On climate change, the 'target' goals for summiteers

Science, government policy, and politics come together in official reports and at international conferences.

As a major public issue, climate change is divided into science and government policy – with both more than a little connected to politics. Increasingly, they all come together in official reports and at international conferences, where representatives try to make sense of it all in a way that points toward solutions.

Last Friday in Vienna, for example, negotiators from 158 countries agreed on rough targets aimed at getting major polluters to reduce emissions of the greenhouse gases blamed for global warming.

As the Associated Press reported:

"A week-long UN climate conference concluded that industrialized countries should strive to cut emissions by 25 percent to 40 percent of their 1990 levels by 2020. Experts said that target would serve as a loose guide for a major international climate summit to be held in December in Bali, Indonesia."

Are "loose guide" and "target" code words for "not much was accomplished?" That's the way the cynics at Grist, the irreverent and lively online source for environmental news, saw it. "UN climate meeting ends with a whole lotta nothin',"they headlined their piece.

"Deadlock and vagueness abounded…. [T]he final version of negotiations stated that such numbers provide 'useful initial parameters for the overall level of ambition of further emissions reductions.' Also, it was generally agreed that emissions should be reduced to 'very low levels.' "

The European Union and developing nations (particularly Pacific Island states) are seeking a tough agreement. Russia, Japan, Canada, and other advanced economies continue to resist anything that would force them to turn away from fossil fuels. Artur Runge-Metzger, head of the EU Commission delegation, told Reuters:

"This is a small step.... We wanted bigger steps. But I think the 25-40 percent will be viewed as a starting point, an anchor for further work."

Climate is also on the mind of the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) summiteers gathering in Sydney, Australia, this week. The meeting is an opportunity for the 21 regional leaders to show their dedication to tackling global warming. Reuters reported:

"Australia's Prime Minister John Howard, expected to call an election soon after the Sept. 8-9 summit, has placed climate change on top of APEC's agenda. APEC, Howard hopes, will counter voter perceptions he has done little to combat global warming…. Howard has ruled out binding targets but is hopeful of APEC setting a 'global goal' ahead of another September big emitters meeting in Washington, called by [US President] Bush to work out future emissions cuts."

Meanwhile, researchers, international aid donors, and officials meeting in Oslo for the Second Green Africa Revolution Conference warned that climate change "could worsen Africa's struggle to feed itself." The Associated Press reported:

"Africa imports about 25 percent of its food, and one in three of its residents suffer chronic hunger…. That will worsen if climate changes cause rains to dry up in some areas and flood others."

Already, the Kenya Wildlife Service says, "climate change is to blame for increasing conflicts between humans and wildlife across East Africa, and is heightening the risk that animal diseases will spread," according to a story published online by the Environmental News Service. It continues:

"Researchers … say climate change is to blame for rivers drying up and species migrating to new habitats, causing changes in ecosystems. This has led to animals, such as lions, killing domestic animals like sheep and goats in villages near the animal parks. Villagers have also complained of elephants, rhinos, and buffalo destroying food crops as they wander away from the parks in search of food and water."

While policymakers continue to discuss how to address climate change, the science of it aims at a moving target, according to the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo. The question isn't just how much climates will change but how quickly it will happen. Studies so far suggest a gradual shift would be less destructive. It notes:"

"We know far less about the consequences of rate of temperature increase than we do about the level. Nevertheless, we know enough to say that if we are to avoid dangerous climate change, then we should also be concerned about how quickly it occurs."

One of the great unknowns about climate change is whether "feedback loops" – the ways in which climate and nature respond to global warming – will accelerate or decelerate. That is one of many things that keeps scientists and policymakers busy.

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