Give this conference the third degree on global warming

Every conference craves a narrative thread which is neatly tied during its closing session. The dream is rarely achieved, other than in the honeyed words of the final press release.

The last day of Planet Under Pressure 2012 is unlikely to break the mould. This is a shame because the event has genuinely reached out beyond its comfort zone of technical presentations to peer professionals.

The scientists are admirably clear about their priority for securing the future of human life on earth. They want radical change in global governance so that economic management becomes the servant of sustainable development; and so that closely related environmental threats such as climate change, biodiversity loss and desertification are no longer pursued as though they were chalk and cheese.

The call for this to happen in the twinkling of a “constitutional moment” at the Rio+20 summit is the point of departure of an otherwise rational approach. And it’s the reason why tomorrow’s declaration is likely to join thousands of others gathering electronic dust at the UN Commission on Sustainable Development.

Nevertheless, individual followers of the conference will have travelled along a personal narrative path of some description. In my own case this leads to a topic which is possibly the most important bridge between the worlds of science and development. It’s the so-called safe limit for global warming, an average global temperature rise of 2°.

I’m aware that the combination of historic and unavoidable pipeline emissions is already enough to bring us close to this limit. However, like most people in the NGO sector, I harbour hopes that there’s time for determined action to pull us back from the brink and maybe even hold the increase down to 1.5°. I haven’t given serious thought to the development and adaptation implications of exceeding the threshold.

The London conference has made me feel naïve, in that it’s plain between the lines that the scientists have written off hopes of achieving 2°. I say “between the lines” because there’s equally evident reluctance to give public voice to this view. In the last 24 hours alone, there are media reports of Sir Bob Watson and Yvo de Boer acknowledging that we’re heading for more than 2°, “in the sidelines” of the conference.

Of course, the business of making temperature predictions and estimating a safe limit for global warming lies with the IPCC. But I wonder whether the Planet Under Pressure 2012 conference might perform a service by encouraging members of the science profession to speak more openly about their views.

The consequences of a change in mood would be fundamental. The current response to climate change in developing countries is predicated on the feasibility of adaptation and disaster risk management. National plans are drawn up and funding proposals submitted for projects labelled as climate adaptation, development, biodiversity conservation and so on.

In a scenario of even greater uncertainty than already exists, these dividing lines would dissolve. All national development plans, from adaptation to poverty reduction, would be forced to merge into a single national sustainability plan, in the real sense of the s-word.

If I understand it correctly, this is precisely what the science community is advocating.

The two degree threshold was lifted from the IPCC report in great haste in the madhouse of the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit. It’s the weakest link propping up the current fragmented environmental governance regime.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK