News & Media Opinion Pieces Reports on Recent Climate Change Conferences

Reports on Recent Climate Change Conferences

These reports were prepared by Peter Tait, DEA member, NT

Key Science Messages from the Climate Conference in Copenhagen

Scientists at the international congress in Copenhagen, held in March 2009, have prepared a summary statement of their findings for policy makers. The congress was conceived as an update of the science of global warming ahead of the UN summit in December.

 Ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference in December this statement will go to officials and heads of state at the conference. The full conclusions from the 2,500 scientific delegates from 80 countries that have attended the three-day meeting this week will be published in full in June 2009.

The scientists’ six key messages are:
1) Climatic trends
Recent observations confirm that, given high rates of observed emissions, the worst-case IPCC scenario projections (or even worse) are being realised. For many key parameters, the climate is already moving beyond the patterns of natural variability within which our society and economy have developed and thrived. These parameters include global mean surface temperature, sea-level rise, ocean and ice sheet dynamics, ocean acidification, and extreme climatic events. There is a significant risk that many of the trends will accelerate, leading to an increasing risk of abrupt or irreversible climatic shifts.

2) Social disruption
The research community is providing much more information to support discussions on “dangerous climate change”. Recent observations show that societies are highly vulnerable to even modest levels of climate change, with poor nations and communities particularly at risk. Temperature rises above 2C will be very difficult for countries to cope with, and will increase the level of climate disruption through the rest of the century.

3) Long-term strategy
Rapid, sustained, and effective mitigation based on coordinated global and regional action is required to avoid “dangerous climate change” regardless of how it is defined. Weaker targets for 2020 increase the risk of crossing tipping points and make the task of meeting 2050 targets more difficult. Delay in initiating effective mitigation actions increases significantly the long-term social and economic costs of both adaptation and mitigation.

4) Equity dimensions
Climate change is having, and will have, strongly differential effects on people within and between countries and regions, on this generation and future generations, and on human societies and the natural world. An effective, well-funded adaptation safety net is required for those people least capable of coping with climate change impacts, and a common but differentiated mitigation strategy is needed to protect the poor and most vulnerable.

5) Inaction is inexcusable
There is no excuse for inaction. We already have many tools and approaches — economic, technological, behavioural, management — to deal effectively with the climate change challenge. But they must be vigorously and widely implemented to achieve the societal transformation required to decarbonise economies. A wide range of benefits will flow from a concerted effort to alter our energy economy now, including sustainable energy job growth, reductions in the health and economic costs of climate change, and the restoration of ecosystems and revitalisation of ecosystem services.

6) Meeting the challenge
To achieve the societal transformation required to meet the climate change challenge, we must overcome a number of significant constraints and seize critical opportunities. These include reducing inertia in social and economic systems; building on a growing public desire for governments to act on climate change; removing implicit and explicit subsidies; reducing the influence of vested interests that increase emissions and reduce resilience; enabling the shifts from ineffective governance and weak institutions to innovative leadership in government, the private sector and civil society; and engaging society in the transition to norms and practices that foster sustainability.

Based on a report on the conference outcomes in the UK Guardian.

Greenhouse 2009 conference in Perth – some messages

This conference held few surprises. The warming is worse than thought in the IPCC AR4, but until the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) is out in 2014 little can be done through this process to spur governments to further action. On the other hand the scientific meeting in Copenhagen last week, in the lead up to COP15 this December, put out a statement detailing the increasing rate of climate change and the need for urgent action.

Many examples of effects of this more than expected rapid warming were given at the conference. While the scientists say it is often difficult to pick whether this is natural variability, the fact that observed measures are tracking along the IPCC A1FI (most carbon intensive SRES) scenario is of concern. The Australian Climate Change Science Program (CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology) had available a booklet Science Update 2009 issue one summarising recent relevant climate change science, with relevant references. It discusses the more recent than IPCC AR4 changes. Subscription can be made at

Ross Garnaut described how the Great Recession interacts with this “time of decision” on climate mitigation, and he is pessimistic. Although the recession gives us a brief breathing space in emission increases, and an opportunity for structural reform with low opportunity costs, high unemployment and the new distrust for the market as a safe vehicle for managing change may impede effective action. He did make the point that private vested interests have had undue prominence and that those with the public interest at heart need to overwhelm these people.

Filippo Georgi from Aldus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics, Italy, presented on issues determining regional, in contrast to global, climate change modeling. It listed the sources of uncertainties that are inherent in the assumptions underlying and built into the models. In spite of these uncertainties massive work done with various ensemble runs of models over time have shown consistently:
• Climate change will not be uniform; there will be regional hotspots at subcontinental scales and these are consistent in different models over time; southern Australia particularly in the west is such a spot;
• There will be wide variation in climate / weather patterns between consecutive years at the same location;
• Rainfall will in general be less frequent but more intense over land masses; and
• Globally there will be increases in heat waves over land.

The government and energy industry seem to think that business nearly as usual with minor tinkering will get us through. Chris Mitchell from the CO2 Group discussed barriers to reducing Australia’s greenhouse emissions which include :
• A series of market and regulatory failures rather than a lack of technology, which by and large exists;
• Serious complexity in ownership, governance and regulation, incompatibilities in technology and measurement, and lack of good research which all combine to make assessment, planning and decision making about energy options impossibly difficult.

Various industry and government representatives, both those seeking and those giving advice, are clear that they understand there are uncertainties with the science, but they accept the precautionary principle and want scientists to give them a best estimate on which they can begin planning.

Graeme Pearman, former CSIRO Atmospheric Division director and now consultant, emphasised the proposition that understanding and working with human behaviour is fundamental in working our way toward solutions to the uncertain, complex, urgent and inequitable problem that is climate change. He and other speakers discussed ideas for building resilience and sustainable communities to take us along this path. I will report on resilience and adaptation elsewhere.

From a long discussion about oceans it is clear that the problem with global warming and oceans is not sea level rise, but in fact ocean warming and acidification. Other issues pertaining to increases and decreases in salinity are also important. Essentially though climate changes are consequent to the warming of the oceans, which are the major heat sink. Second, as the major CO2 sink, the oceans are acidifying. This not only reduces many species capacity to calcify their shells, but more dangerously it has other effects on a wide range of biological processes necessary for life and reproduction.

To conclude, Graeme Pearman drew the analogy that there are about 6 billion pieces in a Boeing 747. This is roughly the same as the number of species on the planet that make up the ecosystem on which we rely for air, clean water, food and so on. If we were told that one or two (unidentified) pieces of the 747 had been removed we would probably still chose to fly in it. If, however we were told that a random 30% of pieces had been removed, we probably would not. The IPCC AR4 puts the projected likely loss of known species from our ecosystem with a 2 degree rise in temperature at about 30%. Do we still want to fly? Or turn down the thermostat?