Liam Daly: Science Denialism at a Climate Change Conference?

It was a day like no other. My first harrowing experience at COP. I was sitting in on an informal negotiation between parties on loss and damage, when Kuwait stood up and stated “there is no difference between men and women, and no difference between developing and developed countries, when it comes to suffering from the impacts of climate change”. They were representing the Arab group, a bloc of negotiators comprised of states such as Saudi Arabia. Just like that, “women and gender” was not included in the draft text on loss and damage. I was astounded - but this was not the most abhorrent event of the day. A few hours later it emerged that China had suggested that we downplay any reference to the IPCC’s Special Report on 1.5 Degrees.

My worst fears had come true; just like that, the most comprehensive and dire warning to humanity was shot down. Why are we still battling against science denial at a climate change conference? Has the world not moved away from this kind of petty tactic? Obviously not - as things got much worse later in the week. At a plenary session on Saturday, countries tried to grapple with how to recognise the IPCC report on 1.5 Degrees in writing. The Maldives, representing the position of all small island states, tabled that the wording should be changed to “welcome” the IPCC report. This was backed by the EU, the LDCs (a bloc representing the least developed countries), New Zealand, and many others. However, staunch opposition suddenly arose from the large players in the fossil fuel arena - the US, Russia, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. The US even went so far as to claim that there were doubts about the science behind the report. Now there are talks of deferring the resolution of this conflict until June 2019.

Why did this happen? The answer can be found if we dig a little deeper into the IPCC’s report. It makes clear that the world would have to slash greenhouse gas emissions 45% by 2030 when compared with 2010 levels, and reach net zero by 2050. This has massive implications for energy consumption, as countries would have to accept that there are serious constraints around renewable energy providing 100% of current and future demand. Politicians would also have to champion the possibility of slowing, stopping, and even reversing economic growth. This deeply unpopular narrative is the opposite of what we constantly hear about “sustainable” or “green” growth, as it acknowledges that there is almost no evidence for the absolute decoupling of carbon emissions and economic growth. Even more worrying is the IPCC’s reluctance to address degrowth pathways to meet emissions targets, with nearly 80% of them instead containing reference to carbon capture technologies that don’t exist yet. In fact, many scientists agree that these kinds of technologies will never exist at the scale required.

Science often provides inconvenient truths. Truths which have no political favour or create discourse among society. This is not just true with climate science, but every other field as well. The difference is that climate change is a time-limited problem. If we want to avoid such catastrophic impacts such as those in the figure below, then we need to do 3 things: fully and wholly accept the scientific findings presented by the IPCC; implement serious decarbonisation strategies that contain an element of economic degrowth; and recognise that we only have 12 years to act. With news that 2018 saw a record high in global annual emissions, it is clear that the current UNFCCC process is not working and something needs to change.

1.5 vs 2 Degrees

All posts by Institute delegates reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences.

Posted on December 13, 2018 and filed under UN Climate Talks 2018.