Time to snap out of the two degree trance

I spent the week feeling like the astronaut in lonely lunar orbit in the Apollo command module while his colleagues get their hands on the moon-dust.

Nearly everyone in OneWorld took the ferry to Copenhagen to produce the OneClimate COP Live TV show, leaving one or two of us to put up the Christmas decorations.

After an uncertain start, the daily programme of six hours of interviews and discussion is increasingly probing the entrails of the negotiations. By Friday, Daniel Nelson’s thorough approach with the ice-cool Lim Li Lin of Third World Network exposed more about the relapse of the talks into “anarchy” than anything I found in the weekend papers.

Our Director complained bitterly about the facilities so carefully booked by the OneClimate team. Apparently they toil amidst “deafening chaos…like a cross between a motorway underpass and a particularly rowdy school.”

Judging by her copious attire on screen, I suspect that Anuradha’s mood has not been improved by the conference organisers’ zeal for REDD (reducing emissions by Danish draughts).

She need not have worried so much. We all know that the most serious business at conferences is conducted in corridors; OneClimate’s thumbnail set cleverly replicates the comforting mayhem that puts interviewees at ease.

By comparison, the posh soft-lit media studio used for WWF’s conference broadcasts, complete with sofas, tablecloths and elegant glasses of water, reduced even John Vidal to incoherent hand-flapping.

A succession of eclectic characters perched on the OneClimate stool. It was great to see that Barry Coates, now Director of Oxfam New Zealand, has lost none of his brio at savaging corporate and ministerial doublespeak. With friends like Barry, the small island states will be no pushover. Indeed for me the most significant achievement of the week was the removal of some of the shine from the so-called safety threshold of two degrees which has been polished up in readiness for a deal.

Suitably cheered, I headed to the pub where I was baffled to find my attention repeatedly drawn to the blackboard menu. It’s been there just the same all week – eventually the connection dawned on me; this was the first item:

fresh Hampshire rainbow trout
with crushed new potatoes
and seasonal vegetables

Nothing very remarkable and doubtless duplicated across the county. But wait a minute. The trout fishing season ended in October, the last of the potatoes were dug in August and the only vegetables in season in December are sprouts and turnips which not even the English would serve with such a fine fish.

Casting aside the confusion of fish farms and freezers, what’s happening here is that we read a nonsensical statement so many times that we come to believe it in spite of itself.

Could this be happening in a rather different context?

(two degrees) is the target of the Copenhagen talks, and is the temperature rise regarded by scientists as broadly the limit of safety…

That comes from Monday’s Financial Times but similar sentiments have been expressed repeatedly in the media over recent months. What is the source? Which scientists regard two degrees as safe? Certainly not the authors of the IPCC reports who treat the idea of a stabilisation scenario rather like a roulette wheel.

It’s too late for negotiators to study long scientific reports but an authoritative source is the Synthesis Report of the Climate Congress (a University of Copenhagen conference earlier this year) which dismantles the credibility of the two degree safety threshold. Amongst many cautionary conclusions it warns that:

the risks of large scale discontinuities, such as the tipping elements described above, were considered to be very low in 2001 for a 2oC increase but are now considered to be moderate for the same increase.

Future researchers may enjoy tracing the origins of the two degree fantasy which gained its ultimate legitimacy through inclusion in the G8 summit statement in July this year.

Journalists love it because it absolves them of the paragraphs of probability theory that should accompany any conjecture about the future climate. Many NGOs too – even Franny Armstrong drew pictures of safety at two degrees in her (very) Stupid Show on OneClimate on Saturday.

The consequence of this hypnotism is that many world leaders are being stitched up to follow in the footsteps of the infamous Irish parliament which voted itself out of existence in 1800.

I stick to my prediction that the talks will collapse. Each day this week more governments will come out of their trance and side with Tuvalu and Maldives. The rich countries will be unable to buy a deal because their spare cash has been siphoned off by the banks. Take your seats for another year of procrastination.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK