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Copenhagen climate change summit: Yes, climate change is real but this conference is the wrong way to go about tackling it, argues professor Mike Hulme of the University of East Anglia

Prof- Mike Hulme

Mike Hulme, the author of Why We Disagree About Climate Change, is professor of climate change in the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia

The Copenhagen climate summit is seeking something that has never before been achieved.

Gathering together representatives from all the world’s sovereign nations, it will thrash out the outline of a new global agreement on climate change, an agreement with one central goal: to shape the direction of future world energy and social development in such a way as to prevent the world warming by a further 1.2C.

This sounds a daunting task. And it is.

I can’t think of any previous exercise in international diplomacy that has come close to seeking such an ambitious goal.

It is audacious in its scope (all nations included), in its time-scale (extending decades into the future) and in its reach (from energy, to development, to forests, to intellectual property and so on).

Some say it just has to be done.  If such an agreement is not reached now, it is claimed, there is no second chance.

Gordon Brown and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon fall into this camp, as do a variety of campaigning organisations, some scientists and nations such as The Maldive Islands.

But can such an agreement be achieved? 

And even if something can be agreed in the political hothouse of Copenhagen over the next two weeks, what is the chance of any of the long-term targets for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions being met?

I suggest that by setting out to control climate change through a global multi-lateral agreement we humans have over-reached what we can deliver. The Greeks called it hubris.

After half a lifetime of professional research into climate change – both natural and human-caused - and its impacts on human societies in Africa, India and Europe I am fully persuaded by the evidence that humans are now having a discernible effect on world climate.

It is an effect additional to natural causes of climate variability, not instead of them.

Our rate of burning fossil fuels and our clearance of forests is causing greenhouse gases to accumulate in the atmosphere.

The Irish scientist John Tyndall discovered exactly 150 years ago in London that these gases warm the atmosphere. I am also convinced that as climates change, so too are the various risks and opportunities that climate presents us with.

Some of these risks – such as more intense heatwaves – are quite clear.

A bird rests on a wire near a power plant in Shanghai. China has announced that by 2050 it plans to have one third of the nation's energy consumption provided for by renewable sources

A bird rests on a wire near a power plant in Shanghai. China has announced that by 2050 it plans to have one third of the nation's energy consumption provided for by renewable sources

Indonesian woman passes by two boys who colects plastic article on a polluted river in Jakarta, Indonesia

A woman passes by two boys collecting plastic junk from a river in Jakarta, Indonesia. Prof Hulme argues that as climate change means different things to different countries the Copenhagen summit is not the most effective way of tackling the problem

Other risks, such as changes in hurricane frequencies or intensities, are less clear and while we know that sea level will rise we don’t know by how much nor how rapidly.

The evidence certainly demands that we attend around the world to the ways we manage these climate risks.

I also believe the evidence warrants serious efforts to reduce the growth in emissions by reducing our dependency on fossil energy.

What I am less convinced about is that seeking the type of overarching global agreement being sought at Copenhagen is the best way of going about achieving these aims.

There are a number of reasons why I think this. Let me mention just three.

Climate change means different things to people and governments in different countries. This makes the negotiations between 192 governments extremely difficult.

India, for example, is primarily concerned about using climate change to secure additional technology and finance to secure their development; Brazil on the other hand is seeking to use climate change to create international finance to protect their forests.

For the UK government, the primary goal is to stabilise the world’s climate at no more than 1.2C above today’s temperature.

Second, over the last ten or 15 years, so many of the world’s problems have become entangled with climate change.

We’ve wrapped up so many issues together that we have a climate change Rubik’s cube which is too difficult to solve.

Energy, poverty, biodiversity, intellectual property rights, the rights of indigenous peoples, deforestation – the list goes on. These may all be valid concerns but trying to tackle them all together through a climate change agreement seems unlikely to work.

Third, there is no evidence that any international mechanisms of policy enforcement can be established.

If different nations agree their various emissions reduction targets, what happens in 2020 or 2030 when they miss them – or if they fail to contribute to new Adaptation Funds as virtually every nation has done with respect to their promises of Overseas Development Assistance?

Who will enforce the agreement and what are the sanctions if they default?

All in all, I think the world is trying to embark on a project for which there is no historical precedent, no agreed goal, no mechanisms for enforcement and hence with little chance of success.

I believe than man-made climate is real, but that the actions that we should promote are those which build on existing successes, work at smaller scales, requires less bureaucratic institutions and which simultaneously achieve a wider range of local benefits for society.

  • Mike Hulme, author of Why We Disagree About Climate Change,is professor of climate change in the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia, Norwich.

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