IPCC talks go down to the wire
Because they're down to the nub
At 5 a.m. this morning we were supposed to get the report from Working Group 3 of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It didn’t come—because delegates were still arguing. And the arguments were over the two most fundamental questions of the climate era: must we get off fossil fuels, and can we do it in a way that’s fair to the developing world?
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You’d think the answer to the first would be obvious. Burning coal, gas and oil have put us in this existential bind, and we now have the wit and technology to use sun and wind instead. But there are, obviously, nations (and companies larger than nations) who can’t imagine a world where you didn’t dig stuff up and set it on fire. Saudi Arabia, according to reports, is leading this charge, which makes sense because in a world that got off oil the Saudi royal family would be nasty afterthoughts famous mainly for beheading their opponents. But straightforward language—stop burning stuff—will rattle other capitols too; too many are willing to pretend that we can go on combusting for the moment, because we might be able to suck up the carbon down the road. The role of science here is to point out that (unlike solar panels and wind turbines) this carbon reduction technology is both unproven and expensive.
The second question has always been tricky too, though again not conceptually. Rich nations—America especially—have poured most of the carbon into the atmosphere, and hence should bear most of the cost for the damage it has and will produce, and help underwrite the cost of a rapid energy transition for poorer nations. India seems to be the standard-bearer in this fight according to IPCC gossip. Delhi is a flawed champion—it actually jailed its Greta equivalent, young Disha Ravi—but the justice of the claim is undeniable. It’s also politically hard: the fossil fuel industry in the U.S will use its captive political party to argue that American taxpayers shouldn’t pay for Asian windmills, and that argument will be more effective than it should.
The IPCC, of course, has no power—but the strength of its message will be important. All that scientists can do is insist on brute honesty in the report; if they can give campaigners that to work with, then we will do our best to carry the politics.