Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Chosing to Feel Hopeful About the UN Climate Conference

I'm sitting tonight in an airport hotel, preparing for an early morning flight to Mexico to attend COP-16, the follow-on international negotiation to last year's Copenhagen conference.

For weeks the commentary in the press has been gloomy on prospects for progress in Cancun. With the changes in the make up of the legislature in the US, prospects for the negotiations overall are widely viewed as dismal.

It's hard to leave home and family for a giant conference center in a resort city for a meeting that seems already been written off by many. There may not be a global treaty at the end of Cancun but, based on the other UN climate conferences I've attended in the past few years, I think there will be progress on several fronts, no matter what the negotiators themselves accomplish.

Deeper ties will be woven, between individuals and groups, especially civil society organizations who send representatives to share and learn. People from different countries, different sectors, and different age groups will be thrown together for these two weeks, based on their shared search for fair and lasting solutions to climate change. The momentum that these groups continue to build and the network they continue to weave is changing the world, in subtle and not always predictable ways.

Scientific and technical exchange will continue. At the edges of the conferences are dozens of 'side events' where groups talk about the research and policy experiments. What's working in Africa to help farmers adapt to changing weather? What does the latest science say about needed reductions in greenhouse gas emissions? What are the latest ideas about how to finance those emissions reductions? Whether the negotiators find any points of a agreement or not, the exchange of ideas will go on, and will lead to new ideas, new collaborations, new experiments.

In the end we do need a global agreement to reduce emissions and the sooner the better. But getting to that agreement is not only a matter of the immediate politics of an agreement. It is also a matter of creating the right conditions, in each country, to allow leaders to lead toward sound climate policy and to allow negotiators to seal a deal to implement it.

Perhaps the negotiations will surprise all of us with a stronger than expected outcome, but if they don't, it makes the rest of the work of Cancun – the learning, the relationship building, the exchange – that much more important. That is the work that prepares the ground for the kind of global agreement we need.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Measuring the gap is an essential (but only a first) step toward steering a system

This morning, a new report was  released by the United Nations Environment Program. It represents about half a year of work by dozens of scientists, including me, who were asked by UNEP to assess the expected global greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 if countries fulfill the pledges they made last year in Copenhagen.
It was a challenging task for reasons ranging from  lack of clarity about what exactly some pledges meant, to differing historical data sources, to differing projections of future emissions in different parts of the world, and, of course, due to the uncertainties inherent in our imperfect understanding of the climate itself. But given all of the challenges, I think the report does a good job of giving us a snapshot in time of the best scientific answer to a complex question: if we desire to limit temperature increase to 2°C over pre-industrial temperatures, do the Copenhagen Accord pledges go far enough? You can read the report here, if you want all the details, but the bottom line answer is: no, there's a gap between where we are headed and where we need to head. We filled about 60% of the gap, and have another 40% of the way to go.

As someone who has made a career of studying systems, I know that registering a gap is an essential step in self-regulating feedback. Whether it is the drop in blood sugar that sends an animal in search of food, or the increase in body temperature that leads to sweating, all self-regulating systems keep themselves in balance by measuring the gap between where some parameter is and where it needs to be, and reacting to the difference with corrective action.

It could be that the Emissions Gap report is, like the gap detected by a thermostat that turns on a furnace, a signal that spurs self-correcting, balancing action, in this case global resolve to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

But, not every gap that can be detected by a system triggers self-corrective feedback. My mentor, the systems analyst, Donella Meadows, once said jokingly about the increase in standardized testing in schools: "trying to improve learning by increasing testing, is like trying to cure a fever by taking your temperature." Measuring a gap, without the determination to act on it, is unlikely to change a system.

The Emissions Gap report is, like a test, or a thermometer, an effort to measure the size of a gap, the amount of deviation of a system from healthy conditions. But the assessment of the gap alone can't bring the system into balance any more than a thermostat can warm a room if it is disconnected from the furnace.

A gap is an essential part of any self-corrective feedback loop, but only a part, a trigger. To create change, there must be something to act on the news of the gap.

So where might we find the rest of the self-corrective feedback loop that seems to be struggling to emerge as humanity grapples with it's overshoot of the planet's limits?

There's nowhere for it to lie, really, except in us. Individual human beings, from environment ministers to ordinary citizens. In the everyday personal choices we make, and more importantly, in our coming together to change the prices of energy, the rewards for efficiency, the design of cities, and the vision of a good life for an individual or a whole society. 

The good news of the emissions gap report is that the gap could be closed, brought to zero, given reasonable assumptions about technological progress and investment and the pace of change.

The hours of thinking, analysis and editing will seem well worth it, if the news of the Emissions Gap helps, in small ways or large ones, to trigger the the systemic self-corrective action we know is needed to keep the climate with in safe bounds.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Seeing with new eyes thanks to the space station and twitter

The most remarkable feature of this historical moment on Earth is not that we are on the way to destroying the world — we've actually been on the way for quite a while. It is that we are beginning to wake up, as from a millennia-long sleep, to a whole new relationship to our world, to ourselves and each other. --- Joanna Macy

I'm as likely as the next mother to tell my kids to get off the computer and go outside, but I have to admit that one source of hope for me is the way that new developments in global communications seem poised to bring the people of our planet closer together than ever before.
I notice this in my work all the time. Tomorrow, for example,  I'll be offering a 'webinar' briefing on a climate study that will have me, in my home office in Vermont, connected to people not only in the US, but Europe, Asia, and South America. For 30 minutes, aided by GoToMeeting technology and the internet I'll be able to share important results about the implications of the Copenhagen Accord with concerned, knowledgeable people from around the world, people who will be able to do something with the information. And none of us will have spent a dollar on a plane ticket or burned any jet fuel to come together.
I've also recently begun to follow the 'tweets' of Astro_Wheels, an astronaut on the international space station who has been taking photos of the Earth from his vantage point and sharing them via "twitpic" (Did you know there is internet access on the space station, somehow?)
The photographs are breathtaking, but even more moving to me are the mixture of languages (and alphabets!) in the dozens  of comments beneath each picture. Seeing our shared home seems to elicit the same expressions of wonder and appreciation across cultures, nations, and languages.
Here are few of the comments in response to the photo above, of Japan at night:
wow coooooooooooll! im on this planet.
Thank you! Astro_Wheels! キャ~!!待ってましたよ。日本!綺麗ですね。海岸線が光のラインではっきりわかります。私の住んでる名古屋も輝いてます☆
que bella foto! gracias! increible saber que estoy en Güemes,Salta,Argentina y poder disfrutar
うわー!北海道から山陽山陰四国まで見えますね!I live 2cm point from the top of this photo!!ThanQ so much♡♡♡
huau muy buenas fotos¡¡¡ espero alguna de argentina
wow!!! very pretty!
maravilloso y sin igual esta imagen te deja sin palabras ....gracias
"It's my home country! I'm glad! I am hoping for safety of your voyage! Thank you! :-)"…From:One of these light."

These responses show who we are as a species, just as much as the needless wars, the painfully slow march to a global climate treaty, the unacceptable gap between rich and poor.

So yes, cooooool!! amazing, gracias,  Astro_Wheels. Keep the glimpses of our wholeness coming.

--from another one of these lights.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

A Good, Low-Carbon Day

A satisfying simple November day today.

It started with community workday, the one day per month we set aside for those jobs that need - or are just more fun - with a group of people. I helped move wood up to the shed and caught up with some of the news in some of my neighbors lives at the same time. When we couldn't cram another log into the shed, I wandered down the hill and started preparing the herb garden for winter, pulling a few late weeds, and cutting the dead growth off the oregano, thyme, tansy, and yarrow. A fragrant, pungent job.

Then, a pause for a fine warm lunch, set up by a neighbor and some of the kids, a little more conversation about grandchildren and politics and the rest of the workday list, and back to the garden to finish it off in the good company of a neighbor armed with pruning shears and some news of old friends.

A walk in the woods, a simple supper of roasted root vegetables, green beans from the garden, and a sampling of chocolate and strawberry frozen yogurt, the result of the newest business venture of some Cobb Hill neighbors.

Now, I'm warm and cozy in our house, with a cup of tea and a moment to think.

It's not the only 'low-carbon' way to live, and it certainly isn't as low carbon as it will need to become as we navigate the challenges our changing climate is thrusting upon us, but, with my warm cup of tea at my side I just can't shake a certain sense of confidence. When we,  as a nation, as a world, turn to renewable energy (all those loads of logs), local food (the herbs, the roasted vegetables, the chocolate frozen yogurt), and finding pleasure and relaxation without fossil fuels to transport us around quite so much (the walk in the woods, the watching as the light changes over the hills during the course of one day on the land), we might just find ways of living that, far from being a sacrifice, bring unexpected richness and warmth and the honest satisfaction of tired muscles to our lives.

Friday, November 19, 2010

If you want people to believe that climate change is real, talk about solutions

There have been press reports this week about an interesting new study on people's attitudes towards climate change.

In the experiment participants were given one of two factual articles about climate change. Half the participants received articles that ended with "warnings about the apocalyptic consequences of global warming." The other half read articles that ended with "positive messages focused on potential solutions to global warming, such as technological innovations that could reduce carbon emissions"

Here's the interesting part:

"Those who read the positive messages were more open to believing in the existence of global warming."

At first that sounds counter-intuitive -- people become more convinced of a problem when they have evidence that it can be solved? But it does make a certain kind of sense. If a problem is devastating and unsolvable there are all sorts of self-protective mechanisms that help us block the problem out.

I think this study has some interesting implications:

Cynicism is a self-fulfilling prophecy.  If we  act as though there are no solutions to climate change, our fellow citizens will be more likely to ignore the problem all together, making solutions even less likely to emerge.

And, more importantly, daring to envision solutions and talk about them and implement them, at whatever scale we can, is a self-fulfilling prophecy as well. Helping people see solutions helps them bear the truth of what is unfolding during their lifetimes and opens the way for them to help build solutions, which maybe opens the way for some one far removed from you to accept the problem and create solutions, and so on, and so on.