America’s Position on Climate ‘A Tragedy,’ Losing U.S. Prestige to China

                  Bill Blakemore interviews Christiana Figueres.             (ABC News)

3 Simple Numbers Show Catastrophic Gap With the Science, and 'Europe Still the Moral Leader'

Nature's Edge Notebook - Durban Diary

DURBAN, South Africa - America's loss of prestige as a leader in global attempts to deal with catastrophic global warming is so commonplace now that even prominent international leaders in those efforts are dropping their usual diplomatic reticence about stating it.

Here is how Christiana Figueres, the executive secretary of the U..N Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which holds this annual global climate conference, put it to ABC news today here:

"The tragedy of the position that the U.S. is taking is that not only does it act here in a way that is not particularly ambitious, but the more tragic part about it is the U.S. is cutting off its possibilities to be a leader in this field, to be a leader in green technology [and thus] to create jobs. … The U.S. is losing leadership to China."

Alden Meyer, the Washington-based director of strategy and policy for America's Union of Concerned Scientists, who has watched the world's hopes for America as a champion in this field fall steadily in recent years, said today he now sees among negotiators from European and many other countries "not just tremendous frustration, but anger" as America comes to these climate negotiations with what he describes as "little to put on the table."

"The U.S. is geopolitically isolated now on climate," Meyer says. "The E.U. is still the moral leader in this, and has been at least since the [1992] Rio summit" on environment.

                                                           Alden Meyer             (Union of Concerned Scientists)

The recent defeat in the U.S. Congress of legislation to limit carbon emissions is widely noted. At one off-the-record international symposium on climate and environment in the United States recently, policy leaders resorted to Winston Churchill's alleged quip: "You can always count on Americans to do the right thing, after they've tried everything else."

European leaders now readily talk off and on the record about how they are now "looking east" - meaning to China - in calculating how they will engage market forces in clean energy to drive a meaningful cut in carbon emissions.

European and other coalitions - including those of the LCDs (less-developed countries), AOSIS (Alliance of Small Island Sates), the "African Group," and, increasingly, China and India - seem to be pushing ahead to some sort of a separate deal leaving the United States to catch up if it wants to. They are doing so with an urgency spurred by three simple numbers that you hear frequently at this conference in hallway discussions, press conferences held by many different countries and urgent pleas from podiums and panel tables.

The three numbers are 0.8 C, 2.0 C  and 3.0 C-or-higher.

C stands for degrees of temperature measured in centigrade, but even Americans, accustomed to Fahrenheit, may find this one easier to follow in C because these numbers in C are smaller and rounder than when converted to F. and it's in C that you often hear and see this all referred to these days, even in the U.S.

The 0.8 degrees C is the amount the average global temperature has risen since just before the industrial age began burning coal two centuries ago.

The 2.0 degrees C above pre-industrial temperatures is the maximum temperature rise the world's climate policymakers have agreed they must accept as a limit in order to avoid "the worst consequences" of man-made global warming - the truly catastrophic - although they do acknowledge that going up to 2.0 C will mean "serious" consequences. They expect this 2.0 C temperature limit to be reached somewhere in mid-century, regardless of what actions humanity manages to take.

The 3.0-to-3.5 degrees C is what two recent authoritative studies (by the International Energy Agency and the U.N. Environment Programme) say will be the temperature on Earth well within this century even if all the pledges and promises now on the table by all countries are fulfilled.

Here's the rub: Even 2.0 C is described by almost all the pertinent experts around the world as extremely disruptive and painful.

The increase we already have now because of man-made global warming - 0.8 C - is already directly linked by the world's climate scientists to the current extremes of wild weather events around the world in both hemispheres, extremes that are having an increasingly catastrophic impact on those in their path. (The year 2011 has broken a great number of records around the world for extreme weather events.)

Now, do this simplest of arithmetic: two-and-a-half-times 0.8.

It equals 2.0, the upper limit of increased temperature the world's nations have agreed they will try to stick to.

In other words, even if humanity limits warming to the level nations have agreed on, that would still be 2 1/2 times the warming we've already got.

Even if the world's significant greenhouse emitters were to somehow achieve an upper temperature limit of 2.O (which would mean their taking far more drastic action than all countries combined are now promising to do) that would still mean we are in a world with two-and-a-half times the increase we are already experiencing.

And as the temperature goes up, releasing more energy into the atmosphere, the accumulation of severe weather events that cause suffering of various kinds is not expected by scientists to increase in a "linear" way, but "exponentially," growing ever more frequent, and ever more severe.

This simplest of math underlies all encounters here at this 17th annual global climate summit.

Even the 0.8 C increase we've already got is now killing people, raising food and insurance prices worldwide, making investors of various kinds nervous, and giving headaches to national security agencies worried about a whole new range of troubles from surging crowds of climate refugees to increasing violence driven by growing poverty resulting from drought, flood and famine.

It is within the constraints of this scientifically based urgency - readily acknowledged by almost all national governments, though not the United States - that many countries are working to hammer out agreements that they hope will, in the words of Executive Secretary Figueres, "raise ambition" among nations, spurring them to figure out how to make ever more emissions cuts … and eventually lead even the United States to avoid "the worst," the most catastrophic suffering.

And it is within the constraints of this simple math that Alden Meyer, mindful of the worries of the 80,000 members of America's non-partisan, non-governmental and not-for-profit Union of Concerned Scientists, spoke with such intense frustration to ABC news here at this conference today.

He is deeply concerned about a growing "anti-science movement" back home in America, about a "dysfunctional political system" that is betraying the deep ethical concerns of U.S. scientific experts, and about politicians who play on people's fear and confusion about basic climate science long since accepted by the responsible governments of almost all other nations.