Deal to warm the hearts of jaded observers
Geoffrey Lean in London
July 11, 2009
WHAT is the opposite of deja vu? Whatever it is, I experienced it this week in a dingy meeting room beneath London's US embassy talking to Barack Obama's principal adviser about the chance of international agreement to combat climate change.
I had last been in that room, 18 months ago, to discuss the same issue with one of George Bush's top advisers. For an hour we fenced, as I suggested different approaches towards a deal. The response was consistent: nothing doing. On Wednesday the room was the same, the subject was the same. But the conversation could not have been more different. For I was given the most bullish assessment of the prospects for an effective agreement that I have heard in years.
This was all the more surprising because Professor John Holdren, assistant to the President for science and technology, is no spin doctor, but an award-laden scientist who has long been one of the United States' foremost authorities on global warming. Yet he was saying that he would "bet" that the US would legislate to cut its carbon dioxide emissions by the beginning of December, making it possible to get "a degree of agreement that will surprise people" at a crucial international negotiation in Copenhagen.
Professor Holdren shares Prince Charles's sense of urgency. He says it is already too late for the world to stop "dangerous" climate change and it can now only hope to avoid "catastrophic, unmanageable change" where global warming runs out of control.
Average temperatures worldwide have so far warmed by about 0.7 degrees above the levels of pre-industrial times, causing much more rapid changes than scientists expected.
So if we are committed to an increase of 1.2 degrees and more, what is the maximum before the world is condemned to become Prince Charles's "living hell"? The scientists' best estimate is 2 degrees.
The US remains central to any agreement. But its system of checks and balances makes it hard to do anything quickly.
Professor Holdren says Mr Obama is so committed that he will twist enough arms to get the bill finalised by December. But, at best, it will only aim for emission cuts a few percentage points below 1990 levels. This would, in fact, be quite an achievement as its emissions have grown massively over the past two decades, but it might not be enough to provoke the big developing countries to act.
In the end, everything depends on economics, on whether nations feel a climate deal will help them out of the recession. Achim Steiner, the executive director of the United Nations Environment Program, says a serious deal would be "the biggest stimulus package of them all".
It's also about future generations. Eighteen months ago, I eventually asked Mr Bush's representative whether he ever lay awake at night worrying about what he would tell his grandchildren if he proved to be wrong. "I have no children," he shot back, "therefore I will have no grandchildren."
Professor Holdren, I'm glad to reveal, has five.