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Road to Copenhagen - Part 1: Doing the Climate Shuffle

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There's a familiar dance being performed on the world stage. It's called the Climate Shuffle. It has been going on for decades, but more people are watching now and every nation is practicing the steps.

The dance is not complicated. The goal is to get everybody dancing together, a kind of Clean Electric Slide. But first, insist you won't get on the dance floor until everybody does. If you get there and find that everyone is doing his own thing, try the Unilateral Slide (one step forward, two steps back, moving in circles). Most of all, be prepared to dance fast because the music is speeding up.

In this strained metaphor, the music is the increasing pace of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. As it turns out, the scientific evidence on which negotiators and policy makers have depended -- particularly the last report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change -- significantly underestimated the speed at which global warming is occurring.

Poor and low-lying nations already are suffering its effects. Some of the first climate refugees are being forced from their ancestral islands in the South Pacific because of rising sea levels. Livestock is dying in parts of Africa parched by drought.

The World Health Organization estimated earlier this year that 150,000 deaths occur annually in low-income countries due to climate-related crop failure, malnutrition, diarrheal diseases, malaria and flooding. Nearly 85 percent of the dead are young children.

Rich nations are not exempt. In June, the U.S. government's Global Change Science Program reported to Congress that damaging climate impacts are here and likely to get worse:

...Climate-related changes are already observed in the United States and its coastal waters. These include increases in heavy downpours, rising temperature and sea level, rapidly retreating glaciers, thawing permafrost, lengthening growing seasons, lengthening ice-free seasons in the ocean and on lakes and rivers, earlier snowmelt, and alterations in river flows. These changes are projected to grow.

In the September issue of the journal Nature, 28 environmental scientists reported we have reached or surpassed the upper safe limit in six of the planet's 10 critical biophysical systems.

NASA scientist Dr. Jim Hansen, whose crystal ball has been pretty accurate over the years, now warns that holding atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases to 450 parts per million will not protect us from climate-induced disaster. He says we need to get back to 350 ppm, a threshold we've already crossed. We need to accomplish that backward step at the same time we're making billions more babies and trying to end the extreme poverty that already afflicts billions of men, women and children around the world.

Five weeks before the 15th Conference of the Parties in Copenhagen -- a long-anticipated gathering in danger of being anti-climatic -- one source close to the negotiations tells me three broad scenarios remain on the table.

  • Scenario 1 is a Son-of-Kyoto treaty in which all nations agree to specific, verifiable and enforceable limits on their greenhouse gas emissions;
  • In Scenario 2, nations remain hung up on sticking points and can't agree on a global treaty. Instead, they agree to cut carbon with national-level efforts and smaller bilateral or multilateral agreements. However, they accept international monitoring of progress and some type of enforcement.
  • In Scenario 3, nations decide to go it alone with no international deal, monitoring or oversight.
So far down the road to Copenhagen, we would have hoped that the U.S. Congress had passed an aggressive climate bill and negotiators would have decided on the basic architecture of a global deal. The lack of progress is not for lack of effort. A lot of negotiators, subject-matter experts and key staff on the Hill are sleep-deprived these days. Because of them, hope is not lost. They deserve our thanks.

At the same time, I know they will forgive us for keeping up the pressure for deals in Congress and at Copenhagen -- not just any deals, but real deals. All that's at stake is a civilization worthy of the noun. The Climate Shuffle becomes a death dance if it goes on too long.

With pressure in mind, I will post a series of pieces over the next several days. They will address how our policy-makers are underestimating the risks of climate change; how new evidence suggests we have only five years to completely retool global industry; how consumers, corporations and government might work together; how the White House can provide audacious leadership; and how morality must trump money on Capitol Hill.

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