The Hot Zone

THE ROCKY ROAD TO COPENHAGEN

Posted by Alison Hawkes on November 2, 2009
Category : Climate Science and Scientists

The next UN Climate Change Conference,  COP15, in Copenhagen, Denmark is only six weeks away.  Around the world, delegates are jostling to establish which countries should be granted the greatest number of carbon offsets, and who is really at fault for the evolutionary pickle we find ourselves in.

Tempting though it is to think we can barter our way out of it, climate will continue to plague us.  And unfortunately, in the US we’re still suffering from the diplomatic and greenhouse gas emission sequelae (a term I’m borrowing deliberately from medicine, meaning an after-effect of disease, condition, or injury) of our previous administration.

We tend, as human beings, to be very forgetful.  To refresh my own memory, I revisited the Kyoto Protocol, ratified in 1997.

Under the 1997 Kyoto pact, companies or governments expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions can essentially outsource their cuts by funding clean energy projects in developing countries. By purchasing offsets known as Certified Emission Reductions (CERs) from projects like the ones now under way in China, regulated entities can make up the difference between what they must cut and what they can do domestically.

But all is not well on the road to Denmark.

The Kyoto Protocol places the onus for the developing world’s success or failure in reducing greenhouse gas emissions squarely on the shoulders of industrialized nations. There is also proviso for developed nations to address climate changes that are already causing havoc in many developing nations and will only get worse and more widespread – drought and famine plaguing some nations, flooding in others.

UN climate talks held in October in Bangkok broke down when specific carbon emission reduction commitments from the developed world were mentioned, alongside the suggestion that major developing nations might have to ante up at some point.  Sudan, chairing the G-77-China negotiating group set the tone by accusing the United States and European Union and leading developed countries of attempting to sabotage the terms agreed to in the Kyoto treaty.

They point out that although the emissions-cutting commitments by developed countries are far from burdensome, most are firmly on track to miss them.

But why the disconnect?  If climate change is going to be a catastrophe for all of us, every single living creature on the planet, then what is stopping us from joining together to do something about it?

Two recent studies, and a recent book, address these questions.  I call the phenom The Seven Deadly Sins Factor: I have seen the enemy and he is us.

The first is a study conducted by two researchers at the University of Toronto.  They discovered that people who purchased “green” products behaved less altruistically than those who didn’t.  These findings, reported in Nature revealed through a computer game, that students who had chosen purchase green products rather than conventional ones were the most likely to lie and steal to earn extra money.  Buying green products may act as a ‘moral offset’, prompting people to be more lax with other ethical norms.

Perhaps carbon offsets work the same way:  a country that has more of them feels they have the moral high ground, and other rules about governance simply don’t apply to them.

Another study carried out by Manfred Milinski, director of the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Plön, Germany, revealed how participants behaved when they were told that unless they contributed to a fund to cut emissions, the world would suffer catastrophic climate change.  In this theoretical climate, each six-student team needed 120 euros in total to do the job.  But each participant had a budget of just 40 euros.

The results were not too heartening.  Even faced with the possibility of near-certain doom, only half of the 30 teams mustered enough funds to prevent the end of the world.

Next time: Al Gore’s new book, Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis.

by Erica Rex

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