Grist's coverage of Copenhagen climate talks

Among the hundreds of riders on this city’s automated, energy-efficient Metro rapid transit system was Isakwisa Mwamukonda, an environmental policy manager for the vice president of Tanzania. We had half a dozen stops between the tight-cornered streets of Copenhagen’s downtown and the Bella Center, site of the U.N. Climate Change Conference, to explore the promise as well as the perils of a global negotiation that almost everybody here hopes will achieve a new climate agreement that truly makes a difference.

Yet what Mwamukonda said that was especially dismaying was not the big differences between the U.S. and the E.U. over cutting emissions, or how much of the world’s rain forests to conserve, or the level of investment by developed nations to help developing nations make the transition to a low-carbon economy. All of that and much more will need to be resolved for the 12-day conference to close on its goal of being a historically significant gathering. 

“You’ve heard of Kilimanjaro?’ Mwamukundo asked, folding his hands in his lap. “The ice is melting. It won’t be there in a few years. The animals are dying from drought. Our land is changing. How can anybody doubt that climate change is real?”

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Undercurrent at Opening
The sound of a lone trumpet and a chorus of young Danes opened the 15th Conference of the Parties this morning at the enormous, O’Hare-size Bella Center. But the insistent soundtrack that also greeted negotiators from 192 nations, and thousands of reporters and climate activists from around the world, was the purposefully disruptive noise of opponents claiming the conference’s goal is premised on a scientific hoax.

There’s nothing new about the argument, of course. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary there are still people who insist the holocaust never occurred, the world was created 6,000 years ago, and George Bush was a great president.

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But the digital break-in at the climate research unit at the University of East Anglia, in England, and the worldwide release last month of unguarded email exchanges among climate scientists has stirred an undercurrent among those gathered here that covers all of the emotional ground marked by indignation at one end and fury at the other. In other words the thousands of people who came to Copenhagen to address the important disagreements over the final text of the climate accord, many of whom devoted sizable chunks of their lives to actually delivering a breakthrough moment in how the world conducts its affairs, are pissed off.

As the Union of Concerned Scientists, the White House science advisor, and dozens of leading climate scientists have pointed out the thieved messages offer insight into scientific candor but they do not call into question the sound scientific consensus that has been reached about the causes of climate change and its consequences. The U.S. Center at Copenhagen, established by the Obama administration to showcase American research and federal actions to limit greenhouse gases, is holding a series of briefings throughout the next two weeks that explore the many scientifically peer-reviewed dimensions of the climate crisis. 

Scientific Response

James McCarthy, a former lead author on the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change sent a letter to Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) today that articulated the scientific view that the stolen e-mails have no bearing on the overall understanding of climate science. “The scientific process depends on open access to methodology, data, and a rigorous peer-review process,” wrote Dr. McCarthy, who is board chair of both the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Union of Concerned Scientists. “The robust exchange of ideas in the peer-reviewed literature regarding climate science is evidence of the high degree of integrity in this process. The body of evidence that human activity is prominent agent in global warming is overwhelming. The content of these a few personal emails has no impact what-so-ever on our overall understanding that human activity is driving dangerous levels of global warming.”

The National Wildlife Federation issued a news release that included these facts about climate change:

  • Temperatures this decade have been higher than any other decade on record, and one degree Fahrenheit higher than average temperatures in the 20th century. Source: NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) Surface Temperature Analysis.
  • Ocean temperatures worldwide this summer were hotter than ever previously recorded. Source: NOAA National Climatic Data Center (NCDC), State of the Climate reports for June, July, and August 2009.
  • Stable sea ice in the Arctic melted to its lowest recorded levels this summer, declining more than 60 percent since the 1980s and 1990s. Source: National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC).
  • Carbon Dioxide levels in the atmosphere for 2009 (387 parts per million) are the highest they have been in about 15 million years. Source: NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory (ESRL) Mauna Loa Observatory.
  • Globally, 8.7 billion tons of carbon were emitted in 2008 from burning coal, oil and natural gas, a 41 percent increase from 1990. Source: Le Quéré, L., et al., 2009. Trends in the sources and sinks of carbon dioxide. Nature Geoscience. Nov. 17. 2009.

Misbehavior and Deceit

What the email messages do call into question is the misbehavior and deceit of the opponents to climate action. It is still not known, though British authorities have launched an investigation, who broke into the university’s cache and who financed the theft and dissemination of the messages. Gaining those two facts will shed important light on what this episode was all about.

And while reporters parse, and climate critics cherry pick the significance of a handful of phrases contained in thousands of messages, the leaders of the view that climate change is a fraud are advancing a scientifically silly new narrative that posits the planet is cooling, polar bears are experiencing a population explosion, and the researchers who won a Nobel two years ago for their work to understand the chemistry and physics of climate science don’t know what they are talking about.

The objective of this campaign of deceit is now clear. Those who executed the break-in, timed the email release to coincide with the start of the Copenhagen conference, and recruited attention to the cherry-picked phrases want to tighten the comfort zone for global leaders and negotiators here. Big decisions about energy, the environment, and the economy are on the table. Amid all of the uncertainty about taking momentous steps to accelerate the energy, climate, and economic transition that has already begun worldwide, national leaders at least felt secure about the quality of the scientific foundations of their decisions.

Isakwisa Mwamukonda said this morning that African nations are confident that the science of climate change confirms what their eyes already tell them. The same is true for negotiators from other nations. Jonathan Pershing, the United States deputy special envoy for Climate Change, told a news conference this afternoon that the email theft “will have virtually no effect at all” on the negotiations and will be seen as a “small blip” in the history of the world’s work to solve global warming.

It’s worth noting that of the 192 countries represented here, only Saudi Arabia raised the hacking incident. Several NGO experts noted that the intervention was intriguing because Saudi Arabia approved every word of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, had Saudi scientists review the report, and participated in the report’s development.

Still, there may be some small measure of value to negotiators that come from the stolen emails. The episode seems to be temporarily expanding the space negotiators need — especially those from the U.S — to test proposals, exchange draft text, and refine ideas without worrying about leading today’s news broadcasts. Moreover, the story here — again, at least temporarily — is not whether the U.S. position could lead to a collapse of the talks.

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