14 December 2010

Rant, medium rare, no. 1 of 3

Just playing with the title there: "medium rare" as opposed to "rare," as in "how well cooked would you like your steak?"  Also as in how often I really rant on anything--I prefer to call it "posing an argument" or something more civil.  But when three different things, each of which might just plain irk me on their own, all pop up in my innocuous web browsing within minutes of each other, it really irks me.  And all I wanted to do was check my e-mail and write down a cool new term before getting back to the second chapter of Pattern Recognition in my evening reading.  Yes, my reading list is actually longer than my backlog of blog posts, but I'm dealing with it as best I can...

Three news items caught my attention tonight:
  1. Some in politics and the media actually think that the COP-16 meeting in Cancun was a success,
  2. Two journalists at Slate hold an intellectually dim view of both science in general and the President's intentions to promote science in education, and
  3. Several researchers and PR people at Arizona State University have taken only 25 years to realize and explain that Cadillac Desert was correct about the sustainability of water resources in the American Southwest, to say little of John Wesley Powell's assertion of the same concept in 1878.
There is a common thread here, as I see it:  politics is little different from a common computer--it's no smarter than what you put into it.  If you need the "garbage in, garbage out" principle explained, I was actually able to do so at one time using established and standard scientific references, so I can give it another shot.  In the meantime, onward to the first item...

The 16th Conference of the Parties (COP-16) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and 6th Meeting of the Parties (MOP-6) to the Kyoto Protocol was held in Cancun, Mexico, during 29 November through 10 December 2010.  Some of the conference background is already documented on Wikipedia, which we can expect to expand in the coming weeks with procedural accounts while the public and official international response is still brewing.  Many thought that the previous meeting, COP-15 / MOP-5 held in December 2009 in Copenhagen, Denmark, was a complete failure because it resulted in no new agreements, no commitments from "party" nations toward emissions reductions, no financial policy decisions with regard to environmental mitigation, and generally little advance on any of the principal topics at issue.  The perception of failure at COP-15 / MOP-5 was due primarily to high expectations without accompanying preparation among, nor pressure within, the attending countries to see through with necessary commitments.  Specifically, the so-called Bali Road Map that was proposed in 2007 at COP-13 / MOP-3 was to have made its penultimate stop in Copenhagen, with a plan established for widespread action on climate change mitigation beyond 2012.  The 2007 meeting in Bali was, in some ways, very much a success with much promise in its outcomes.  That those outcomes depended on the success of a conference two years later in Copenhagen was, however, a blatant exposure of the UNFCCC and Kyoto process for its "decide now to commit later" philosophy.

Of the binding agreements that were expected to appear from negotiations in Copenhagen according the Bali Road Map, none materialized.  I write it just exactly that way for a good reason--going into the Copenhagen meeting, few of the "parties" had actually worked out their commitments to the negotiations on their own, preferring instead to defer hard statements on unilateral actions while waiting for someone, anyone else to pick up the responsibility of leadership.  Sadly, one could hardly have expected much better from the United States, what with all of that time between Bali and Copenhagen falling over an election cycle and a near-guarantee that the balance of political power (and, thus, global outlook) in the U.S. would shift substantially. Again sadly, the environment fell beneath the platform entirely for both major parties and throughout the election year in the U.S.  I expected better, and I was disappointed.  When so many political issues in an election year could have been (indeed, had been, but not by the mass media) brought carefully back into the context of our national outlook on global issues, among which climate change does indeed remain among the top concerns, the election process in America remains a dismal orgy of pandering and narcissism.  The politicians who allow it to remain just so...oh, never mind.

What I'm trying to get to is this:  grassroots activism, on which the latest environmental movement in America was oriented, must remain the base of the process for pressure on political institutions, or the process will fail dramatically and without recourse.  Putting the power of negotiation into the hand of the politicians is a perversion of the process--not only does it take away the power of the people to decide what is best for themselves and their planet, but it puts into the hands of those least able to make a clear commitment or decision (the politicians) the power to defer such decisions as are needed now, not later.  For the United Nations and the United States, both nominal advocates of the democratic process, it is a travesty levied against every person whose livelihood is diminished, whose life is shortened, for our political leaders to bring back the news from Bali, or Copenhagen, that the necessary decisions and commitments to make life better for ourselves and our children, to preserve the biodiversity that our planet supports, and to preserve the planet that supports our own lives, has been deferred to later...

There were two things that I thought very ironic about the outcomes from the COP-15 / COP-5 meeting in 2009.  First, several useful and positive meetings were held in 2009 prior to the UNFCCC and Kyoto "negotiations" in December.  For one of these, in March 2009, scientists met for an International Scientific Congress on "Climate Change: Global Risks, Challenges and Decisions" in Copenhagen to discuss in great detail the meanings and outcomes of the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report.  According to its article on Wikipedia, this conference was convened "with the stated intention of scientifically informing the political COP15 negotiations."  The official website for the Congress states:
"The main aim of the congress was to provide a synthesis of existing and emerging scientific knowledge necessary in order to make intelligent societal decisions concerning application of mitigation and adaptation strategies in response to climate change.  The congress aimed to identify and synthesise the science, technology and policy advances required in order to ensure sustainability of global communities in the current and coming decades...The findings of the congress should be seen as a supplementary to the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The congress provides a summary of existing scientific knowledge two years after the last IPCC report."
Regarding political outcomes, however, the stated goals of the Congress were less lofty:
"All findings will be compiled in a book on climate change, and a synthesis report with the main findings will be handed over to policy makers before the COP15." [sic]
Realistic, pessimistic, or simply noncommittal, I can't quite say...handing over a report policy makers is not nearly the same as a clear and explicit understanding that your report will inform that policy-making process.

Second, as it was held in Copenhagen, the outcome of "failure" in the negotiations rather poetically demonstrated the meaning of the Copenhagen Consensus issued years earlier, upon which Bjorn Lomborg developed his reputation for telling the truth to power, as unromantic and unprofitable as that has become, with the publication of Global Crises, Global Solutions.  Mr. Lomborg went on to publish The Skeptical Environmentalist, on which basis he has incorrectly been pegged as a "denier" of climate change, and the more public-friendly Cool It regarding developments in the scientific and political communities closer to, and more heavily invested in, the COP-15 / MOP-5 process that was to have reached its zenith in Copenhagen but instead found its nadir.  All that to say, simply, that Mr. Lomborg favors solutions embedded in the welfare of the people, not those that depend entirely on the power of the politicians and the profit of global industry.  The trust-oriented costs of half-actions, the failure of political insistence on multilateral negotiation and interdependent commitment to action, and the ignorance of global governments and industries regarding the issues at hand--all of these have added up, as yet, to nothing, while the money put forth toward ephemeral ends might have been better spent over the past decades on issues that we might actually have solved with concerted effort and considerable understanding.

Now, COP-16 / MOP-6 is seen as a success, according to coverage in the Washington Post and other outlets, but Andrew Revkin of the Dot Earth blog at the New York Times has seen it differently.  So also has one of the student observers, Emily Cross, who attended the conference in Cancun.  It was primarily an eleventh-hour but still Phyrric victory, visible only on paper and not in actions or commitments, very much in line with the tone of the more recent political meetings: "let us dither and bicker for two weeks, then hurry to write something just before we leave."  Some of the commentary offered by Ms. Cross sums up the context and attitude nicely:
"...the president of a climate-action organization asked the audience, 'What is the point of all of this? Why do we even go to these conferences?' This was the first time I heard a participant pose this important question. While she gave herself the opportunity to answer it meaningfully, she opted instead for a vapid answer. Unfortunately, this was the norm at COP-16."
To come back to what I was saying above, taking the process out of the hands of scientists and grassroots activists and allowing the politicians to high-jack the discussion and turn plans and actions into mere "negotiations" has led only to this.  What is worse, when the negotiations require iterative pre-conference meetings (such as those ahead of COP-15 / MOP-5 that were well-documented), the process has sunk itself into the mire of bureaucratic limbo.  With the 20th anniversary of the original UNFCCC coming up in late 2012, what are we to expect?  It seems, quite obviously, too much for them to look back on the process and ask, "Have we done our job well?"  The answer is simple: NO!  Is also now too much for these leaders to ask, "Why are we here?"  While the scientists and environmentalists could answer that question in a heartbeat, the politicians would just as likely remain mute.

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