As the 19th climate talks drew towards an indecisive close beneath a gray Warsaw sky this week, people in all shapes and colors – some vegan militants dressed up as parrots -scattered about the hall ways inside the Polish National Stadium, which hosted the talks; late in the afternoon on Thursday many were sleeping or drifting into daydreams in red beanbags about the corridors, exhausted after almost two weeks of talks.
Yet most starred intensively at their lap tops – typing, tweeting, updating profiles.
In the American pavilion, the mayor of Des Moines, Iowa, advocated local low carbon solutions at a lazy side event whilst European MEPs hung out coffee less outside the Commission secretariat offices, waiting for the next briefing. Earlier in the afternoon, at another side event, Climate Action Commissioner Hedegaard had a cabinet member announce that an EU 2030 climate and energy initiative is set for January, as the Union prepares its contribution to the 2015 global deal climate deal.
Yet in spite of such EU action and cautious rumors of limited progress, most delegates in the food court on the stadium floor shared negative views on the likely outcome – once again the talks seemed to be about to end at best in a new beginning.
In every corner and at every informal briefing, the talk of the town tried to conceptualize a balance between demands from the EU and other developed countries for a clear road map towards the anticipated global climate deal two years down the road at COP 21 in Paris, and parallel demands for ‘loss and damage’ – read money to compensate for ongoing climate destruction in developing countries.
Two years ago, 2011 in Durban, South Africa, whilst the euro was under attack and emergency summits were ordinary events in Brussels, the EU’s climate diplomacy saw one of its finest hours, when negotiators managed to broker a deal to work towards a deal in 2015 – set to be ‘an agreed outcome with legal force’. In Africa, the EU negotiators hat succeeded in questioning the “wall” in the global climate regime, which since 1992 has separated the legally committed from the volunteers, that is Annex 1 and non-annex 1 countries.
Ever since, major emerging countries have tried to backtrack from the more shared concept of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ that Durban heralded, and this week in Warsaw there was a profound sense that constant motion in the talks took a circular shape, like walking the hall ways inside the stadium in one direction and coming back to the same stairway and the same cameras near the East side entrance. Indeed UN climate negotiations seem to have turned away from a chronological concept of time, even if negotiators are supposed to be half way between Durban and Paris in 2015.
So will COP 19 be judged as a failure? Success seems unlikely. On Friday NGOs staged a walk out protesting lack of results, and they had a point. Contrary to COP 15 in Copenhagen four years ago, however, expectations were low this year, and on the positive side there seems to be an increasing understanding amongst decision makers and the public in major countries such as the US and China that the impacts of climate change are real, and that it is in the core interest of the major powers to avoid the 4 degree or more temperature increase that the world is currently heading for.
Indeed, in the American pavilion insights from Hurricane Sandy on how not to place generators in hospital basements fed into the discussion on local means for better climate adaptation, thereby implicitly acknowledging the link between current extreme weather events and climate change predictions otherwise vividly opposed. And in the Chinese pavilion, a seminar on the country’s EU inspired emissions trading pilot projects now covering urban areas with some 250 million people drew significant interest, including from delegates from Pakistan.
So the COP proved successful as a base for ideas exchange, and this would be wonderful if only it was not so much less than what is needed to bridge the ambition gap to the 2 two degrees maximum temperature rise, world leaders signed up to in Copenhagen.
Small progress seemed likely on financing, but the timetable towards 2015 remains highly uncertain. The fundamental rift between developed and developing nations remains, and sometimes it takes grotesque forms even on details in the talks; in Warsaw, for instance, a proposal for a work programme on agriculture was blocked by the island state of Fiji on behalf of G77 to the detriment of farmers worldwide, who are at the forefront of the climate challenge; whilst these very same countries supported the idea in principle.
At the end of the day, climate change is set to become a major 21st century security challenge; hence a deal must be struck amongst the major powers, which are also the major emitters. The world is warming, and the world is changing. I left Warsaw reading this week’s European edition of China daily, learning that the number of private cars increased from 59.39 million in 2010 to 93.09 million in 2012. In 1990, there were merely 0.82 million cars in China, and many more bicycles on the streets of Shanghai.
So whilst the talks circle, cars drive ahead.
Germany’s new Red-Green majority is set to change policies in Berlin and Brussels, regardless Merkel is likely to remain Chancellor
In Danish political history, there was an epic moment when triumph met defeat; on election night 12 December 1990, Svend Auken, the leader of the opposition Social Democrats entered “Borgen” – Parliament building in Copenhagen – climbing the grand steps to the second floor showered with flashlights; with 37.4% of the popular vote, the best result for his party in decades, Auken raised his hand in victory. Yet within days numbers spoke; Auken did not command a parliamentary majority, the Conservative government hung on to power, and less than a year later the Social Democrats ousted Auken as party leader.
Yesterday Ms. Merkel hailed a “super result”. In a rare electoral triumph for an incumbent leader in a crisis ridden Europe, her united Christian Democratic parties CDU/CSU secured 41.5% of the popular vote.
Yet Merkel’s win is a lonely one. Only this morning, Philipp Rösler, the Chancellor’s ally and leader of the defeated FDP liberal democrats announced his resignation. Suddenly top headlines in the German press feature the story of the dramatic down fall of the erased FDP rather than Merkel’s victory.
With the FDP’s exit from Parliament, a drama is about to begin in Berlin. As was the case in Borgen, it comes down to numbers, and Ms. Merkel might be well advised to play her cards humbly if she is to remain Chancellor in a Parliament where her Christian Democrats command 311 seats, and the Red-Red-Green opposition 319.
Whilst the prospect of a ‘grand coalition’ remains the most likely outcome of yesterday’s vote, policies are set to change. Indeed, Ms. Merkel cannot take the Social Democrats for granted, and an alliance with the Greens is highly unlikely given the affinities amongst ecologist partisans. The Social Democrats, whose 25.7 % represent a modest gain from a historically week position, have ruled out a Red-Red-Green coalition government involving the far left ‘Linke’ party. Yet the Green leader Jürgen Trittin is said to personally favour a so called R2G –twice red, once green – collaboration, which could materialise if Ms. Merkel fails to win over a coalition partner to replace the FDP, and take the form of a minority government between the Social Democrats and the Greens, supported by the Left Party.
Hence in order to avoid such a prospect of electoral victory turned parliamentary defeat, Ms. Merkel is likely to try to move to the left. In Germany, this might mean giving in on her party’s opposition to a minimum wage of 8.5 euro per hour, and in the EU, a Merkel III government might soften policies vis-à-vis crisis ridden countries in the Mediterranean, as suggested by senior Social Democrat leaders such as former foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Also, with new policies in Berlin, Germany is set to finally take a stand in the EU’s contentious climate debate; in this respect, prior to COP 20 next year in Paris, Berlin is likely to support Commission proposals on back loading of allowances, and a ‘fix’ of the EU’s ETS emission trading system.
So whilst the struggle for power has yet to fully begin in Berlin, the impacts of yesterday’s vote already materialise beyond Germany, where the prospect of enhanced German domestic consumption as a result of increasing wages, and a softer smile on Mutti’s face when looking abroad might mean more economic activity and exports to Germany. After all, a positive prospect for Europe, and for the next Merkel.
In Iowa, tongues mismatch on climate change
On the old prairie plains between the Missouri and the Mississippi rivers, the US state of Iowa now contains some of the world’s most fertile farm lands. Flying into Des Moines, the capital of the American Corn Belt, one sees squared fields all the way to the end of sight, forming a great agricultural chess board.
A similar sight of intensive production greeted Soviet leader Khrouchtchev during his visit to Iowa in 1959; years later during the 80s the than USSR foreign minister Shevardnadze visited too, and most recently, in 2012, the current Chinese President Xi Jinping stopped over in Des Moines whilst touring the US ahead of the recent leadership transition in Beijing. Indeed, is seems leaders from countries that matter come to Iowa, which is pivotal for US agricultural exports; hence what happens here impacts food markets all over the world.
So when at Iowa State University, which is an agricultural research hub, I am told by professors that climate change in Iowa is likely to impact production yields severely, it is not only the local farmers who are affected.
One of these farmers, John Hall, is a Vietnam veteran, and together with his sons he runs a farm seized more than 1000 acres, which primarily delivers soybeans for biofuels and feedstuff production to a plant on the Lincon Highway.
When I met John in his barn office and mentioned the gloomy climate predictions that the scientists hold, he invited me on a ride across his lands to take a closer look at the situation on the ground. Driving along yet-to-be planted fields, he said he recognizes the effects that climate change are set to have in Iowa, with increased weather volatility, heavy rains in spring, frost spikes in May and prolonged early summer draughts. In particular, the spring rains are troublesome. Although temperature increases have prolonged the growing season, these rains make it more difficult to saw, and without plants the naked fertile soils risk being washed into the Mississippi.
“Please go tell the world that this is real, and that we need to do something about it”, he said.
Yet amongst the upper echelons at the State Department of Agriculture in Des Moines, the mood is somewhat less concerned. This is a Republican administration, and alarmist science is political and opinionated, I understand, learning that the 1930s was also a very warm decade, which made the unusually warm summer of 2012 less of a worry. On the issue of the soils and the need to retain them during heavy rains, voluntary schemes designed to help enhance agricultural practices would be sufficient, I was told.
Seen from the state capital, moreover, the economic outlook for Iowa farmers is good; world demand is up because of population growth, and if draughts hit other parts of the US food prices rise. Were they to destroy future production in Iowa, the new yet-to-be adopted American crop insurance scheme, which is set to replace direct income support under the existing US agricultural policy, is likely to come farmers to the rescue, the top officials affirm.
Indeed, whilst climate change can be observed and predicted at global level, and be felt on occasion by individuals, it is much more difficult to establish sound forecasts at the local, regional and state levels where most of the political debate takes place in America, and across the world in most democracies.
In a recent report on “Climate Change and Adaptation in the United States”, the US Department of Agriculture recognizes this “mismatch between the typical spatial scales of climate science and agricultural science experimentation”.
So it is Pentecost on the prairie with no revelation just yet. Whilst plants grow – and indeed some seem to grow faster because of higher levels of CO2 in the atmosphere – tongues mismatch on most but one thing: What happens in Iowa, never stays in Iowa.
Every day, 2400 plants pose for a photo session at the Monsanto research greenhouse outside Raleigh, North Carolina. One by one, like bags arriving on an airport belt, they are taken from the sun to the studio and captured, for scientists from four corners of the world to subsequently examine their genetic potential.
Here, in the middle of what is known as the Research Triangle Park – one of America’s biggest scientific hubs – some of the world’s leading biotechnology companies have clustered to develop new seeds and plants for 21st century agriculture.
In 1977, Mary-Dell Chilton demonstrated that genes responsible for disease can be removed from a bacterium without affecting its ability to insert its DNA into plant cells, hence modifying a plant’s genome.
On this day of in spring, with blue skies covering Sugar Maples outside, Ms. Chilton, 73, sits in her laboratory at Syngenta Biotechnology. This Swiss company now employs more than 100 scientists relocated from Europe because of restrictions on GMO research, in a Research Park facility bearing Ms. Chilton’s name.
In the EU since the genome discovery, the legal framework – and to a lesser extent public opinion – turned vividly against GMOs. By 1992, British tabloids coined the term ‘Frankenfoods’, and rarely have so many been so afraid of so little.
Except today there is a real fear that Europe by going against GMO science might be losing more than valuable biotech jobs; a new generation of GMO research no longer only focuses on securing plant resistance to pesticides, but rather the coining of healthier foods – such as Golden Rice that can help alleviate Vitamin A Deficiency, which causes blindness amongst millions of children in poor countries, and more climate resilient crops that use less water.
In a clear sign of this technology’s potential, globally for the past five years GMO research has outspent traditional research on pesticides.
Meanwhile, every day 150.000 more people are born to this planet whilst in Asia the middle class population is set for an exponential increase in the coming decades – from some 500.000 million today to some 1.7 billion in 2020 and 3.3 billion seventeen years from now, in 2030.
So demand for food will increase enormously, whilst concerns for deforestation caused by agricultural expansion in vulnerable tropical lands rich on biodiversity and indispensable as carbon sinks are very real.
In the Research Triangle Park, I am asked if Europe might be about to change its stand on technological advances that hold potential to increase productivity on existing farmlands?
Of course, with time change will happen, and enhanced understanding of the effects of indirect land use changes – so called ILUC – might bring about a new valorisation of sustainable productivity in agriculture; but as is often the case when dealing with fears, it seems difficult to predict a change from irrationality.
Rather, a periodical tendency for selective science denial – be it on climate change in America or GMOs in Europe – might simply be a common part of the Western mind set.
EU mitigates, whilst the US adapts to climate change
1900 in Galveston, a hurricane swept the former capital of the Republic of Texas. Some six thousand people died in those winds, which even after Katrina and Sandy remain the deadliest in US history. Once the richest and most important city in the state, today this city remains a shadow of its former self; few seem to be willing to invest too much at hurricane central, and Galveston is full of poor and wind shagged homes.
In Texas, it is politically incorrect to believe in anthropogenic climate change, a theory yet to be proven, like Darwinism it seems. At one of Houston’s main hospitals, the head of staff was granted emergency powers to handle the influx of 27.000 refugees from New Orleans when Katrina struck in 2005. “We are in a war on climate” he explains, whilst denying that man is culprit.
Galveston has become both an argument and a counter argument in the debate here; an example of what might happen to other coastal cities along the Golf and the Atlantic shores, the city and its history also allow those who question science to point to an extreme weather event eleven decades ago. The increased frequency of these events is discarded, and the existing and solid scientific volume underpinning reports from the world’s leading scientists ridiculed – “tell me the impacts on girls from global warming!”, said one Texan I met.
In the US, risk is opportunity and risk is attractive, and it seems taking on a war on climate is more exciting than paying more for electricity and gasoline. European precautionary principles, including those that deal with environment and health are utterly unfashionable.
Yet whilst this close encounter with risk might still delay emerging political support for climate action, which from a low starting point is on the increase in the US – even in Texas – it might also be risk taking that ultimately enables America to overtake Europe when dealing with the effects of climate change.
Across the country, adaptation in the war on climate takes a myriad of different forms; from the urgent and particular and sometimes draconian response in crisis situations when barbed wire and guards deploy at hospitals to prevent them from being turned into shelters – 2005 in Houston – to foresighted and potentially game changing research into the genetics of plants, such as cotton, surgeon and camelina. These are draught resistant crops that can be genetically modified to potentially become a valuable – and in the case of camelina – even very healthy source of food for millions of people.
Whilst parts of America remain dogmatic climate change is not real, challenging science and denying the role of fossil fuels, thereby hampering US mitigation efforts to take off and the country to commit to international CO2 reduction targets, the reverse is true when it comes to adaptation in the war on climate; indeed, on GMOs it is Europe that seems to be challenging science.
So while the EU mitigates and debates climate targets for 2030, America adapts much more vividly than Europe to the new 21st century conditions. Might one possibly combine the two approaches and do away with dogmas on both sides of the Atlantic?
Electric ecotaxis run on coal fired battery power in Washington, and in politics checks and balances separate progress and stand offs in the climate debate. “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations”, Barack Obama said in January during his inaugural speech, bringing this issue back at the forefront of American politics amid Republican opposition.
The US capitol is a city full of checks and balances; here power is omnipresent yet at the same time action is difficult to undertake. Democracy in America, with its separated powers between the president and two Houses of Congress provides plenty of possibilities for policy obstruction.
So might the US finally change on climate change? In spite of Obama’s speech only one thing is certain – climate change will change America.
In the State Department the line is clear: Obama’s overture on climate action is nothing new, rather, it is the expression of existing policies and engagement. Yet outside Washington, next to a firestowe
and a wall full of Irish 20th century poets – “I can resist anything except temptation” quoting Oscar Wilde – a young professor at George Mason University is tempted to see the president’s approach as new.
Politicians will not be able to resist change, he says, since yet-to-be published opinion surveys point to climate action as a means to cash in on independent voters in the 2014 mid-term elections.
Moreover, scientific progress might soon enable the downscaling of climatic megatrends to local forecasts for areas such Virginia and other US states under different temperature scenarios – such as 2, 3 or 4 degree temperature increases, thereby turning climate change into a local issue.
Yet such a change of policy is unlikely before the next mid-term elections, set for November 2014. In the Republican controlled House of Representatives, opposition to European style cap-and-trade climate
policy is unconditional, and in the Democratic controlled Senate the view prevails that the likelihood of a carbon tax in the current term is less than 20 % at best.
However, a number of democrats are optimistic that Obama might nevertheless try to propose a carbon tax as part of a grand bargain set to tackle the US’s deficit even before the mid-term elections - knowing that success is unlikely, but sharing the view that the struggle itself might be politically beneficial for the Democrats.
Hence a significant US policy shift presided by Obama seems dependent on the Democrats regaining control of the House of Representatives in 2014 – ahead of the 2015 deadline by which the world is to agree on a comprehensive climate deal beyond 2020.
It is a fine cut indeed.
Meanwhile, climate activists about Washington hope to make the most of the executive powers that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have to safeguard clean air legislation. Requirements for fuel quality
are being tightened, the US Department of Agriculture promotes both first and second generation biofuels, and from Montana to Colorado shale gas takes on coal in the energy mix.
From a European perspective, this bottom up approach to the climate challenge that focuses on politically feasible action in the short term rather than top-down CO2 reduction targets for the next decades inspires scepticism.
Will the US truly be part of a solution?
I am going about America to try to find out.