As climate-change talks get under way, negotiators are filled with a sense of foreboding, reports Geoffrey Lean of The Daily Telegraph in Cancun.
Maybe the name has something to do with it – Cancun means “nest of serpents” in the original Indian language of the area – but it would have been hard to pick a less propitious place to host a conference widely hailed as the last chance to get international negotiations to combat climate change back on track.
For this Mexican resort has an unrivalled record in consigning such talks to the compost heap of history. In 1981 it was here, at one of Ronald Reagan’s first summits, that global negotiations on tackling world poverty went off the rails, even if it was the intransigence of developing countries rather than the old ham himself that was to blame. Beside these same azure seas 20 years later, the current round of world trade talks went awry and have yet to recover.
A sense of foreboding is one of the few points of general agreement among the 15,000 participants congregating for the next two weeks on this long thin strip of land, marooned between a wide lagoon and the Caribbean Sea. Jairem Ramesh, the Indian environment minister, sees it as the “last chance” for climate change talks to succeed; Connie Hedegaard, the EU’s climate chief, believes a disappointing outcome would “put the whole process in danger”; and American and Canadian politicians are thinking of moving negotiations to other, more selective, meeting places. No wonder Chris Huhne, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, says that Britain’s main goal over the next two weeks will be “keeping the show on the road”.
In truth, this resort is fittingly named to host the giant climate conferences that take place at the end of each year. They do indeed resemble snakepits – the mutual hissing of competing camps laced with a fair amount of poison. Last year’s in Copenhagen was the worst of them all: in addition to the snakes, there was a liberal sprinkling of tarantulas and serpent-headed Gorgons that turn living things to stone. So high were the expectations for that summit in the Danish capital that its failure and the disappointments it engendered have petrified the process.
Twelve months ago, world leaders turned up expecting a triumph, only to have to scramble to prevent complete breakdown. It was a traumatic experience – so much so that dealing with global warming has slumped sharply and alarmingly down the international agenda.
Public support – long arrogantly taken for granted by environmental activists – has also eroded on both sides of the Atlantic. The hacked emails from the University of East Anglia may have had something to do with it, though – despite all the hype from climate sceptics – they did nothing to dent the science that underpins global warming. Nor, for that matter, did the occasional, inexcusable, errors over the predicted effects of climate change unearthed soon afterwards from the 3,000-page report produced by the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change. Further damage was inflicted by the blustering and bombastic responses from the panel’s chairman, Rajendra Pachauri, who still clings obstinately to office despite a broad hint from the official investigation into the affair that he should go. But the main cuplrit, according to opinion polls, was the cold winter in Britain and much of North America: that did more than any of the “climategate” furores to sow doubt in the public mind that the world was heating up.
This is why some sceptics – who rightly denounce anyone who claims that a temporary heatwave is a confirmation of global warming – will doubtless soon be claiming that the present cold snap denies it, however inconsistent and opportunistic such an assertion would be. As it happens, there was unusual warmth last winter in places ranging from Alaska to North Africa, East Asia to much of continental Europe. Worldwide, 2010 is set to be either the warmest or second warmest year on record.
Individual hot or cold spells prove nothing. What counts is the overall temperature trend over many years and, though this appears to have increased more slowly over the past decade, it remains remorselessly upwards. Indeed, a Met Office report published last week concluded that, even as public and political resolve to tackle global warming has waned since Copenhagen, the evidence that humanity is heating up the planet has become “even stronger”.
Earlier this month, Karl Rove, the American political strategist, exulted that “climate is gone”, meaning that it was no longer the potent issue it once was. Most scientists might agree with his comment – but not in the way Rove meant it. What they fear is that the benign conditions under which humanity has grown and prospered over the past 11,000 years are rapidly disappearing. Already, the people at the sharp end – principally the Third World rural poor who depend intimately on nature – are struggling to cope with the shifting seasons. An Oxfam report, published today, concludes that 21,000 people died as a consequence of weather-related disasters such as floods and droughts in the first nine months of this year.
Far worse is to come, scientists believe. The Royal Society is publishing a set of papers today that paint a bleak picture of a world that has warmed by an average four degrees centigrade – double what most scientists agree would trigger disastrous effects. The reports conclude that, if policies do not change, then this grim future will be upon us far faster then we realise – by the 2070s, within the lifetimes of our children.
Yet this is not inevitable. It can still be stopped. If progress is made at Cancun, the rise in global temperature could be kept to beneath the critical two-degree threshold. As the United Nations Environment Programme has recently pointed out, the Copenhagen summit may have failed to live up to expectations, but it did stimulate some 80 countries, those jointly responsible for 80 per cent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, to announce targets for bringing them under control.
Taken together, these could get the world nearly two thirds of the way to limiting global warming to just two degrees. The gap could then be filled by additional measures, such as reducing the enormous subsidies pumped into fossil fuels, cutting emissions from shipping and aircraft, which are uncontrolled, and addressing other causes of climate change, such as the black carbon puffed out by diesel engines and Third World cooking stoves, and HFCs, widely used as ozone-friendly refrigerants.
But there is a catch. Many countries are pledged only to achieve their most ambitious targets if other nations do the same. Ever since Copenhagen, they have been playing a game of climatic “after you, Claude’’, waiting for others to go first. Above all, they have been waiting for the United States, and they are likely to do so for a long time yet. The big Republican gains in the mid-term elections have put paid to the already slim prospects of US climate legislation for the foreseeable future.
That is one reason why no one expects a breakthrough at Cancun. Another is a long legacy of mistrust between rich and poor countries, aggravated by last year’s carry-on at Copenhagen. With that in mind, the conference’s Mexican hosts, who are much more competent than the dire Danes whose appalling leadership contributed to the failure 12 months ago, are lowering their sights. They are concentrating on trying to achieve accord on subsidiary issues, such as an agreement to reward countries for not felling their forests and setting up a big fund to help poor nations cope with the effects of global warming. In this way they hope to build trust and lay the foundations of an eventual agreement.
But, while breakthough is highly unlikely, a breakdown remains very much on the cards. Some old hands here – such as Yvo de Boer, the UN’s chief negotiator at Copenhagen – can glimpse similar tell-tale clouds gathering over the sea. If they are right and the storm breaks, this may well turn out to be the last set of serious UN climate negotiations for many years. The snakepit will have claimed another victim.
BDST: 0903 HRS, November 29, 2010