Copenhagen: As MAD as it seems?

“We’re eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked” – these were the words of Secretary of State Dean Rusk at the height of the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962.

It may be abhorrent to some, but despite the high stakes international negotiations often come down to extracting the maximum from your interlocutor.

In the case of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the stakes could not have been higher – President Kennedy had played his hand by blockading Cuba and the Soviet Union had no choice but to back down to avoid Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). Analysts have interpreted this as a classic instance of a nuclear game of “Chicken” – Khrushchev was convinced that his choice was between turning his fleet home or nuclear holocaust.

But not to worry – classical Rational Expectations scholars inform us that MAD acts as some sort of cast-iron deterrent against nuclear war. States acting rationally don’t commit suicide.

This optimism is not universally shared. Several scholars, including Graham Allison, are not entirely convinced of this “rational” reassurance. They point to political or bureaucratic failures, breakdowns in communication, cultural and moral factors as equally important in predicting or “retrodicting” outcomes.

For them, avoiding MAD was as much to do with good fortune as anything else; and the lesson – try not to play brinksmanship with the future of humanity.

This message, unfortunately, seems not to have been taken to heart by all of our Copenhagen interlocutors.
There are of course the good guys who have tried to bring more than narrow self-interest to the table. The EU has all but played its hand in an attempt to cajole the major players to an agreement. A unilateral 20% emissions reduction, rising to 30% on 1990 levels in the case of an international agreement, was offered by the European Commission way back in 2007, and agreed by the Council of Ministers in December 2008. The higher-level target would be within the range demanded by the science.

In the area of financing (for adaptation and mitigation of emissions in developed countries) – the only other substantive area where the EU has direct control – the EU’s blueprint is the only real offer out there.
Meanwhile Japan has put a very real offer of a -25% emissions reduction on the table; and Brazil has committed to reducing emissions by a minimum 36% by 2020, and reducing deforestation by 80%. Both these offers are seen as proactive engagements.

This leaves a long cast of villains. Although developing countries should be under no obligation to reduce absolute emissions in the period to 2020, meaningful proposals are required to reassure countries such as the US.
China has announced an objective of reducing its CO2 emissions per unit of GDP (not on an absolute basis) by 40% to 45% from 2005 to 2020. This is a classical example of holding on to your aces. These emissions targets are below what would have been achieved through already announced energy efficiency and renewables measures. Though relatively innocent historically, China now emits more than any other country and must do more to check the rise in emissions in the period to 2020. Premier Wen Jiabaom must bring more to the table.

India’s climate plan provides eight national missions in key areas. It provides several measures but only a few of them are quantified in terms of resulting emission reductions. There is no aggregate offer on the table. Jairam Ramesh, Indian Minister for State for Environment, has been castigated by the environmental movement for his unhelpful attitude to negotiations. It is perhaps time for India to poke a toe in the water.

Then there is the biggest challenge. Despite President Obama’s undeniable commitment to the cause, he has not gone beyond a conditional offer of a 17% reduction on 2005 levels of emissions by 2020 – or 3% below 1990. This is far outside the range of comparable reduction efforts by other developed countries.

We could blame George Bush for ignoring climate change and allowing US emissions to skyrocket under his watch, making the 1990 baseline difficult for the US. We could blame Harry Reid, Senate majority leader for constantly promising to bring legislation before the Senate and consistently failing to do so, essentially hamstringing international negations. Or we could blame Tom Donohue, President of the US Chamber of Commerce for hiring 2,810 lobbyist to kill Copenhagen by whipping up opposition on Capital Hill to a proactive Bill.

So a legally binding agreement in Copenhagen is now unlikely. Time has run out. According to the Danish Prime Minister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, a five page “political” agreement sketching the broad dimensions of a deal is now the most likely output.

Indeed a draft document of this nature was circulated by the Danes to a few countries in the last day or so, which indicated dates for developing countries to peak emissions (circa 2025 for some).

Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh has rejected the first Danish draft which he described as “totally unacceptable,” stating that “We are never going to take on a peaking year for absolute emissions. This is not on the horizon”.

Leaders of Brazil, South Africa, India and China are expected to present their own draft Tuesday in Copenhagen as an alternative to the Danish document.
MAD as it may seem, playing brinksmanship with the future of the planet is a game that is alive and well.

About the author:

Joseph Curtin is Senior Researcher at the IIEA with responsibility for energy and climate change policy. He is will blog on international climate negotiations, Irish climate policy and anything else that he comes across which interests or annoys him.

This entry was posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Copenhagen: As MAD as it seems?

  1. denis says:

    @ Joseph Curtin.
    What successful new technologies, do you see being employed by participating countries, to enable them to live up to their putative Copenhagen emission promises ?

  2. Richard Tol says:

    Can you please get serious? Nuclear war would have easily killed 20% of the world population. Climate change is nowhere near as a deadly. Science does not demand any level of emission reduction. The desired level of emission reduction is a value judgement, not a scientific fact. Sprouting nonsense like this only serves to ridicule climate policy.

  3. Joseph Curtin says:

    @ Richard

    Economists, I know, are fond of assumptions, and your response is no exception. First off, nowhere did I try and compare the impact of climate change climate change and nuclear holocaust as you did in your response. The point I am making is that negotiations often lead to dangerously irresponsible outcomes.

    Nevertheless, it is clear that there is a possibility that climate change could have potentially calamitous impacts.

    From the IPCC4 (2007) Executive Summary:
    ..following a doubling of carbon dioxide concentrations [temperature rise]…is likely to be in the range 2 to 4.5C with a best estimate of 3C, and is very unlikely to be less than 1.5C. Values substantially higher than 4.5C cannot be excluded….”

    Did you read that last sentence? What do you think would happen to the planet at “values substantially higher than 4.5C”?

    Many of the world’s best regarded climate scientists such as Professors Schellenhuber or Hansen are on the record as saying that run-away climate change is a real possibility.

    Thought the conventional wisdom in your discipline is to assume away these scenarios, many economists agree and call for so-called “low probability-high impact” events are to be taken seriously, such as Weitzman (2007). These warnings should not to be glibly dismissed as “scare-mongering of the gray literature”.

    As for “science does not demand any level of emissions reduction” calumny, this is a blog not at academia paper. As you surely understood, IPCC/UNFCCC have called for a 25-40% emissions reduction from developed countries by 2020, and this is what I was referring to.

  4. Joseph Curtin says:

    @ Denis

    Back at you. What’s your view?

  5. Richard Tol says:

    You have MAD in your title, and your opening sentence is about the Cuban missile crisis. The reader is easily led to believing that your are comparing nuclear war to climate change. You are a clever writer. I doubt that you would lead your readers to anything other than where you want to lead them.

    The IPCC does not call for any emission reduction. The IPCC is specifically prohibited from making any policy recommendation.

    The UNFCCC calls for stabilization of the concentrations of greenhouse gases. For CO2, that means a 100% emission reduction. The UNFCCC does not have a date for achieving that target, however. The Kyoto Protocol of the UNFCC also has a target, but this one pertains to 2008-12.

  6. denis says:

    @ Joseph
    Yes, I do have views on this, but would like to hear the latest thinking on these matters from people who have more exposure to new ideas than I do. I could then consider this new information, and assess it, and put a value on it using basic principles.

  7. Joseph Curtin says:

    @ Richard

    Dr. Pachauri, Chairman of the IPCC, has been calling for 25-40% emissions reduction from developed countries by 2020. This has its basis in IPCC 4, which says ““Under most equity interpretations, developed countries as a group would need to reduce their emissions significantly by 2020 (10-40% below 1990 levels) and to still lower levels by 2050 (40-95% below 1990 levels) for low to medium stabilization levels (450-550 ppm CO2-eq).” and these figures are cited in the Bali Road Map which establishes parameters for the ongoing discussions. Yvo de Boer reckons the 25-40% target is the starting point for negotiations as he has said 100s of times (though the US managed to keep it out of the final read map).

    These numbers are based on: p15, ie: objective of stabilizing global temperatures below 2 degrees.

    I know you don’t agree with the 2 degree target, but that’s another story. As you say, comes down to a value judgement in the end.

    @ Denis

    Every country is different. The UK Climate Change Commission’s recent report: is, in my view, an excellent analysis of what needs to be done in power gen, transport and residential sectors.

    I think that significant savings are available through residential sector retrofits; and I think that EVs are the future, though perhaps they won’t make a major mark pre-2020.

  8. Richard Tol says:

    The IPCC numbers are conditional. If this is the eventual target, then these are the required emission reductions. The IPCC does not say whether the target is right or wrong.

    Yvo de Boer is the head of the secretariat. He facilitates. His opinion on targets is immaterial. The fact that he expresses an opinion is a breach of procedure.

  9. Joseph Curtin says:

    @ Richard

    We are going around in circles.

    I finally tracked down the “25-40/2020” scenario – it was published in the IPCC’s Working Group III report, in Box 13.7 on page 776. Dr. Pachauri has consistently described anything above a 2 degree rise as “bad news” “dangerous” etc etc. I would suggest that he knows the science better than either of us.

    The rest is politics.

    I never suggested that these were actual legally binding targets at this point, and as you say, if this is the eventual target these will be the required emissions reductions.

  10. Richard Tol says:

    When Pachauri uses words like “bad news” and “dangerous”, he is passing a value judgement. Therefore, he is speaking in his private capacity, because the chair of the IPCC is not allowed to use such words.

    The IPCC did not, cannot, and will not endorse any target.

  11. Joseph Curtin says:

    @ Richard

    I’m not denying that he is making a value judgment. He has made it very clear that it’s not for him a choice between 2 or 3 degrees, but rather a choice between 1 and 2, not least at an event we hosted in 2007, and in public at other occasions. I have not thought to check if he had officially removed his IPCC hat on these occasions.

    You don’t agree with a 2 degree target and would have us relocate anyone living in a low-lying island state. Fine. You are perfectly entitled to make any value judgment you like. I’m just saying that as a non-scientist I’ll take the word of a scientist on this rather than an economist. I think that a 2 degree goal is a reasonable one to aim for.

  12. Richard Tol says:

    Rajendra K. Pachauri has a bachelor’s in railway engineering, a master’s in industrial engineering, and a PhD in industrial engineering and economics. He used to be a professor of economics before becoming the director of TERI, which does social science research on energy and the environment. Pachauri never published a single article in a natural sciences journal.

    When I worked with him in the mid-1990s, he would describe himself as an economist.

  13. Joseph Curtin says:

    @ Richard

    Fair enough. I still think I’ll go with him (the EU, the G8, the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate etc) on this one….

  14. Richard Mason says:

    To discuss whether we are facing 2, 3 or 4 degree increase is just plain nonsense.

    Copenhagen, Kyoto and the entire climate change discourse refuses to address one of the many variables contributing to anthropogenic global warming – the number of people on the planet. We discuss endlessly the relationship between CO2 emissions and temperature increase. Exactly the same correlation exists between CO2 and population; between temperature increase and population. No one appears to be willing to make that link.

    No doubt, our individual behaviour and choices and technology have an impact on our CO2 emissions, however they are miniscule compared to the impact of population.

    Take Ireland as an example with our 14 tons of CO2 per person per annum. A 25% reduction in CO2 for 100,000 people gives a reduction of 35,000 tons per annum. If there were 100,000 fewer people, the reduction would be 140,000 tons, a four times greater effect. The maths are really straightforward and applicable to both developing and developed world.

    We either figure out how to overcome our cultural, religious and economic barriers to reduce population over time (the soft landing) or nature will take us down her own route (the hard landing) more rapidly.

    I am a firm believer that CC is real, however I am highly sceptical that we as a species have the wisdom or courage to address it effectively. When faced with “Green” ministers (CE&NR) with 4 children, one can only conclude the debate whether it is 10% or 50% cut is futile and we are witnessing the dying days of a civilisation.

  15. neil says:

    Dopenhagen, the new name for the farce of a climate change summit.

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