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Science Loses Status as a Climate Arbiter in Durban

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The mood in Durban appeared mixed at the close of the climate summit around five a.m. local time Sunday morning after a marathon all-night session that ran a day and a half over schedule. The final agreement represents a compromise on several fronts that presage how difficult the talks will be going forward as India and China continue to gain economic and thus diplomatic power.

The argument over "legally binding"

The Kyoto Protocol only committed industrialized nations to legally binding greenhouse gas emission targets. European Union negotiators had sought to extend a successor agreement with new legally binding targets, to be adopted by 2018, to the major emerging economies, especially China and India.

Both India and China argued that expecting them to limit emissions in the face of a lack of a commitment by the United States was unjust, and fought hard against any legally binding agreement. "We were more flexible than virtually any other party in these negotiations," said India's environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan in an angry speech. India's arguments were so strident that some sources suggested they would cause the talks to collapse. "India will never let itself be intimidated by threats," said Natarajan. "It is wrong to shift the burden on the countries that have not contributed to climate change."

Chinese negotiator Xie Zhenhua echoed this sentiment. "We are developing countries," Xies said. "We must develop our economies." Like India, China's principle objection was that all of the proposed forms of a future agreement were "legally binding." "We are doing something," said Xie. "Now we want to see what they do," speaking of the Kyoto parties, but also, and primarily, of the United States.

Kyoto continues, but in a weakened state

In the end, it appears the Kyoto agreement will continue in place, but without Japan, Russia, New Zealand, and Canada, and that the parties are committed to negotiating a new treaty by 2015. This new treaty will be adopted by 2020 and for the first time developing countries will be included, but in a compromise to address the arguments of India and China it appears the agreement will not have full "legally binding" status.

Science loses status

Perhaps most concerning for future negotiations is the apparent erosion of the status of science as an arbiter of the reality of climate change and the basis for public policy decisions. Future agreements will no longer be based on the scientific advice of the IPCC but instead decisions will only be informed by the science.

What this means is unclear but the motives are not. Science is the only even-handed basis for public policy decisions in a non-authoritarian government. The only alternative basis to the knowledge created by science, which is based on measurements of the real world, is the assertion of authority based on either belief or opinion, but neither of them are knowledge-based.

This new language appears to be carving out a further erosion of science's status as the fairest basis for public policy and leaving more room for authoritarian and denialist arguments to gain a foothold in future treaty negotiations. This is the opposite of the direction democracy needs to go to sustain its forward progress, and is troubling evidence of the growing science gap between science and science-themed policy challenges and a largely science-illiterate voting public.

The implications

Cognitive psychologist Stephen Lewandowsky points out the flawed thinking of lead US negotiator Jonathan Pershing, who said at the opening of the summit that there are "essentially an infinite number of pathways" that allow stronger cuts starting in 2020 to "stay below two degrees." In other words, delay doesn't matter; we can deal with the problem later.

But the accumulation of CO2 in the global climate system is like a bathtub filling with water. Unless the water tap is shut off completely, the level will continue to rise. Future cuts to the water will have to be all the more severe to keep the tub from overflowing. This basic fact, and our unwillingness or inability to comprehend it, is what motivates much of the increasing denial of science. Our cognitive processes, through the measurements of our scientists, are telling us one thing, but our emotional responses to those processes -- the implications both in terms of responsibility and of future action -- are overriding that.

To get a sense of this dynamic, imagine that you are driving, a bit tipsy, along a dark road at night and go over a bump and your headlights both go out. You keep going and shortly thereafter feel a thump. You stop the car and get out to investigate. You find a child lying injured on the side of the road. You realize that you are responsible. You had no intent of hitting a child but you are now aware that you have. This is a horrible realization. The implications of this are many. You must reassess everything you knew about yourself. Your self-image is challenged. Clearly you didn't mean to hurt anyone, but without the light shining ahead you have unintentionally hurt the next generation.

Next comes the question of what do you do? Faced with the knowledge produced by your investigation, you are faced with a moral crisis. Do you accept responsibility and pay the price of likely changes in your status, legal bills, perhaps prison time, job loss, financial loss, etc? Or do you drive on and pretend it never happened -- denying the validity of the knowledge you have now gained?

Then rationalization sets in. The child is blind, and only has a broken leg, you reason, so may live on until the morning even if you take no action. And really, what responsible parent would let their child out at this hour wandering on a dark road? They have to share the responsibility.

This is of course nothing like the climate debate and yet in a way it is analogous to the dissonance the debate creates between our growing knowledge of what we have unintentionally visited upon the next generation, and the costs and uncertainty that assuming responsibility for our actions, intentional or not, entails. It's not too late to save the child, but it means we have to take responsibility for actions both our own and of others.

The U.S. has added by far the largest quantity of water to the tub. We're not the only driver of global climate change, but we have contributed the most of anyone to the accumulated level of CO2.

The takeaway

The European Union, Australia, and a few other countries will continue to attempt unilateral cuts to their emissions, taking responsibility for their accumulated contributions, but the leading polluters, including China (now the world's largest CO2 emitter -- although much of this is emitted making products to feed the U.S. economy, outsourcing a portion of its CO2 emissions), India and the United States will not make any substantive emissions cuts until at least a decade from now. This could of course change after future IPCC reports, but with science being reduced in status that appears less likely. Instead, we are choosing to dim the headlights and continue on.

Get Shawn Lawrence Otto's new book: Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America, Starred Kirkus Review; Starred Publishers Weekly review. Visit him at Like him on Facebook. Join to get the presidential candidates to debate science.

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