Dr. Michael Oppenheimer on The Copenhagen Climate Summit, in Context: What Came Before, What Happens Next Princeton Lecture Series

Dr. Michael Oppenheimer, Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs: “The Copenhagen Climate Summit, in Context: What Came Before, What Happens Next?”
Princeton University, March 4th 2010 

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Click here to access the Princeton video of the Lecture

At the 2010 Princeton University Speakers Series, Dr. Michael Oppenheimer spoke on the science and politics of climate change. Dr. Oppenheimer argued that while the Copenhagen Summit was neither the world saving event that the European Union sought nor a failure as it had been branded afterward, it was nevertheless a step in the journey of finding a workable solution to the problem of climate change. In his lecture, Dr. Oppenheimer first provided a summary of the science of climate change, and then secondly the key motivations of the Copenhagen climate change negotiations.

Dr. Oppenheimer begins by explaining the global warming process. He notes that climate change is thought to be caused primarily by the “Greenhouse effect” where gases like carbon dioxide absorb heat from the sun rather than bounce it back into outer space. We know today the level of carbon dioxide as far back as 800 000 years ago by way of drilling in the ice cores at the poles. What this tells us is that the air trapped in the ice that has accumulated over thousands of years is in fact a historical archive of the earth atmosphere. Research shows that there has in fact been a steep rise of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere in the last three hundred years. The research also suggests quite strongly that this increase has been caused by human activity and that the half degree Celsius increase in the earth’s atmosphere in the last 50 years has been caused by the buildup of greenhouse gases. We know with some certainty that the sea level has also risen between 15-20 cm in the last hundred years, primarily caused by the melting of the mountain glaciers, the expansion of heated oceans, the peripheral ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica have melted at a fast rate than what has been gained at the center of the ice sheets.

There are serious uncertainties, however. For instance, many of our forecast models are not able to predict the future amount of emission of Co2 in the atmosphere, nor can they with predict that the only change will be warmer climate. While it is conceivable that a warmer earth will release greater amounts of atmospheric vapor, oceanic vapor however is itself a green gas which could lead to greater warming of the earth. It is also possible that the vapor condensation could lead to high clouds that would trap heat like green house gases and lead to further warming or lead to lower clouds that would instead reflect light and thus have a cooling effect on the earth. The science concludes Dr. Oppenheimer is fundamentally unable to predict whether the increase or decrease in one atmospheric location or another will have the net effect of the climate.

What our models based on ice exploration have taught us is that a 2 degree increase on current temperatures would be a significant increase and certainly magnify the danger of further losing a greater amount of the ice sheet along with a rise in the level of the sea level upwards to one meter, a loss of natural drinking water and the extinction of several species.

The consensus leading to Copenhagen was that governments needed to pledge avoiding the 2 degree increase. The problem however was multifaceted. There was on the one hand the expectation that Co2 emissions from developing countries would soon far surpass that of developed countries. In another, China became the world’s largest net emitter of Co2 gas in 2010, while the U.S. remained the largest emitter per capita. The political dimension as well as the multi-facetness of the problem between both developing and developed countries hardened positions and complicated approaches for a solution. The general sentiment that we needed to decline our net emission of green house gas by 2020 became a driving force to achieve a new treaty at Copenhagen.

Treaties can indeed be absolutely vital in reframing the incentives in order to “redefine national interests”. But independent from a broader strategy, they are necessary but not sufficient to address national interests and alter domestic attitudes. They need to be supplemented with funding and frameworks that provide strategic assistance to countries that are transitioning while also providing sanctions for those that do not comply. Sanctions are one tool that can change the way a country views its national interests. Additionally, they need to focus on mechanism that provide bases for coordination, equity, aid and timing. Mechanisms that facilitate information sharing opportunities and that lead to building local constituencies are vital for solving any problem solving solutions.

Copenhagen was meant to address and resolve the following four issues: (1) achieve definitive, binding implemented emissions reductions by all of the developed countries; (2) agreement for burden sharing to assistant developing countries to curb their emissions; (3) agreement for financial assistance and commitments for transitioning developing countries; (4) framework to implement compliance verification.

Unfortunately, the Copenhagen summit did not achieve any of its expectations. However, by allowing NGOs and individual scientists to participate, the conference was indeed achieved in generating attention and pressure on the world’s most powerful governments. The problem is that all of its publicity itself it produced too many mismatches of expectations that did not provide fruitful forums for negotiations.

However, the Copenhagen summit was not without progress. All of the countries agreed on the inspirational target of avoiding the 2 degree increase. Further, a list of actions was created to reduce green house gases along with agreement on the need to assist developing countries to mitigate and transition. And finally, a compromise on compliance was achieved: if you requested financial assistance you needed to fully and transparently comply with monitoring. The creation of the Major Economies Forum (MEF) at Copenhagen also produced a forum for negotiating with China.

Dr. Oppenheimer concludes that the Copenhagen summit what not entirely a failure. We still need today organizations that can lead in the creation of domestic constituencies and local programs in the U.S. for reducing green house gases. Much of the success in moving forward still depends on the U.S. Moreover, while tort litigation has been successful in obtaining damages from emission causers like the tobacco and asbestos industries, there is much optimism in new lucrative technologies and industries with clean energies, solar power and e-cars in growing markets like China.

In my next entry, I will try to summarize the extent to which we have caught up with Copenhagen’s goals in 2014.


One Comment on “Dr. Michael Oppenheimer on The Copenhagen Climate Summit, in Context: What Came Before, What Happens Next Princeton Lecture Series

  1. Pingback: Dr. Michael Oppenheimer, “The Copenhagen Climate Summit, in Context” | Integrating Horizons©

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