Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The geopolitics of climate change: Are scenarios the least worst option?

by Gerald Singh

Perhaps the most insidious consequences of climate change will be the unequal distribution of its impacts around the globe.

The consequences of climate change are truly global in scope, but some areas of the world will be more heavily impacted than others. Small island nations are at significant risk from rising sea levels and many tropical nations face futures of increased aridity or increased frequency of extreme weather events. Countries with temperate climates are expected to weather less extreme impacts, and in some cases benefit (parts of North America and the UK may have better agricultural conditions with increased moisture and increased temperature). The sinister irony is that this effectively means that the less developed nations will face the brunt of climate change impacts while already well-off will do comparatively better.

The prediction that developing countries will be the hardest hit has further implications. These countries are the ones that will need to adapt the most to climate change adaptation but the least able to adapt technologically. How does a country like Kiribati cope with an ocean that might rise above the elevation of the island itself? How does sub-Saharan Africa, which already experiences high mortality from malaria, cope with greater malarial threat with the increase in mosquito populations projected with climate change? Surely these differential environmental, economic, and health impacts to people around the world add an additional ethical dimension to considering climate change impacts, but less obvious and more worrisome are the potential geopolitical implications of these different regional effects.

The responses to such effects could be severe. The Pentagon has released a report concocting scenarios that could result from climate change. The scenarios are extreme: shut down of the Gulf Stream, agricultural failure in China, and mass migration of people fleeing extreme events. The proposed human response to climate change is equally alarming: increased tensions over land and resources, and greater potential for international wars. Some of the scenarios explored in this report have little scientific support (shut down of the Gulf Stream) or are purely speculative (Germany becoming a nuclear power), but similar studies have come out in purely academic circles. In an article published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States of America (a highly esteemed journal), Shuaizhang Feng and his colleagues model illegal immigration from Mexico into the United States as a consequence of climate change.

Scenarios and the Baggage They Bring

The study on Mexican climate migrants was heavily criticised for the assumptions it made as well as its focus. Roger Pielke Jr., a political scientist and commentator on science in policy, was particularly critical, stating:
To use this paper as a prediction of anything would be a mistake. It is a tentative sensitivity study of the effects of one variable on another, where the relationship between the two is itself questionable but more importantly, dependent upon many other far more important factors.
As Pielke states, the paper developed a reputation for being “silly science” and could easily fuel xenophobic nationalism and racism.

This raises the interesting question of what is the value of scenario studies. The future is inherently unpredictable, and there are entire books dedicated to the failures of humanity’s best and brightest when it comes to predicting the future. The problem is further compounded by the idea that our own predictions influence how we act in the future.

But where would that leave us? If we rid ourselves of the tools that scenario analysis gives us (regardless of how poor they might be), what can we do?

The problem with dismissing scenario analysis is that any study pertinent to the future is a scenario. The IPCC results that form the foundation of so much research into climate change are themselves scenarios. Should these likewise be scuttled? Are there some scenarios that are worthy of our attention and some that are not? The answer, I think, is to understand what use different types of scenarios do have. Accurate prediction can only reasonably be argued in situations with well-understood processes and where unknowns don’t play a big part. Studies where uncertainties can be incredibly important are most useful at demonstrating the importance of individual variables with everything else constant (in a ceteris paribus sense, such as the IPCC scenarios, or as argued by Michael Oppenheimer for the value of modeling Mexican climate migrants), or at least demonstrating a worst-case scenario (fitting the old adage to “plan for the worst, hope for the best”, as demonstrated by the Pentagon report). Roger Pielke was right about the study on climate migrants: it should not be viewed as a predictive study. Can it be informative in a ceteris paribus sense?

Perhaps, but the problem with any sort of scenario analysis is that the scenarios we devise are hostage to our assumptions. We may treat the Mexican migrant study as a ceteris paribus study, or even as a worst-case scenario to be ready for, but it is entirely dependent on the assumption that migration will be the response to climate change. As Diana Liverman (pdf) points out, “environmental change and pollution [is] as much a reason for cooperation as conflict” and there is "little evidence to link environmental change to conflict and migration". The potential inadvertent repercussions of this type of scenario analysis, such as preparing for increased illegal immigration, may divert attention and resources away from issues that really need to be dealt with.

Any scenario based around societal responses will be influenced by assumptions of human nature. Even in studies of climate change the debate between Hobbes and Rousseau lives on: are humans basically noble and kind, or brutish and cruel? When faced with climate change, will nations act aggressively over ever-scarcer resource pools (the Hobbesian view) or cooperate for mutual benefit (Rousseau’s view)? Many scenarios in climate change assume a Hobbesian view, but if Liverman is right, a common threat may just lead to cooperation. The stresses that climate change will impose on many nations under may help foster international cooperation in cutting GHG emissions and adapting to climate change impacts (though we may already be too late to avoid harmful climate changes). A third option is that responses are not so general: (for instance) the response of a nation could depend on their international power. A small nation vulnerable to climate change with little political power may vie for international cooperation, but an international superpower like China may aggressively acquire land and resources if climate change affects China’s ability to feed itself. All three may also occur concurrently.

With all of the uncertainty surrounding the scenarios used to study and plan for climate change, some people may be tempted to argue that planning based on scenarios is useless and not worth the risks. The problem is that not planning itself has consequences, and will by nature favour the status quo, which is something that we hope to avoid. The trick (as I’ve suggested above) is determining how and under what conditions specific scenarios are useful.

Monday, April 11, 2011

REDD: Can we see the forest for the trees?

Currently, CO2 emissions from deforestation are estimated to make up approximately 20% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Under the UNFCCC framework, the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries Programme (REDD+) proposes to aid developing countries in building capacity to reduce emissions through the reduction of deforestation as well as forest degradation. It appears that REDD+ is one of the only significant initiatives that emerged from Copenhagen to reduce global CO2 emissions. This blog post raises some criticism regarding REDD+, but also serves to remind that the bigger challenges in reducing emissions lay closer to home than in distant forests.

At first glance, the REDD+ framework seems to hold great promise; upon closer inspection, however, the list of barriers to REDD’s success is long. Most criticisms of REDD+ are focused on the details of the Programme’s framework and challenges for its implementation. However, while getting lost in the details of what REDD+ weaknesses are, such as lack of long-term funding mechanisms or the limited capacity of developed countries to implement REDD+, developed countries fail to take serious measures to change our consumerist lifestyles and thereby reduce emissions. In a way, by promoting REDD+, we are trying to encourage a green economy to developing countries while promoting economic growth, indulging in consumerism, and emitting horrendous amounts of greenhouse gas emissions at home. We preach to developing countries what we do not even practice ourselves.

Under REDD+, developed countries will pay developing countries to leave their forests standing. The amount of money paid is based on the quantity of carbon successfully sequestered; yet, neither a long-term funding method, nor capacity for measuring and enforcement are in place. If REDD+ is meant to reduce emissions by a certain amount, and countries will be paid based on success, a monitoring framework and capacity of the developing countries are key to the program. Not only do many governments lack the capacity to implement REDD+ (pdf) and for monitoring deforestation, many of them are also considered to be highly corrupt.

Hence, to ensure that the REDD+ goals are met, nationwide monitoring, including reporting accuracy and verification, is crucial to keep track of changes in forest cover and potential leakage. In Indonesia, for instance, substantial rates of illegal logging pose a challenge to REDD+ (pdf).

Likely the largest challenge for the success of REDD+ is the absence of a long-term funding mechanism of the program. The REDD+ financing mechanism remains unresolved. The REDD+ Programme proposes an elaborate framework to set up the process, but there seems to be a lack of long-term funding to follow through and to secure forest resources from logging for timber as well as from competing land-uses. Although there seems to be funding to get a select few projects off the ground, REDD+ can only be called successful if the forest actually remains standing. Two options have been proposed; the first being the creation of a fund into which developed countries pay. This funding method might finance the initial start-up of the Programme, but would unlikely function as a long-term funding mechanism.

The second suggested funding option is financing REDD+ through a carbon market. Besides the obvious fact that a global carbon market currently does not exist, financing REDD+ through such a market would expose the forests to the volatility of the carbon prizes. The carbon sequestered in the forests would be competing with potentially higher revenue crops from other land-uses, such as palm oil. If the price of carbon were to crash, palm oil plantations might replace the luscious rainforests. Governments of developing countries need secured long-term funding that is not directly tied to the volatility of the carbon market. In addition, an underlying assumption of REDD+ is that forests are more or less static systems; however, forests are complex dynamic ecosystems. For instance, the effect of increasing global temperatures on forests ecosystems and resulting implications for REDD+ seem to be unaccounted for in the Programme. If the capacity of forests to sequester carbon changes due to the changing global climate, the intended emissions reductions may not be met.

A major flaw of the REDD+ Programme is that although we are trying to reduce the source of emissions, namely deforestation, we are not addressing the driving forces of deforestation. Hence, we need to consider issues such as poverty, demand for tropical timber and forest products in developed countries, as well as plantations (i.e. palm oil). If the drivers of deforestation are not addressed, then REDD+ may not actually reduce the quantity of emissions, but could result merely in a shift in location of deforestation and consequently result in deforestation elsewhere.

We preach what we don’t practice

Under REDD+, developing countries are required to cease their environmentally destructive forestry industry. In addition, REDD+ seeks to reduce other forest destructing land-uses, such as plantations. Although there is nothing wrong with promoting a green economy for developing countries in itself, the very fact that we are unable to even practice what we are preaching to other, less well-off countries, seems morally questionable.

How can we ask developing countries to limit their growth and adhere to standards we have not set for ourselves? How can we ask developing countries, which are struggling with poverty, to limit their economic development, to turn down big money from plantations or the forestry industry, while we keep living in our beautiful and perfectly heated homes, fly to distant holiday locations, and buy tropical timber products? Norway, one of the leading developed countries promoting and financially supporting REDD, has put forward $I billion dollars toward a moratorium on Indonesia’s forests. At the same time, Norway is allegedly planning to invest US$21.7 billion in its petroleum industry. Maybe it is time to start practicing what we preach.

Monday, April 4, 2011

International Climate Policy: Let’s Get the Lipstick off the Pig

Climate change is not being effectively addressed through the UNFCCC process, which has instead evolved into a sterile talk shop, unable to overcome the resistance of those who would block meaningful action on climate change. This note looks at some historical dimensions and precursors of this failure.

The Stockholm Conference of 1972, applauded by northern environmentalists and distrusted by the world’s poorer nations –launched a global dialogue about facing environmental challenges while stimulating socio-economic development. Poor countries played a small role at Stockholm. Like so much of the process that followed, it was a remarkably one sided, neo-colonial affair dominated by the agendas of rich industrialised nations of the global north.

For almost two decades after Stockholm global politics were dominated by the final chapters of the Cold War between the US and the USSR. Yet the same 1980s that witnessed the beginning of Afghanistan’s seemingly endless turmoil also saw Norway’s Gro Brundtland head a ‘World Commission on Environment and Development’. Brundtland’s team prepared a remarkable document entitled “Our Common Future” and the expression ‘sustainable development’ symbolised their attempt to reconcile northern appetites for action on ‘shared environmental challenges’ with the ‘global south’s’ desire to improve living standards and life expectancies. Those years also saw a consensus emerge about the dangers of rising greenhouse gas emissions driving temperature increases and other climatic change in the coming century. In 1992 an agreement on climate change emerged from Rio’s ‘Earth Summit’. Many northern delegates believed it was a historic breakthrough yet the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change emerged from a miasma of double dealing and hypocrisy that we have not yet transcended. As Obama said, you can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.

I used to train international bureaucrats about environmental problems and solutions. We summarised Rio as a showdown between poorer nations demanding “Give us $125 billion a year or we shoot the panda” and northern delegates replying “Let them eat conservation”. Only the latter achieved satisfaction, with the UNFCCC and a sister treaty on Biodiversity. The others had hoped for a ‘global deal’ between rich and poor of the sort proposed by the Brundtland Commission. The actual outcome was an eloquent menu of unfulfilled dreams known as “Agenda 21”. Summarising Rio’s results, its Secretary General Maurice Strong paraphrased Churchill: “Never have the rich given so little for so much”.

Developing countries insisted they would not participate in treaties like UNFCCC without assurance that money for such initiatives wouldn’t detract from the funds available to underwrite their development agendas. Wealthy nations reassured them and launched UNFCCC. Funding from a new ‘Global Environment Facility’ (GEF) would ensure its implementation in the poor countries.

Much enthusiasm at Rio stemmed from an appealing myth: a ‘peace dividend’ could be realised after the Cold War. Many believed the mega-billions spent on weapons would now finance schools, hospitals, water supply, sewers and so on throughout the poorer regions. Instead aid budgets were slashed in the 1990s, easy targets for deficit cutters in many of the world’s richest nations (especially North American). A few billions were found though, so the GEF could help poor countries be part of the new ‘global environmental agenda’, fighting against climate change and biodiversity loss.

Renewed geopolitical struggle in the 21st century has played a very similar role to the Cold War in stimulating new commitments of support to the world’s poor. At the same time boundaries between global ‘North’ and ‘South’ and distinctions between ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ countries are also shifting. Large ‘newly industrialised countries’ like China, Brazil and India are growing rapidly in wealth and influence. This latter shift has presented an invaluable argument to those who oppose decisive action on climate change. Cold War diplomats knew how to paralyse UN negotiations; these skills are now applied to climate change talks. Wealthy ‘rogue states’ with powerful hydrocarbon lobbies, led by the US and followed by countries like Canada, are unprepared to support decisive measures on climate change. The most expedient way to pursue their obstructionist agenda is to insist that the large developing countries with rapidly growing economies must make their own significant commitments to cutting their GHG emissions before the world’s richest can agree to do the same. It is a specious argument of a crowd pleasing barroom lawyer: ‘How can our hard pressed citizens be asked to make this kind of sacrifice when China continues to forge ahead, taking our jobs and leaving us an economic backwater with overpriced wind mills, trains and cars that can’t go far?’ China, they point out, now produces almost the same amounts of GHG as the US. Facts that hint at another perspective (pdf) are ignored. We know that most of the current build up of GHG has been generated by rich countries. We know that average North Americans continues to generate far more GHG and enjoy far higher standards of living than average Chinese, Indians or Brazilians. These facts aren’t disputed; they are simply ignored.

Controversy is easier to stir up over the predictions of climate change scientists. Here, the tactics of those who oppose decisive action on climate change are disturbingly similar to those that delayed action on tobacco for decades. Even after they stopped claiming “Nine out of ten doctors recommend Camel” North America`s cigarette makers could still pay ‘reputable scientists’ to confirm that there was no clear link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. Today’s hydrocarbon producers and supporters pay ‘reputable scientists’ to explore uncertainties about the precise future trajectory of climate change. With breathtaking sophistry they cite this uncertainty as a reason for doing little to reduce GHG emissions.

Long after scientific consensus agreed tobacco was a leading cause of cancer, the tobacco industry was able to convince millions of young women to take up smoking, concocting flattering images and assuring them “You’ve come a long ways baby”, (you now have a ‘woman’s cigarette’). Two decades later, while the UNFCCC emerged from Rio, the struggling North American automobile industry was able to convince millions of consumers to throw caution to the wind and enjoy an outdoorsy image in a gas guzzling SUV. The most immediate victims of this latest Madison Avenue coup are not likely to be the SUV owners but poor folk in distant countries increasingly exposed to capricious weather, rising sea levels, growing disease burden and so on.

The current debate within the UNFCCC process, over whether to target temperature increases of 1.5° or 2°C, does more to prevent than to promote effective action. It is so removed from the business as usual, ‘rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic’ North American response to climate change that one might be forgiven for guessing it is more of the bad faith that has characterised global dialogue on environmental issues for decades. On the one hand, most scientists confirm we are heading for dangerous climate change which is likely to most severely affect the world’s poorest citizens. On the other hand, obstructionists determined to extract maximum profits from hydrocarbons remain unchallenged by wealthy populations numbed into complacency by a cacophony of contradictory messages. Those who would delay decisive action on climate change have succeeded in rendering the UNFCCC process as ineffective as UN efforts to prevent the Rwandan genocide. One of the best ways to create an illusion of progress where there is none is to quibble over details, as in: “Shall we try to stop at 1.5 or 2.0 degrees?”

Many now recognise that the only justifiable response to a threat of runaway climate change is prompt, direct action by all concerned citizens and organisations in rich nations. We need to resist the seductive delusion that the UNFCCC process is leading to improvements. Despite the great efforts of many dedicated, well meaning participants, the process has systematically failed to transcend the lies, hypocrisy and systematic inequity from which it emerged. Rather than a solution, the UNFCCC process is part of the problem, impeding rather than facilitating the urgent actions needed to mitigate the dangers of climate change. Effective pressure must be exerted first and foremost by citizens of the rogue states of North America, to ensure dramatic and rapid reductions in their countries’ GHG emissions. Only then might global negotiations proceed in an atmosphere of honesty and equity, contributing to the solution rather than exacerbating the problem.