Home >Specials >Science >A new paradigm in climate regime

Over the past 15-17 years, the global average temperature has remained essentially flat. This was not predicted by the several climate models that have been developed by researchers across the world, and which for the most part have projected doomsday scenarios of a global temperature increase by 3 to 6 degrees Celsius by mid-century if the present trend of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions continue.

While the models indeed encompass a range of uncertainty in their projections, and the current global average temperature is not quite outside this range of uncertainty, serious questions are bound to be raised by reasonable persons, and not just oil company lobbyists, about the reliability of the climate models as a basis for making global policy.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is an international body of government-nominated scientists that is entrusted by the UN to make six-yearly scientific assessments of climate change, is currently discussing these empirical results, whose validity is not at serious dispute. Several explanations have been offered for the deviation in the earth’s climate trajectory from that projected by the models. However, all the explanations seem to be ad-hoc, since they are not new scientific findings, and should have been factored in by the climate modelers.

The IPCC’s approach to the issue could have a significant impact on the outcomes of the current negotiations on an international treaty to comprehensively address climate change, which has a deadline of 2015. This treaty, whose primary effect would be to apportion rights to use commercial fossil energy (coal, oil, natural gas) across countries, as also the provision of technology and finance to developing countries to cope with their energy transformations, as well as the impacts of climate change that are unavoidable, would have global economic implications that may dwarf those of the WTO regime.

Accordingly, a huge responsibility is cast upon the IPCC to fully and transparently adhere to the scientific method in its “consensus" findings on the empirical results. In doing so, it would be important to keep in mind that claims of empirically unsustained certitude do not constitute science, but that being explicit about uncertainty does. It would earn the respect of the global scientific community if it acknowledged that there is much that we do not yet know about the earth’s climate, no matter that the physics of climate change itself is not at dispute. The uncertainty lies in how all the reinforcing and countervailing influences on the climate add up in the net, and this should be a matter of further research, hopefully by a more geographically balanced network of scientists than has been the case so far.

How should the negotiators engaged in the new climate change treaty negotiations respond? Over the past 15 years, since the Kyoto Protocol was agreed in 1997 (and which the US stayed out of), several developed countries have been using past IPCC findings to proclaim that the earth is on the brink of the greatest climate catastrophe in history, which would obliterate human civilization as we know it.

Accordingly, all countries, and of the developing countries, India and China in particular, must without further loss of time sign on to legally enforceable commitments to reduce their GHG emissions. This would, of course, have the effect of virtually stopping the growth of developing countries, and keep their masses languishing in poverty for generations to come. Not accidentally, the developed countries would stay at their levels of prosperity, and would not have to account for their historical responsibility in causing climate change in the first place. Unsurprisingly, developing countries have challenged this approach, and over time, deep suspicions have emerged that economic and strategic agendas, and not simply environmental concerns, motivate the proposals from developed countries.

The fact of greater scientific uncertainty about climate change than was acknowledged earlier should prompt a new paradigm to emerge in the global climate regime. The seed of a new approach is already contained within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, (UNFCCC— the mother agreement, under whose principles the new treaty is being negotiated), i.e, the Precautionary Approach. This states that in the face of scientific uncertainty, countries should adopt cost-effective measures to address the problem. Application of the Precautionary Approach would preclude the new treaty, at least until such time as the scientific uncertainty significantly narrows, from imposing costly legal restraints on GHG emissions on developing countries. At the same time, it would oblige all countries—developed and developing—to do sensible things—adopt measures for energy efficiency, promote renewable energy where this is cost-effective, invest in mass transport, save water, avoid meat eating, recycle. This would conduce to their sustainable development, and would not be a burden either on their public exchequers, or family budgets.

The author is Distinguished Fellow at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) and former secretary in the ministry of environment and forests.

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