Fourth dispatch from the United Nations Climate Change conference in Cancun

Cancun—The once positive and constructive atmosphere at the Cancun climate change conference turned murky on Thursday. It appears that the president of the conference, Mexican environment minister Patricia Espinosa has asked a relatively small group of countries to hammer out new language for agreements on greenhouse gas emissions reduction commitments and climate change financing. She also wants to avoid the drama of a late night negotiating cliffhanger, so she has reportedly set a deadline for agreements for Friday morning.

The Ghost of Copenhagen Rises from the Grave

Speaking at the afternoon Friends of the Earth International (FOE) press conference, Meena Raman, secretary general of FOE Malaysia, acknowledged that no one outside of the negotiations has actually seen the draft documents. “We are concerned that this is not a transparent and inclusive process,” said Raman. Apparently, the Bolivian negotiators were invited to participate, but they denounced the effort as contrary to the spirit of the United Nations and stalked out of the room.

Raman especially feared that what is being negotiated is a deal in which the emissions reduction pledges made under the banner of the Copenhagen Accord would essentially replace any future commitments to the Kyoto Protocol. If so, it would be the death knell of the Kyoto Protocol. Developing countries and environmental activists continue to pin their hopes on the Kyoto Protocol because it embodies the only process that binds countries to do anything about climate change. It is also the only treaty under which funds are disbursed to support various climate change programs in poor countries. Both developing country negotiators and activists fear that if the Kyoto Protocol goes by the way, there will never be another such treaty.

Raman’s colleague FOE policy analyst Kate Horner somewhat bitterly commented, “Cancun will finally lay to rest the ghost of Copenhagen by anchoring weak mitigation pledges.” In negotiation jargon “mitigation” refers to efforts to curb the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and “anchoring” refers to some method getting countries to somehow become officially responsible for the greenhouse gas reduction pledges they made the pursuant to the non-binding Copenhagen Accord.

One rumor is that both developed and developing countries might wind up simply listing their pledges on “information documents” as annexes to the Copenhagen Accord. Such information documents would be largely aspirational without much legal force.

Climate Negotiatons as Dadaism

Isaac Rojas, the coordinator of FOE’s Forest and Biodiversity Program, was also worried, but he did say this: “President Evo Morales fills us with hope. He gives us strength.” Rojas noted that the President of the Plurinational State of Bolivia has already called the conference, “Cancunhagen”—an allusion suggesting that this meeting could end up being much like last year’s climate change negotiations fiasco in Copenhagen.

But what kind of hope might Morales be offering? On Thursday afternoon a proposal on draft decisions related a shared vision for long-term cooperative action was submitted to the conference by Bolivia. Negotiators from 194 countries have been struggling to reach an agreement on such a vision.

In the main document being considered by negotiators, one option for the shared vision is the recognition that “deep cuts in global emissions are required by science.” Such cuts would aim to hold the increase in global average temperature below 1, 1.5, or 2 degrees Celsius (which is yet to be decided) above pre-industrial levels. Another option would aim to get greenhouse gas concentrations below 350 parts per million (carbon dioxide is already 390 ppm and in carbon dioxide equivalent terms, all greenhouse gases exceed 430 ppm now). Rich countries would also agree to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 80-95 percent by 2050.

One of the slogans recited incessantly by activists here in Cancun is that the conference needs “more ambition.” It would be hard to be more ambitious than the proposed draft offered by the Plurinational State of Bolivia. In its proposed vision, rich countries are to take the lead in “returning greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere to well below 300 ppm” and stabilize global average temperature increase to a maximum level of 1 degree Celsius. Instead of allowing rich countries to dawdle with regard to cutting their emissions, the Plurinational State wants to require rich countries to cut their emissions by at least 50 percent by 2017 and by “more than 100 percent before 2040.” In addition, climate reparations to poor countries to fund their adaptation, mitigation, and technology transfer efforts “shall be equivalent to the budget that developed countries spend in defense, security, and warfare.” Keep in mind that when the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 280 ppm in the 18th century, the world was still enduring the Little Ice Age. One must admit that the Bolivian proposal exhibits a certain audacious Dadaist quality.

The Scientific Minority Speaks

The Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, a Washington, D.C.-based free market environmental advocacy group, held a press conference in the afternoon featuring University of Alabama in Huntsville climatologist Roy Spencer. Spencer is one of the principle investigators behind the global temperature data series based on measurements from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellites. He is also an outspoken skeptic of claims that accumulating greenhouse gases will massively warm the atmosphere. At the press conference Spencer acknowledged that he is in the scientific minority among climatologists.

Spencer is not skeptical about the fact that burning fossil fuels is increasing the carbon dioxide in atmosphere; that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas; or that, all other things being equal, increased carbon dioxide will produce more warming. Although some activists have called him and his colleagues “denialists,” Spencer concurs that there is no scientific disagreement over the fact that the Earth has been warming. “What we deny is that we have any certainty about how much of the recent warming is due to man,” said Spencer. “We deny that it’s mostly man-made.”

It is widely accepted that doubling carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere would warm the planet by about 1 degree Celsius. Climate computer models project higher levels of warming based on the amplifying effects of various feedbacks. One of the chief positive feedback loops in the models involves clouds. In this is case, warming causes fewer clouds which allows more sunlight to reach the surface warming the planet.

But Spencer argues that the models have mixed up cause and effect and asks, “What if the warming was caused by fewer clouds, rather than the fewer clouds being caused by warming?” In fact, in a study published earlier this year [PDF] Spencer and his colleague William Brasswell found that “when cloud changes cause temperature changes, it gives the illusion of positive cloud feedback—even if strongly negative cloud feedback is really operating.”

After the press conference, I asked Spencer what kind of research program would be needed to resolve this cause and effect question. He said that the problem is so complicated that he doubted that one could be devised. I hope that he is wrong, because if he's right then the modelers have little incentive to change the way they represent cloud feedback. It would be interesting if modelers were to incorporate Spencer’s negative feedback results to see how closely their models reproduce the climate of the past century or so. If the results were not so different from the actual record that would suggest, but not prove, that the cause and effect issue has not been resolved.

Finally, the latest news from the conference is that Russian negotiators are saying that their country will not to renew its commitment to the Kyoto Protocol.

So the president of the Plurinational State of Bolivia may be prescient: Cancunhagen is looking more likely.

Reason Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey will be filing daily dispatches from the Cancun climate change conference for the rest of this week. This column first appeared at

Ronald Bailey is Science Correspondent