Anti-Climactic: Politics trumps science at Cancún’s climate change talks—Will the same be said for New Mexico?


Santa Fe Reporter, Cancun, Mexico

On opening morning of the United Nations climate talks in Cancún, Mexico, tour buses blasting air-conditioning crawl in traffic along the peninsula’s swanky hotel zone. The streets’ medians and shoulders are lined with state and municipal police cars, Chevy trucks and Dodge Chargers emblazoned with “Policía Federal.” Young men in Mexican army uniforms, perched in the beds of modified pickups, point machine guns toward the traffic; others watch from alongside the road, guns slung over their shoulders. A few stand with one knee cocked, eyes turned down to their cell phones.

Approaching the conference security checkpoint—where identification badges are scanned and bags screened before delegates, journalists and NGO representatives board a second bus for the actual conference site—the buses pass a McDonald’s. Two soldiers stand at the exit of the restaurant’s drive-through. 

“Don’t take my sandwich,” a young journalist from South America quietly jokes from the back of the bus. 

Like many aspects of the Cancún scene during the climate talks—from the luxury hotels perched on eroding beaches to the obfuscatory press briefings from the US special envoy for climate change, and the activists dressed as polar bears—the security feels like part of a show. 

From Nov. 29-Dec. 10, representatives from more than 190 nations gathered in Mexico for the 16th annual Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The talks are called COP16 for short. 

But while developing nations, particularly small island states, watch the rising seas erode their shores, the United States continues to thwart action on climate change. Worse, the US’ bad behavior is influencing other countries—such as Canada, Japan and Russia—to back away from commitments they made under the Kyoto Protocol.

Though global in reach, the climate change negotiations should be of particular interest to New Mexicans, according to Shrayas Jatkar, associate regional representative of the Sierra Club in Albuquerque.  

“New Mexico and the US Southwest are experiencing the effects of climate change more than any other part of the US except for Alaska,” Jatkar says. “Our very ability to live here is threatened by a changing climate, which is making New Mexico a hotter and drier place to live.”

But more importantly, UN climate negotiators—especially those representing the US—should follow New Mexico’s example. Just as the UN talks moved into full force in Cancún, the state’s Environmental Improvement Board voted to approve a second greenhouse gas cap-and-trade proposal that had been debated over the summer. 

“The two recent decisions by the state’s [Environmental Improvement Board] to limit global warming pollution demonstrate that there is the political will to not just address climate change,” Jatkar says, “but to follow the best science in dealing with it.”

The talks in Cancún begin calmly. Delegates from all around the world pore over documents and make incremental changes—changing a word here or there, crossing out sentences and bracketing others for later approval. 

But as ministers and heads of state begin showing up, the drama surrounding the talks bumps up a few notches. Increasing numbers of journalists arrive, and protesters take to the streets of Cancún, far from where delegates are cloistered away in the Moon Palace, an exclusive seaside resort. 

US Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern repeatedly assures the press that the Cancún climate talks build on the success of the widely controversial COP15 in Copenhagen last year.
Credits: Mark Malijan

On a near-daily basis, Todd Stern, the US special envoy for climate change, repeatedly states in press briefings that the Cancún talks build on the success of COP15 in Copenhagen—even though last year’s talks were widely acknowledged as a failure that left much of the world disappointed. 

After eight years of the George W Bush administration’s inaction, nations worldwide embraced President Barack Obama’s election and a Democrat-controlled Congress as a sign the US would finally step up on climate. But Copenhagen failed to yield any legally binding agreement on cuts. Nor did the United States pledge any substantive action. 

In December 2009, more than 190 countries signed the so-called Copenhagen Accord, agreeing that worldwide temperature increases should not exceed 2 degrees Celsius. But the accord—negotiated by heads of state and not under the rules of the convention—does not actually commit to achieving that goal by cutting carbon emissions. 

As it stands now, the only legally binding international agreement to cut emissions is the Kyoto Protocol, the second phase of which begins in 2013, and still needs to be hammered out by the UNFCCC. 

Although the US itself never agreed to the Kyoto Protocol, other industrialized countries have been complying with it since 2005. The protocol encourages countries to cut their carbon emissions, and sets targets for 37 industrialized countries and the European Union to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions 5 percent below 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012. 

While some countries—including Canada, Japan and Russia—are now balking at signing onto the agreement’s second commitment period, others have taken the emission cuts seriously. 

Three years ago, the European Union committed to a 20 percent reduction in its greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. In 2005, it also implemented an emissions trading system (EU ETS). That cap-and-trade system sets a limit on the total amount of greenhouse gases that factories and power plants can emit. A limited number of allowances are distributed among companies, which can then sell to or buy from one another as necessary. Emissions are reduced through time as the limit—or cap—is reduced each year. 

Speaking at a gathering of environmental journalists in Brussels in October, Jos Delbeke, director-general of the EU’s newly established Directorate-General for Climate Action (DG CLIMA), acknowledged that these are not revolutionary, overnight reductions. 

“They are gradual, but valuable,” he said, pointing out that the ETS’ new phase will kick in on Jan. 1, 2013, and it will become more harmonized with international markets. 

Because carbon trading still remains a relatively lonely market, Europe is watching closely what happens in the United States. Europeans are keeping tabs on numerous factors, from federal climate change legislation—which Congress failed to pass this summer—to region-wide cap-and-trade schemes, such as the Western Climate Initiative, and even state-level emission-reduction plans. 

Nearly 1,000 protestors march through downtown Cancún, Mexico, during La Via Campesina’s Global Day of Action for Climate Justice in the second week of the 16th Conference of the Parties, Dec. 7, 2010. The march was organized by La Via Campesina International on behalf of the rights of indigenous people and farmers. The organization believes some programs discussed at COP16, such as REDD and carbon market initiatives, are imposed on people as false solutions to climate change.
Credits: Mark Malijan

Implementation of the Western Climate Initiative would be a positive indicator, Simone Ruiz, European policy director for the International Emissions Trading Association, an international industry group focused on carbon trading, says. Development of the market would mean that a price signal for investors could emerge. 

“I see a lot of companies that are supporting this,” she says. “They see a business opportunity to move away from their traditional businesses.” 

Setting a price on carbon emissions would help those businesses seeking to invest in renewable technology and energy, she says. In fact, they might need that carbon price to be successful. 

But time and again, the issue of action on climate change—on a state, national or international level—comes down to political will. 

“Politicians can’t do much if citizens don’t understand the importance of the issue,” the EU Commissioner for Climate Action Connie Hedegaard said, also in Brussels, prior to the COP16 talks in Mexico. “We must make progress in Cancún, and if the political will is not there, the world will have to deliver.”

Action on climate change is necessary given the current and projected circumstances, she said, but it makes sense for other reasons, as well.

“If 20, 30 years from now, the ice core drillers who were working in the Arctic say, ‘Oh we were wrong…’ what would have been the harm of acting?” she asked, pointing out that there would be less pollution, cleaner sources of energy, a healthier planet. “And if we are right, and we do nothing, we are in a very grave situation—if I were a politician and those were the choices, I know what I would do.”
Over the past few years, New Mexico has begun making strides on climate change. But a change in administration—and a tremor in the political will—may herald unwelcome changes in the coming years.

On Dec. 6, the state’s Environmental Improvement Board voted that, starting in 2013, polluters in New Mexico will have to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions by 3 percent per year from 2010 levels.

The EIB earlier this year already had approved a separate proposal from the New Mexico Environment Department to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and pave the way for a cap-and-trade plan. This plan follows up on an agreement that Gov. Bill Richardson signed in 2007 with the governors of Arizona, California, Oregon and Washington to create the Western Climate Initiative and establish a regional, market-based emission reduction program. Since that time, six other states and Canadian provinces have joined the initiative.

There have been other actions, as well. 

All of these actions add up to progress in New Mexico, Mariel Nanasi, New Energy Economy’s senior policy advisor, says. 

She points out that New Mexico’s coal-fired power plants contribute to climate change—and says that, without significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, New Mexico is projected to warm on average an additional 2 degrees Fahrenheit by 2040 and 4 degrees by the end of the century. 

In an email to SFR, she adds that winter temperatures are predicted to increase by more than 5 degrees Fahrenheit and summer temperatures could rise by 8 degrees by the end of the century. Additionally, within the 21st century, there will likely be no sustained snowpack south of Santa Fe in the Sangre de Cristo mountain range. 

European Commissioner for Climate Action Connie Hedegaard (pictured here with Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) says citizens must understand climate issues’ importance before political change is possible.
Credits: Courtesy Ernesto

“New Mexico’s freshwater supplies will become even scarcer as 50-80% of the state’s water supply originates from snow pack,” she writes, “which is projected to decrease in the state by as much as 60% by 2040.”

Transitioning to cleaner energy sources is good for the economy, she says. Taken in combination with the state’s plentiful renewable energy resources, New Energy Economy’s adopted rule will trigger investments and jump-start the transition to a new, clean-energy market, she says.

“Governor-elect Martinez has pledged to create jobs for New Mexicans and the new carbon cap regulations provide her with an opportunity to do so,” she says. “There will be foregone opportunities for New Mexicans if the administration does not implement these regulations.”

Regardless of optimism from Nanasi, and silence from officials within the state government, it’s clear there may be a battle ahead. During her campaign, Gov.-elect Susana Martinez said she would not support emissions reductions plans, a cap-and-trade program or the EIB’s votes on regulating greenhouse gas emissions.
Just as politics could thwart local progress on climate change in New Mexico, politics dominates the stage during the climate talks. But for just a few moments during the opening ceremony on Nov. 29, the chairman of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Rajendra Pachauri makes a pitch for science. 

The UN created the IPCC in 1988 so scientists could objectively assess climate change data and help policymakers evaluate the state of the science of climate change. So far, the IPCC has produced four assessment reports—in 1990, 1995, 2001 and 2007—and has begun work on a fifth report that will be released in November 2014.

Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and 2007 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, says if carbon emissions don’t decline after 2015, the consequences for the planet and humanity could be irreversible.
Credits: Courtesy Fernando Luna

The fourth assessment report involved the work of 3,750 experts who evaluated 18,000 documents and some 19,000 comments that came in during various stages of drafting, Pachauri says. And scientists made a crucial finding: 

“The warming of the climate system is unequivocal.” It has been observed in the average air and water temperatures, he says, and the melting snow and ice that is causing rising sea levels. 

Pachauri also points out that as many as 30 percent of the plant and animal species assessed so far are at risk of extinction if the planet exceeds the 1.5- to 2.5-degrees-Celsius rise in temperatures, and adds that global carbon emissions should peak no later than 2015 and decline thereafter. Such action must occur if humanity seeks a chance at averting abrupt and irreversible climate change. Already, some impacts are inevitable, he says, such as sea level rises from the melting of sea ice that has already taken place. 

Pachauri goes on to talk about adaptation and mitigation, pointing out that the response to climate change involves an integrated risk-management process—and that changes of lifestyle and patterns can contribute to climate change mitigation. 

And for a moment, Pachauri pleads with negotiators, asking them to take significant action while in Cancún: “The available scientific knowledge justifies it,” he says, “and the global community rightly expects it.”
But throughout the next two weeks, politics’ triumph over science is evident. 

During the second week of meetings, for instance, a room packed full of reporters takes note of the daily briefing by Todd Stern—who each day reiterates the same message (“The US seeks a balanced package of decisions”) and deflects the rare, pointed question from the press. Moments later, the room is nearly empty when representatives from UN Environment Programme and the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants present findings on how the warming climate, rising seas and extreme weather events are causing the re-emergence of what are called persistent organic pollutants, or POPs. 

POPs are chemicals such as DDT, mercury and PCBs. Although many have been banned in recent decades, they persist within the environment. 

As UNEP’s head of media Nick Nutall points out, climate change is intensifying POPs’ spread across the planet. As the ice melts in places such as the Arctic and from mountain glaciers, chemicals such as mercury are being re-mobilized into the food chain—krill and fish are eaten by mammals such as seals and whales, which in turn are eaten by humans. 

“We’re all in this together,” Nutall says to a dispersed group of fewer than 20 journalists. “POPs travel all over the world—they don’t have passports—and they get into the food chain. Whether you’re in Sweden or Sri Lanka, they’re going to get into your food.” 

Indeed, people across the world are already experiencing the changing climate. Seas are rising—on the Solomon Islands and Seychelles, people are already migrating inland—Arctic sea ice and mountain glaciers worldwide are melting and, in many places, droughts are lengthening. Climate change is affecting water supplies and agriculture, increasing the risk of forest fires (from the Amazon to the American West) and also causing certain species of wildlife to migrate or breed at different times. And climate change is also having an impact on the way business is done. 

Trends in warming have been statistically significant, and a global rise in average temperature matters, David Gutzler, a University of New Mexico professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, says. 

For instance, temperature changes factor into regulatory hearings with regard to electricity. 

According to David Gutzler, increasing temperatures mean decreasing flow for the Rio Grande, which provides water to New Mexico, Colorado, Texas and Mexico.
Credits: Matthew Morrow

“Electricity demand goes up when the temperature warms up, and they figure into natural gas rates because heating needs to go down when the temperature goes up,” he says. “So these trends are big enough to affect regulatory hearings.” 

Temperature trends have also changed how the National Weather Service makes predictions.

“If you look at seasonal predictions for next spring and summer, [they] are for above-average temperatures for the Southwest,” Gutzler says. “The basis for the prediction is: The temperature trend we’ve seen over the past decades are large enough that the Weather Service always expects the temperature to be above average.” 

He pauses, then explains it again: “It’s simply a statement that the way we define average climate—by looking back at the last 30 years—is not actually very representative of actual climate today,” he says, “because it’s warming up.”

The Rio Grande Valley is already experiencing the effects of this warming trend. The growing season here is approximately a week longer than it was in the 1960s. And a warmer climate in New Mexico will bring numerous environmental changes: Warmer temperatures will increase evaporation from reservoirs. Snowpack will decrease and the snow line will move higher in elevation and further north. Snows will also start later and end earlier. 

David Gutzler, a professor at University of New Mexico, is working on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s fifth assessment.

“I’m interested in water issues in the Southwest, and one of the things we’re starting to see in the data is a trend toward temperature-driven decreases in stream flow,” Gutzler says. He also is currently working with the IPCC on its fifth assessment and will be one of the lead authors for a chapter on climate change detection and adaptation. Variability remains in the record, he says, but scientists have just started to see the first decade or two’s worth of changes in the data between snowpack and evaporation and stream flow rates. 

“That’s totally consistent with what the models say will happen in a very serious way as the 21st century proceeds, and I don’t think the Southwest can afford that,” he says. “I think there is a very real prospect that stream flows could diminish very significantly over the course of the century—and how the Southwest deals with that in the face of increasing population, I think, is a very scary prospect.” 

As a result of treaties and contracts, New Mexico shares Colorado River water with six other states, and the Rio Grande’s waters with Colorado, Texas and Mexico. The state’s second largest river, the Pecos, flows into Texas. 

Already, there are interstate conflicts over water use and, in dry years, New Mexico must carefully control water use by irrigators. Rather than keeping water in the Pecos River or Rio Grande for conservation purposes and to ensure the survival of fish and other species, the water use is set to guarantee there is enough water for downstream users in Texas. Experts already are predicting that the Colorado River Compact—the agreement by which the Colorado River Basin’s water is tallied among seven states—will become unenforceable by the mid- to late-21st century. 

As surface water flows continue to decrease in the future, this will surely become more complicated. Melting glaciers in the Himalayas are affecting water supplies in Asia, Indian environmental journalist Joydeep Gupta says. 

“It’s not an easy thing to plan for: There is an increase in the water supply and then a gradual decrease, the relative amount of which is unknown,” he says. “Water is a security situation—all of us are aware of how important it is to a country’s security.” 

The water situation in the southwestern United States, he says, is severe: 

“I think it is so severe that for anyone to not be worried about it is simply stupid,” he says, adding that engineers working on the hydrological calculations for new dams must realize their basic water flow assumptions are no longer valid—and that changes everything. “You assume you have 3 million acre-feet of water, and you’re actually getting 2 1/2,” he says. “So your entire design, everything, goes wrong.”

No matter if the view is from Cancún or Santa Fe, addressing climate change requires a long-term view, Gutzler says. And that’s part of what makes it so difficult: Political structures are not designed to effectively deal with long-term issues. “That’s a very hard thing to do, in the United States, certainly,” Gutzler says, “and for the rest of the world, as well.”

Lord Christopher Monckton of Brenchley, right, disputes the claim of polar bear decline with the Center for Biological Diversity’s senior attorney, Matthew Vespa, at the Cancunmesse.
Credits: Mark Malijan

But as always, Gutzler is thinking like a scientist.

“Having said that, nature is just going to do whatever it does. Everything we’re saying in the scientific community: It’s all a testable hypothesis, sooner or later,” he says. “It’s just that doing nothing may have profound consequences if some of those projections play out.”
At the late-night closing plenary on Friday, Dec. 10, delegates from countries worldwide speak of transparency, compromise and an agreement that wasn’t perfect, but was balanced and a step in the right direction. Delegates from both developing and industrialized countries praise the UN process—a show of solidarity clearly intended to prove that the process itself is valid and worth maintaining. Delegates return to closed-door meetings and emerge in the early hours of the morning with the texts of their labor. 

The final agreement—approved by all nations save for Bolivia—does not contain legal mandate for industrialized nations to cut their carbon emissions. It establishes a Green Climate Fund, but doesn’t solidify from what sources the funding will come. The Cancún Accord avoids establishment of the Kyoto Protocol’s second commitment period. 

All of these issues were punted—they will be revisited at next year’s conference in Durban, South Africa.  SFR

This story originally appeared in the Santa Fe Reporter on Dec. 15, 2010