The Copenhagen explosion

James Hansen is hoping that the Copenhagen talks fail. In an interview with the Guardian this week, Hansen – the scientist responsible for first bringing the threat of global warming to public attention – argued that the set of proposals currently ventured by world governments for dealing with climate change are so deeply flawed it would be better to go back to the drawing board than implement them. Hansen describes market-based cap-and trade systems as a “disaster track” that we should avoid setting out on. In Hansen’s view, “[t]he whole approach is so fundamentally wrong that it is better to reassess the situation.”

Hansen is right that “[w]e don’t have a leader who is able to grasp [the scale of the problem] and say what is really needed. Instead we are trying to continue business as usual.” Yet, given the clear and present danger of runaway climate change, we cannot afford to do nothing. Going back to the drawing board would be a disaster were it to result in another decade of inaction. Instead of downing tools and waiting for political culture to catch-up, we should push ahead in the awareness that carbon trading can be only part of the arsenal that we bring to bear in this struggle.

The Copenhagen conference should seek to facilitate the broadest possible set of approaches to combating climate change. As Gwyn Prins and Steve Rayner (no relation) argued in 2007 in this article in Nature, we need a portfolio of approaches based on five key elements: targeting the big emitters, letting emissions markets evolve from the bottom up, putting public investment in energy research on a wartime footing, increasing spending on adaptation, and allowing countries to choose policies that suit their circumstances.

The Copenhagen agreement should also include plans to set up a global fund for seeding new approaches to climate change yet to be defined. The best thing that we could hope for out of this conference is the frank admission by all parties that we do not yet have the tools we need to confront this crisis. The strategies and technologies that we need to win the war on global warming have yet to be invented, or are only just being invented. It is time to get creative. Instead of talking up collapse at Copenhagen, we should pray the talks explode in all directions.

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