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September 01, 2006

Back to Square One?

Posted to Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Climate Change | Risk & Uncertainty

The BBC quotes AAAS president John Holdren as saying that the work has already reached the threshold of dangerous climate change. Why does this matter? If scientists actually believe that this is the case then it would mean that the overriding objective of the Framework Convention on Climate Change is obsolete and needs to be revisited. Here is what the BBC reports:

One of America's top scientists has said that the world has already entered a state of dangerous climate change.

In his first broadcast interview as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, John Holdren told the BBC that the climate was changing much faster than predicted.

"We are not talking anymore about what climate models say might happen in the future.

"We are experiencing dangerous human disruption of the global climate and we're going to experience more," Professor Holdren said.

The central objective of the FCCC is described in its Article 2 as:

stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.

But if dangerous anthropogenic interference has already occurred or is inevitably on its way, then "prevention" is not in the cards and Article 2 becomes meaningless as a guide to action. Re-opening up Article 2 for revision and updating would be extremely contentious. But view it is needed. If the science advances, so to should the policy response.

I earlier commented that the political issue of “dangerous” climate change will create incentives for scientists to claim that we are on the brink, but not there yet. Hence we often here claims of "ten years to act" and so on. I’d expect that the politically-savvy IPCC will split this baby by placing us on the brink of dangerous climate change, but not there yet. But the more scientists who speak out as Holdren have, the less tenable Article 2 is as a guide to action. In my view it is just a matter of time before Article 2 needs to be revisited. And the sooner the better.

Posted on September 1, 2006 08:48 AM


Well, IANAL, but wouldn't a small change in the wording suffice? "Prevent as much dangerous change as possible" "prevent additional dangerous change".

It was probably always an unfortunate mission statement as given the great uncertainty in projections and predictions maybe we were committed to dangerous change decades ago.

Posted by: coby [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 1, 2006 12:37 PM

Coby- In principle such a substantive change would be more accurate. As I understand things changing the FCCC requires assent of the parties, and likely would require a reopening of the document to renegotiation. Maybe an expert in international frameworks can weigh in here ...

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr. [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 1, 2006 12:58 PM

"...the threshold of dangerous climate change."

"dangerous" really needs to be defined. Statements like this are muct too subject to interpretation. There are many thresholds not one, and how dangerous each are is very much a value judgement

Posted by: Nosmo [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 2, 2006 08:17 AM

And the point of such an exercise before Bush is gone would be...? Try to maintain some sort of connection to political reality, Roger.

Posted by: Steve Bloom [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 4, 2006 12:40 AM

Steve- Thanks for commenting.

But does it always have to be about Bush all the time? The (real) political reality is that any renegotiation of the FCCC will take more time than the 2 years leading up to the next election. Starting sooner rather than later would also ensure that it is an issue in the 2008 elections. And who knows, the next president may echo the Bush Administration's policies on climate change (compare 2004 Democratic positions). If the FCCC is indeed obsolete, then revising it should start right away.

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr. [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 4, 2006 08:07 AM

How about 'preventing climate change from becoming too dangerous'? As a mission statement, it would be equally open to interpretation by all parties to mean whatever they like. But it would have the advantage of killing discussions like this one!

Posted by: Tom Rees [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 4, 2006 09:19 AM

As Nosmo pointed out, there are many thresholds. In fact, there are billions. In fact, we don't even know where the "threshold to dangerous climate change" compares to its antithesis "threshold to dangerous lack of food supply enhancement" since millions die every year of food supply issues, and increasing the base of the food chain (CO2) increases food.

Posted by: Steve Hemphill [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 4, 2006 09:37 AM

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