By Keith Johnson
The rhetorical battle, if nothing else, is heating up in the debate over how to stem climate change. Rajenda Pachauri, the head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has unofficially come out in favor of really ambitious targets for greenhouse gases—much more ambitious than those of the scientific group he heads.
Mr. Pachauri told AFP he supports the idea of limiting atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide to 350 parts per million. The IPCC in 2007 said 450 parts per million was the really scary threshold; neither the IPCC nor Mr. Pachauri can make policy recommendations.
“But as a human being I am fully supportive of that goal. What is happening, and what is likely to happen, convinces me that the world must be really ambitious and very determined at moving toward a 350 target,” he told AFP in an interview.
Does it matter at all? Mr. Pachauri isn’t the first big name to advocate such limits on atmospheric concentrations (which are, by the way, below current levels).
Bill McKibben founded the group 350.org with precisely that goal in mind. NASA’s James Hansen keeps getting himself arrested hollering that the world doesn’t have a prayer unless it rolls back concentrations to 350 parts per million, starting right now.
But despite Dr. Hansen’s stature in scientific circles, his reputation for influencing actual policy is a little spottier, as Elizabeth Kolbert recently noted in the New Yorker (sub reqd.)
And whether it’s the current battle in the U.S. Senate or the prologue to December’s climate summit in Copenhagen, climate politics is most decidely a Bismarckian art of the possible. Getting rich countries to agree on steep emissions cuts necessary to meet that target is tough enough; convincing developing countries which are increasingly digging in their heels looks next to impossible.
Which is why, as Michael Levi argued in the latest issue of Foreign Policy (sub reqd.), the chances of success in Copenhagen look “vanishingly small.” A better approach, he says, would be to treat climate talks like trade talks—an ongoing round of negotiations that may last for years but which can address all the minutiae, such as figuring out who’s emitting how much of what in the first place. And which, by the way, have some sort of enforcement for countries that ditch their obligations.
In the meantime, political hot air about long-term targets is just that. More progress could be made with modest, national goals in areas like energy efficiency, renewable energy, and clean coal. “Actual emissions cuts happen because of policies, not promises, and the simple fact that governments could directly control these policies would increase the likelihood of success,” Mr. Levi writes.