Tom Millette on Copenhagen Climate Summit

Tuesday, January 12, 2010 - 12:00

Questioning Authority recently tapped Tom Millette, associate professor of geography and chair of geology and geography, for his thoughts on the recent United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen. Here’s what he had to say.

QA: This past December, 192 countries participated in the United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen. Initially, there were high hopes that a substantive agreement could be reached that would have a real impact on reducing carbon emissions. What was the major obstacle to such an agreement?

TM: If you look into the minutia of not only the Copenhagen meeting itself, but the two years of negotiations between the various national and international players focused upon climate change leading up to Copenhagen, the major obstacle, in a word, is greed. To the major developed and developing economies looking forward, binding limits on CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions is seen as antithetical to economic growth and prosperity. As such, few political entities want to take the lead on limiting their economic opportunity. Mature developed economies such as the U.S. and Great Britain do not want to choke off the engine that provides very high standards of living. At the same time, China, India, and similar nations are not willing to limit their opportunities before they fully reach the cohort of wealthy nations. It is a vexing predicament.

QA: Is the huge summit format simply unworkable?

TM: I don't think that the size and format of the summit was really the issue. Commitment was the issue. If governments really wanted to share the pain and make the necessary compromises, an agreement could have been reached. In the end, if internationally agreed upon binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions are ever achieved, they will be due to the leadership of a small number of countries with large economies.

QA: Did any good come out of the conference?

TM: Well it's not really in my nature to be a "glass-half-full" guy, but if I dig deep, I think the fact that more than 190 heads (or near heads) of state, including leaders from the U.S., Britain, China, India, and others, signals that climate change has finally made it to prime time. I also think that, when at the 11th hour, the U.S., China, Brazil, India, and South Africa cooked up the Copenhagen Accord (which is basically an aspirational political statement) they kept the door open a crack for future negotiations and opportunities. I think it would have been far worse if the meeting ended with nothing. It could have slammed the door for a long time, and time is not on our side.

QA: Will President Obama be able to persuade Congress to pass climate change legislation?

TM: It is hard for me to envision the U.S. Congress being persuaded by the president, or anybody else for that matter, to take a leadership role on serious climate change legislation. Congress listens to lobbyists and right now the preponderance of lobbyists are paid to thwart any serious climate change legislation. When the polls indicate that the voters want legislation, I have no doubt that Congress will write and pass a milquetoast cosmetic piece of legislation and name it "The American Strategy for Robust Climate Change Mitigation and Preserving Our Quality of Life Act of 2011.”

QA: What do you predict for the future of climate change mitigation on a global scale?

TM: Right now it's the Wild West for climate mitigation programs. There is a great deal going on all over the place at a variety of different scales. I think some of it holds modest promise; for some of it, it's too early to tell; and some of it is a gargantuan waste of money. There will be a shakeout in the not too distant future and the effective programs will hopefully play an important long-term role in climate change mitigation. I personally work in REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries) projects, and I know firsthand that there are good projects that have reliable carbon metrics, adequate scale to make a difference, permanence, and decent market value for investors. However, pumping large amounts of CO2 from power plants into geologic structures is not practical to anyone other than the consultants that get the billable hours to do the feasibility studies.

I think it is important that we not lose track of the fact that we are not going to mitigate our way out of this mess. CO2 mitigation is nibbling at the edges. It may buy us a bit of time, but it will not solve the problem. The same is true for energy conservation. Right now Americans emit 20 tons of carbon per person, while the Chinese emit 6 tons per person. How many Americans do you think are hankering to adopt a Chinese standard of living (and just for the record, I love China!)? The real answer lies in developing new technologies that will provide us with carbon-free energy and economic opportunities, while preserving sustainable levels of ecological goods and services. I think it remains to be seen if we are able to do it, and probably even more importantly if we can do it in time.

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