1960s). In the two years remaining of her premiership, she treated the Tory cabinet to a global-warming seminar, instigated the process of the UK cutting its carbon dioxide emissions and oversaw the establishment of the Hadley Centre at the Met Office, Britain’s world-renowned institute for climate prediction and research.

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From the Summit County Citizens Voice (Bob Berwyn):

In this era, it’s difficult to find any signs of vegetation in Antarctica, but a few sparse patches of moss suggest that climate change in recent decades is having an impact on the few plants that do grow in the short summer season.

Australian scientists say that, even though we tend to think of Antarctica as the last untouched wilderness preserved from human impact, it is still affected by anthropogenic climate change.
A paper to appear in the January issue of Global Change Biology describes how the growth rate of some of these “old-growth” moss beds has slowed since the 1980s. The results of the study suggest the moss beds are drying out as a result of increased wind speeds around Antarctica that are linked to the Antarctic ozone hole.

Up until now, measuring the seasonal growth rate of these plants has been extremely difficult and hence it was impossible to assess the impact of our changing climate. But the research conducted by team of environmental scientists from the University of Wollongong and nuclear physicists from the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation used increased concentration of radiocarbon in the atmosphere resulting from nuclear weapons testing (mostly in the late 1950s and early 1960s, called the ‘the bomb spike’) to accurately date the age of the moss shoots along their stems in a similar way to tree-rings.

“This has allowed scientists to show that climate change has made the driest continent on Earth an even harsher environment for plant life,” said Professor Sharon Robinson, of UOW’s Institute for Conservation Biology and Environmental Management.

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Finally, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association has released their 2012 Arctic Report Card. Here’s the link to the Marine Ecosystems Summary:

The Marine Ecosystem section of the 2012 Arctic Report Card highlights the highly variable nature of Arctic ecosystems and provides some insight into how the marine ecosystem and the biodiversity it supports are responding to changing environmental conditions. Recent changes in the marine ecosystem, from primary and secondary productivity to responses by some marine mammals species, are summarized in six essays. These essays provide a glimpse of what can only be described as profound, continuing changes in the Arctic marine ecosystem. For example, primary production by phytoplankton in the Arctic Ocean increased ~20% between 1998 and 2009, mainly as a result of increasing open water extent and duration of the open water season (see the essay on Sea Ice). Increases in primary production were geographically heterogeneous, with greatest increases found in the Kara (+70%) and Siberian (+135%) sectors. In addition to shifts in the total amount of production, recent observations indicate an earlier timing of phytoplankton blooms in the Arctic Ocean (advancing up to 50 days over the period 1997-2009), as well as community composition shifts towards a dominance of smaller phytoplankton species. These changes in production were accompanied by biogeochemical shifts in the system, including profound freshening of waters in the Canadian Basin (see the essay on Ocean Temperature and Salinity) and an undersaturation of the surface waters with respect to aragonite, a relatively soluble form of calcium carbonate found in plankton and invertebrates (see the essays on Ocean Biogeophysical Conditions and Ocean Acidification).

Shifts in primary and secondary production have direct impacts on benthic communities. Organic carbon supply to the benthos in regions of the northern Bering Sea has declined ~30-50%, as has the infaunal biomass of bivalves that are winter prey for the World population of the threatened spectacled eider. Recent changes in Arctic benthic biodiversity include shifts in community composition and biomass, which might be related to climate warming. In several cases, switches from longer-lived and slow-growing Arctic species and/or communities to faster-growing temperate species and/or communities reflect increasing water temperatures. Similarly, northern range extensions of several sea floor dwellers likely are tied to the warming habitat. In the Atlantic Arctic, this process is anticipated to result in the ‘Atlantification’ of the benthos, i.e., the replacement of Arctic communities with those endemic to the North Atlantic Ocean. New research on sediment-associated microbes, including bacteria, archaea, viruses and microscopic fungi, are currently expanding our knowledge of this topic.

Changes in the Marine Ecosystem are affecting higher-trophic species including seabirds and marine mammals. For example, 7 of 19 of the world’s polar bear sub-populations are declining in number, with trends in two populations linked to reductions in sea ice. Thousands of walruses had hauled out on the NW coast of Alaska by mid-August 2011, the fourth time in the past five years for a behavior thought to be triggered by a lack of sea ice in the Chukchi Sea (see the essay on Sea Ice). These unprecedented haul-outs result in pup mortality by crushing and a switch in foraging by walrus from moving sea ice to static shore sites. Conversely, the decline in sea ice extends access to waters north of Bering Strait for feeding by seasonally-migrant baleen whales. Sea ice reductions in the Northwest Passage also provided the opportunity for overlap between bowhead whales from the West Greenland and the Alaska populations, suggesting that reduced summer sea ice may facilitate exchange between the two populations.

Here’s the Terrestrial Systems Summary:

The Terrestrial Ecosystem section of the 2012 Arctic Report Card illustrates the interconnections between the Arctic marine and terrestrial ecosystems. An example is the direct link between increases in Arctic tundra vegetation productivity and earlier peak productivity in many parts of the Arctic on one hand and increasing duration of the open water season and decreasing summer sea ice extent on the other (see the essay on Sea Ice).

The Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) shows that there is a long-term trend of increased biomass production in many parts of the Arctic. Over the whole Arctic from 1982 to 2010, the maximum summer NDVI increased by an average of 8%. However, there is considerable spatial variability, ranging from a 26% increase in lands adjacent to the Beaufort Sea to a small decline in several areas. The areas of greatest increase appear to be correlated with adjacent coastal areas that have experienced dramatic retreats in summer sea ice extent (see the essay on Sea Ice). Despite these long-term trends, annual variation is significant. In 2009, circumpolar NDVI showed a dip that corresponded to elevated atmospheric aerosols and generally cooler summer temperatures over the Arctic. Then, in 2010, NDVI rebounded strongly in North America, but less so in Eurasia. Information from long-term ground-based observations shows that, in addition to increasing air temperatures and loss of summer sea ice, widespread greening is also occurring in response to other factors. These include landslides and other erosion features related to warming permafrost, tundra fires and factors related to increased human presence in the Arctic.

The impacts of increased biomass production in Arctic tundra ecosystems on arctic wildlife are unclear. Despite changes in tundra biomass, migratory barren-ground caribou appear to be within known ranges of natural variation, with many herds that have experienced declines in the past decade beginning to increase or stabilize. Despite this, rapid environmental and social changes in the Arctic are a concern.

Here’s the Hydrology and Terrestrial Cryosphere Summary:

The Hydrology & Terrestrial Cryosphere section of the 2012 Arctic Report Card documents consistent and widespread evidence for continuing change in snow cover, glaciers and ice caps, the Greenland ice sheet, permafrost, lake ice, river discharge and river biogeochemistry. On the Greenland ice sheet and on most glaciers and ice caps elsewhere in the Arctic, the period 2010-2011 was characterized by a negative mass balance, i.e., more snow and ice was lost, primarily by surface melting and runoff, than snow was gained. The western slope of the Greenland ice sheet in particular experienced a significant increase in surface melting, amplified by albedo feedback and, in 2011 and 2010, by below-normal summer snowfall. GRACE satellite gravity solutions show that the mass loss from the entire ice sheet during the 2010-2011 balance year was -430 Gt, the largest annual loss in the GRACE record (2002-present) and equivalent to a eustatic sea level rise of 1.1 mm. Mass losses in summer 2011 are linked to positive surface and upper air temperature anomalies similar to those observed in 2007 and 2005.

Below-average snow extent during spring 2011 is consistent with a decline observed since the 1970s, and continues an accelerated decrease since 2006. June snow cover extent in Eurasia was the lowest since the start of the satellite record in 1966. Positive snow water equivalent (SWE) anomalies in the North American Arctic in 2011 were the third highest since the start of the time series in 1980. Despite this, spring snow cover extent and duration were below-average across both the North American and Eurasian sectors of the Arctic due to positive air temperature anomalies in May and June, the two primary months for snow melt. A general increase in permafrost temperatures observed in Alaska, northwest Canada, Nordic countries, and in Siberia during the last several decades continued in 2010-2011. New record high permafrost temperatures at 20 m depth were measured in 2011 at all observatories on the North Slope of Alaska, where measurements began in the late 1970s. However, a slight decrease (by as much as 0.3°C) in Interior Alaska has been observed during the last three years.

Lake ice cover duration, largely influenced by air temperature changes, was shorter by as much as 4-5 weeks in 2010-2011 compared to the 1997-2010 average for the eastern Canadian Arctic. River discharge into the Arctic Ocean during 2010 was close to the long-term (1936-2009) mean for the six largest Eurasian Arctic rivers and the four large North American Arctic rivers. Preliminary estimates for 2011, based on modeling and some observations, indicate river flows to the Arctic Ocean during January to July were significantly lower than the long-term mean. In 2010, dissolved organic carbon (DOC) flux from five of the six largest Arctic rivers was less than the 2003-2009 average. Combined DOC flux from all six rivers peaked in 2007, but has been lower each year since, closely tracking the downward trend in their combined discharge.

More coverage from the Environmental News Service. From the article:

The Arctic is entering a new state with warmer air and water temperatures, less summer sea ice and snow cover, and changed ocean chemistry, finds the annual Arctic Report Card. Less habitat for polar bears and walruses but increased access to feeding areas for whales characterizes the new Arctic pattern.
The 2012 Arctic Report Card was prepared by an international team of scientists from 14 different countries and issued today by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA.

“This report, by a team of 121 scientists from around the globe, concludes that the Arctic region continues to warm, with less sea ice and greater green vegetation,” said Monica Medina, NOAA principal deputy under secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere.

Scientist records conditions in the Chukchi Sea (Photo courtesy Karen Frey/NOAA)

“With a greener and warmer Arctic, more development is likely,” Medina said. “Reports like this one help us to prepare for increasing demands on Arctic resources so that better decisions can be made about how to manage and protect these more valuable and increasingly available resources.”

The Report Card tracks the Arctic atmosphere, sea ice, biology, ocean, land, and Greenland. This year, new sections were added, including greenhouse gases, ozone and ultraviolet radiation, ocean acidification, Arctic Ocean primary productivity, and lake ice.

In 2011, the near-surface air temperatures over much of the ocean were approximately +1.5 degrees Celsius greater than the 1981-2010 baseline period. Land temperatures also topped their baseline values. This continued a decade-long warming of the Arctic relative to mid-latitudes, the scientists report.

“This pattern is responsible for sending cold air from the Arctic southward into eastern North America and northern Europe, and warm air from the sub-Arctic northward into western Greenland and east Asia,” says James Overland of NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle, who coordinated the atmosphere section of the report card.

More coverage from the Associated Press via CBSNews.com:

The Arctic acts as Earth’s refrigerator, cooling the planet. What’s happening, scientists said, is like someone pushing the fridge’s thermostat much too high. “It’s not cooling as well as it used to,” Richter-Menge said.

The dramatic changes are from both man-made global warming and recent localized weather shifts, which were on top of the longer term warming trend, scientists said. The report, written by 121 scientists from around the world, said statistics point to a shift in the Arctic health in 2006. That was right before 2007, when a mix of weather conditions and changing climate led to a record loss of sea ice, from which the region has never recovered. This summer’s sea ice melt was the second worst on record, a tad behind 2007. “We’ve got a new normal,” said co-author Don Perovich, a geophysicist at the Army Corps of Engineers Cold Research and Engineering Lab. “Whether it’s a tipping point and we’ll never recover, who’s to say?”

The report highlighted statistics to show an Arctic undergoing change:

-A NASA satellite found that 430 billion metric tons of ice melted in Greenland from 2010 to 2011, and the melting is accelerating. Since 2000, Greenland’s 39 widest glaciers shrunk by nearly 530 square miles (1,375 sq. kilometers), about the equivalent of 22 Manhattans.

-The past five years have had the five lowest summer sea ice levels on record. For two straight years, all three major passages through the Arctic have been open in the summer, which is unusual.

-Seven of 19 polar bear sub-populations are shrinking.

-This year’s temperature is roughly 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit (1.4 C) higher than what had been normal since 1980.

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