Thus was billed a recent conference I attended last week at the Aspen Wye River Conference center located in rural Maryland along the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay. The two-day conference was yet another step in the Transatlantic Climate Bridge began earlier this year between Germany and the U.S. in hopes of fostering greater understanding and cooperation on energy and climate issues, especially now in the final days before the Copenhagen summit.
The conference brought together journalists from both sides of the pond, along with a select group of advisors, consultants, negotiators, and policy experts on the front line of the issues facing the world next month in Copenhagen. Since the journalists (and blogger) at the conference are subject to the Chatham House rules, I am not able to attribute specific positions to any particular speaker, but the ideas discussed and the perceptions explored in the dialog are worth summarizing – kicking it off with the burning question in the wake of news over the weekend that world leaders have “agreed not to agree” to a fully binding treaty at COP15: Is there any real hope left for “success” in Copenhagen?
In a word, yes. There is not only hope, but a realistic chance for success at Copenhagen. That is, if we can engage in “expectation management” and tailor a definition of success within those expectations – let the qualifications begin.
Helping with our required expectation management at the conference included representatives from the Danish embassy, the Center for Naval Analysis, Worldwatch, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), ICF International, Peterson Institute for International Economics, Ecologic Institute, and the German Embassy. From this diverse group came an equally diverse range of opinion on the current state of affairs in climate policy, both nationally and internationally, for COP15 and beyond.
At one end of the expectation spectrum is the extreme pessimist. A view that builds upon the general feeling of disappointment coming from the final round of pre-COP15 negotiations in Barcelona earlier this month and what was characterized as the “Kabuki theatrics” of the recent Senate Energy and Public Works (EPW) committee hearings on the Kerry-Boxer climate bill.
The pessimistic take is that, COP15 aside, the world community will not take serious action on climate change until more catastrophic events unfold – by which time it will be far too late to avoid an escalating tide of dire consequences, making the cost of adaptation and mitigation far higher than even the most stalwart Republican Senator imagines. Too little, too late.
And speaking of costs…
One key selling point to climate legislation passed in the US House of Representatives and currently wrenching its way through the Senate is that the cost to consumers will amount to a “postage stamp a day.” To the pessimist (or perhaps the realist) this idea is a “complete joke.” What is required is a more realistic pricing of carbon and a correction of the absurdly lopsided energy sector subsidies – now about $70.2 billion for fossil energy vs. $12.2 billion for green energy.
For the pessimist, COP15 and current US moves toward climate legislation are but “baby steps” toward truly dealing with the scope of climate change and sustainability.
Still, even the pessimist sees some hope for progress at COP15. Essential to any binding international agreement on mitigation targets is a means of reliable mitigation reporting and verification (MRV). If a framework of mitigation reporting and verification standards (pdf) can be reached, an essential element to any realistic agreement on targets, the pessimist would see success at COP15.
Even a baby step is better than just sitting on your rear end.
The optimist sees hard-won progress already made, vast opportunities commensurate with the challenge, and growing consensus that the cost of inaction is untenable, even from a purely economic perspective. A worldwatch study suggests that 4.5 million “climate mitigation“ jobs will be created by 2030, based on climate policy currently in place. The stimulus bill passed earlier this year funnels $94 billion toward renewable energy and efficiency. Most business leaders at least accept the inevitability of federal climate legislation and look to leadership in Washington to define the rules of play.
Clearly there is a transitional cost of moving to a new energy economy. But when weighing the cost of climate action over inaction – even if it does cost more than a postage stamp a day – taking action is the clear bargain.
In terms of US policy and progress on climate legislation, the optimist sees large strides from the “business as usual” approach of the previous administration. As early as 2005, in the midst of the Bush years, Congress entered into a non-binding agreement declaring the need for federal climate policy.
At the regional level, policy initiatives are in place in much of the country. Despite the relatively modest mitigation targets on the table at the federal level, they are much more aggressive when compared to the path the US was on earlier in the decade. When looked at in this light, current US efforts may more evenly match those of the EU, in the sense that an estimated 50 percent of emissions reduction in Europe since 1990 are a direct result of “wall-fall profits” and the collapse and reconstruction of heavy industry in the Eastern bloc.
Even a purely nationalist perspective calls for taking action on climate change. The Center for Naval Analysis has produced research with the Military Advisory Board clearly delineating the threat to national security posed by unchecked and ongoing climate change.
Taken together these influences stimulate greater momentum, both in the US and internationally, to tackle climate change. That momentum flows into what is possible at COP15. It isn’t likely that a legally binding agreement will be signed in Copenhagen. We shouldn’t expect it. We can expect and encourage the momentum focused now on COP15 to propel the world – lurching and reeling is it always does - toward real progress. Progress defined by an international treaty on climate change, signed within the coming year by all participating nations (COP15.1?), with the US firmly taking a leadership role.
Avoiding COP15 burnout
Our task then, whether pessimist or optimist, becomes one of managing expectations for COP15. The situation is fluid, and expectations change as events unfold. But there is too much momentum now going into Copenhagen to allow the opportunity to slip past without a successful outcome.