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Obama's Climate Transition

Politics / Climate Change Dec 10, 2012 - 09:19 AM GMT

By: Andrew_McKillop


Returning from the lackluster climate conference in Doha, Qatar, the USA's main envoy Todd Stern said in interview with news agencies: “The president is completely committed to climate action,” but “It’s too early to say what the specifics of policy are going to be. We are still in the transition period.”

To be sure, transiting away from something needs one basic - knowing what that something is or was. For Obama and all world leaders, of both developed and developing countries the Doha meeting only added more confusion to global climate policy. For the US in particular, although this now applies in a harder-edged way to Japan, Russia and Canada there is no fixed policy, but a range of red lines in the sand, as well as initiatives, concepts and conversations. For the US, as well as Japan, Russia and Canada one hard-edged red line is that paying out to "climate change victim states" is not on the agenda - but the ambiguities on this specific subject are monstruous.

One example concerns Obama himself: in 2009 at the failed Copenhagen climate summit, he did not rule out the "concept of climate loss and damages". He did however add so many layers of conditions and exclusions, climate science and technical doubts, alternate and possible financial compensation and economic mechanisms, especially sustainable development and clean energy, that no concrete binding wriggle-free result was available. Subsequent climate conferences to date, including Doha have only deepened the North-South divide on this key cash-and-action claim, made concrete by the AOSIS, Association of Small Island States, which with most but not all Low income countries is demanding $60bn in cash or aid by 2015.

The answer to: "Paid out by who?" should be easy - it should be the "historic polluters" or OECD states - but this is in no way the case. Japan and Canada among the OECD group can now claim they are not entering Kyoto-2, which prolongs Kyoto-1 of 1997 from Jan 1st 2013, and therefore any and all related implications of adhering to the Kyoto Treaty, at least its post-2012 version, are null and void for them. Others like the US and Europeans can argue their emissions are now surpassed by China, and India's emissions are climbing also, meaning that "climate aid" burdens have to be shared.

Certainly since 2009 the so-called "Kyoto mechanism" has taken a lot of knocks. In theory this mechanism, now only applied by the EU27, Australia and New Zealand, includes the development of mandatory greenhouse gas emissions trading, voluntary and mandatory carbon commitments (to reduced emissions or energy saving and-or alternate energy development), action in third party countries to mitigate climate change impacts, and a long list of other actions. The "numbers soup" is thick and hard to digest, and controversial, but the EU27, Australia and New Zealand probably emit about 15% of all human-source GHG, and all human 'anthropogenic emssions' are probably only about 3% of total human-source plus natural-source GHG emissions.

Staying controversial, we can argue that if by miracle these developed countries suddenly stopped all their emissions of GHG, the effect of this action on global GHG emissions would be almost impossible to measure. Certainly CO2 (the main GHG apart from water vapour) levels in the atmosphere would go on rising. One reason for this is nothing to do with China and India's coalburning feats, but concerns the "missing trillions", of tons of CO2 and other carbon compounds, in the Carbon Cycle. The billion-sized emissions of GHG by human beings are outclassed by the "missing trillions". Again highly controversial and always glossed over by politically correct climate scientists with a sinecure job to defend, anywhere between 600 billion tons of carbon and 6000 billion tons of carbon is "missing" in the sense its origins cannot be identified. But it exists, moves around, and was not of human-origin.

As schoolboy scientists know, 1 billion tons of carbon when fully oxidised gives 44/12 billion tons of CO2. Possibly surprising to consumers of average media offerings on "CO2 and climate" the Earth's crust contains a lot of non-CO2 carbon-oxygen and carbon-hydrogen in a wide range of forms, like chalk, other carbonates, shales, pyrites, quartz, clay etc, over and above dissolved variants in the seas and oceans. Adding in nitrogen and sulphur compounds with climate changing capabilities only adds to the weight of "GHG factors", which can be roughly calculated but the numbers exceed the display area of regular-type pocket calculators. Doing something about these GHG factors, which (as geology proves) move around, is almost certainly outside the scope of human beings, even when they are called Obama and use a Blackberry or iPhone to harangue other world leaders about their own confusion and inability to decide or act.

The above is of course "incorrect science", making it necessary to look for the other fatal flaws in present carbon policies and programs.

This concerns energy, economic and environmental policies and programs worldwide. The problem is that all of them are impacted by unsure and changing policy regarding climate action. They are themselves also changing, sometimes fast. The result is a policy vacuum where each state or group of states "does its own thing", badly of course. Obama can talk about climate leadership, and even try to exert leadership - and among world leaders he is one of the few who could or might move things forward - but this is impossible until and unless the USA itself has a fixed unambiguous climate policy and related programs. As Obama knows full well, this is light years away from the current situation.

Back in 2008, when the European parliament voted the climate-energy package which set the basis of EU member state REAPs (renewable energy action plans), the struggle to prevent global warming Apocalypse was frequently cited, by parliamentary members themselves, in public. Today, the style is more muted, but leading institutions like the OECD's energy watchdog agency, the IEA, carry on the task. Its deputy director Richard H. Jones is on record, in 2012 saying world average temperatures will "probably certainly" rise by at least 6 degrees C by 2050. From the last Ice Age to now, they have risen about 4.5 degrees C.

With that type of genuinely apocalyptic change any kind of emergency action and panic spending could be justified. The problem would be to know if relocating all major cities (at least 4 out 5, worldwide) to prevent almost or "probably certain" total inundation, and moving them to higher ground, would be the smarter thing to do instead of building windfarms and solar power plants around these Doomed Cities. What would happen to the doomed-to-flooding nuclear power plants located near these cities would be another fascinating subject: the explosion of a couple hundred of these plants would be epic doomster fare and certainly make it unnecessary to keep on with climate disaster relief.

Agriculture and food production "adaptation" to a 6 degrees C temperature rise in 38 years and the loss of most of the world's most productive farmland would also set some major problems, with the simple alternative of possibly 75% of the world's population starving to death. For averagely sane human beings the possibly well-meaning but clumsy and lying attempts to panic the public and trigger politicians into action - but what action? - have become counterproductive. For the politicians, in particular, the dramatic change in world energy resources, supplies, pricing and demand or consumption since about 2007 also explains the present total uncertainty and policy vacuum.

One of these energy changes with vast economic implications is the huge and continuing technological and industrial success (if not financial success) of renewable energy, possibly far outstripping expectations by political deciders of even a few years ago. The shale energy resource boom is another unexpected and vast change. Combining the two, it is pointless to talk about "energy scarcity" any longer.

The economy-enviroment subject areas are usually hidden in the woodwork but in reality are much more important. Leaders such as Obama, still mesmerized by the neoliberal wonders of Do Nothing, but reeling from its effects, face an economic transition out of crisis that they admit will take decades. Environmental management suffers from a plethora of dysfunctional and contradictory policies, programmes and regulations in most countries: as with climate change, the subject of "the environment" is snowed under by crisis and disaster news or views.

One simple link however exists with coal: physical coal is a killer fuel, emitting huge amounts of a large range of toxic and carcinogenic pollutants. Transit away from coal-fired conventional plant (which are the majority) to any non-nuclear alternative power and heat-generating energy source is the goal of Germany's Energiewende, and coal is the ultimate Devil's Fuel for global warming activists, which at least generates a major community of interest and advocacy. We could argue that capture and sequestration of toxic, carcinogenic and radioactive coal-source pollutants is vastly more important than CO2 stockage in deep underground caverns. Clean coal will one day exist not in the clumsy and high cost format of CCS, but in the form of in situ gasification and gas extraction from the world's massive underground physical coal resources.

Summing up the recent Doha talks, Jennifer Morgan of the World Resources Institute was cited by Bloomberg as saying: “It wasn’t pretty, but Doha delivered just enough to keep the process moving forward.” This was almost certainly the opposite of reality. Doha-type meetings are no longer needed, for reasons which include scientific scepticism on global warming itself, human ability to do anything about it, if it exists, and much more pressing economic and environmental crises - not "problems".

By Andrew McKillop


Former chief policy analyst, Division A Policy, DG XVII Energy, European Commission. Andrew McKillop Biographic Highlights

Co-author 'The Doomsday Machine', Palgrave Macmillan USA, 2012

Andrew McKillop has more than 30 years experience in the energy, economic and finance domains. Trained at London UK’s University College, he has had specially long experience of energy policy, project administration and the development and financing of alternate energy. This included his role of in-house Expert on Policy and Programming at the DG XVII-Energy of the European Commission, Director of Information of the OAPEC technology transfer subsidiary, AREC and researcher for UN agencies including the ILO.

© 2012 Copyright Andrew McKillop - All Rights Reserved Disclaimer: The above is a matter of opinion provided for general information purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Information and analysis above are derived from sources and utilising methods believed to be reliable, but we cannot accept responsibility for any losses you may incur as a result of this analysis. Individuals should consult with their personal financial advisor.

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