A new kind of partnership: Researchers question whether our scientific institutions can solve the climate dilemma, arguing that daunting pressures require a new degree of political cooperation. Image: FLICKR/LAURA PADGETT
Tricky diagnoses abound, whether the field is medicine, auto repair or high finance. For climate change the problem is magnified: Those who have spent decades diagnosing the problem have no power to write the prescription.
Scientists have the knowledge, but politicians and social institutions hold the power. Channels between them are rudimentary at best, many analysts say. Without a fundamental shift in emphasis, they caution, the scientific infrastructure so painstakingly erected to identify the problem will find itself impotent to ensure that global warming will be mitigated and civilization will adapt to its inevitable impacts.
"It's not clear to me that climate science has ever been well-aligned with social institutions that will have to respond to climate change," said Daniel Sarewitz, director of Arizona State University's Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes. "What we're beginning to see now, as the debate over the first-order conclusions of climate change science wanes, is that the two actually have nothing to do with each other."
Take the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: The world authority on climate change synthesizes disparate scientific findings on climate from around the globe. Those summaries by mandate must remain "policy neutral."
And so the IPCC and other scientific bodies offer little guidance to policy makers confronting the daunting pressures and details of a disrupted climate, whether it be fortifying levees, shifting energy policy, capping emissions or moving low-lying villages.
The solution, many experts agree, is a new level of cooperation on all political levels, from county commissions on up through the United Nations.
Where to start?
At the top is the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC. Created at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, the convention is more famous for its 1997 addendum known as the Kyoto Protocol. Kyoto established concrete targets for reducing heat-trapping gases, with industrialized nations pledging to cut emissions to an average of 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. The United States did not sign it.
Kyoto has plenty of controversy: Only a third of global emissions are subject to the protocol; Greenhouse-gas emissions actually rose 24 percent from 1990 to 2004; China, now the world's leading producer of heat-trapping gases, faces no limits. But it also provided leadership and binding international targets. In countries that signed the treaty, Kyoto has helped spur renewable-energy subsidies, tougher energy-efficiency standards and the European Climate Exchange, a cap-and-trade market for emissions credits.
Diplomats have been ramping up for a post-Kyoto climate treaty for years. Talks in Poznan, Poland in December 2008 yielded little more than pledges to keep talking.
All hopes on a Kyoto successor now rest on this December's UN conference in Copenhagen. But American politics will probably get in the way, said Elliot Diringer, director of international strategies at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.
"If the U.S isn't ready to take a position, others won't, either," he said.
Domestic legislation would have to be passed first, Diringer said. But a key senator, Democrat Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, has said Congress is not likely to tackle the issue before 2010, given the financial crisis and other priorities. Still, Diringer said, he thinks Copenhagen could yield a concrete path forward with specific agreements to be negotiated.
"You could legitimately argue that the UNFCCC should be – and is likely to be – the place where things come together," he said. "But it won't all come from there."
Given the disarray at the top, some are looking to drive change from the grassroots, starting with education.
"The real answer is to not let anybody grow up anywhere in the world without realizing that their lives depend on ecosystem services, and that the availability of ecosystems services is tied quite tightly to how many people there are, how much one consumes and what kind of technologies are used to service that consumption," said Paul Ehrlich, the Stanford University professor of population studies.