Copenhagen 2009; An Interview With Katherine Richardson, Chair of The International Climate Conference

Katherine Richardson is chair of the Scientific Steering Committee for the IARU Congress
"Climate Change: Global Risks, Challenges and Decisions", Copenhagen.

I was surprised to see so little press here in the US on your Congress, but I guess that is to be expected.

It is interesting there has been so little US press because there has been so much. On the first day I was interviewed for the BBC television, BBC world, Sky news television, Japanese television, Greek television, BBC radio three times including twice live, it's been absolutely wild. The front page of the Guardian today has an article.

Gallup published a poll that the number of American who believe that global warming is being exaggerated is at an all time high of 41%. This at a time when the research is more and more clear that forcing mechanisms are accelerating and kicking in so much faster than anyone anticipated, what do you make of that?

It's shocking. On the other hand so much of this has to do with media, so much of this has to do with communication and that's why we decided in this particular congress that instead of just doing a traditional scientific congress where we had a product that is an academic book that was aimed at an academic audience and we will do that product as well. We have a contract with Cambridge University Press to do a book that emanates from this congress we have just had, but in addition to that we wanted to make a concerted effort to try and reach the media, the general public and obviously in the same breath you could say the politicians. We will be producing this maximum thirty page report which is peer reviewed by June and that will be used very aggressively with the press and also politicians.

Let me start another fight. I gave the opening talk where I basically said OK guys in our organism's relationship with this planet every single time that we have realized that one of activities was dangerous to our future development we stepped in. In the beginning we didn't think we were going to have to make laws about agriculture you could do it any way you wanted to, but then we realized that unchecked agriculture was in the end going to be a threat to our very existence so we made some rules. It's the same way with pollution, the atmosphere, whatever, we made some rules. I can see no reason to believe that this problem or challenge should be any different so, if society understands the challenge that we are dealing with, then I am sure that politicians and society will go in and make the rules and regulations necessary to control the problem. So the key at the moment as I see it is getting the message out and getting people to understand what this is all about.
It is interesting that Bjorn Lomborg has been accusing me in this meeting of being very political and it's all political action....

(Big laugh)...

Yea, I know. Isn't that funny? What he has been arguing is that we've got the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change) and we should just stop there because that is the base we need to work with. Well of course the IPCC results at the moment from the 2007 report they only used published papers and they had to be published before the beginning of 2006 to be able to come into consideration. With the time lags involved that means that the data in the IPCC report of 2007 is based on data that was collected before 2005 at the latest. You know it makes a mockery of the whole academic system with all the research and all the activity - all the money we are using in this area - to argue that we haven't gotten any new understanding, knowledge or information in the last four years. Why shouldn't the politicians who are coming to Copenhagen have access to all of the available information? From this meeting we are not telling politicians what to do or how to do it, but we are trying to make them understand the newest research. Did you see we gave out six overarching messages?

Key Message 1: Climatic Trends
Recent observations confirm that, given high rates of observed emissions, the worst-case IPCC scenario trajectories (or even worse) are being realised. For many key parameters, the climate system is already moving beyond the patterns of natural variability within which our society and economy have developed and thrived. These parameters include global mean surface temperature, sea-level rise, ocean and ice sheet dynamics, ocean acidification, and extreme climatic events. There is a significant risk that many of the trends will accelerate, leading to an increasing risk of abrupt or irreversible climatic shifts.

Key Message 2: Social disruption
The research community is providing much more information to support discussions on ?dangerous climate change?. Recent observations show that societies are highly vulnerable to even modest levels of climate change, with poor nations and communities particularly at risk. Temperature rises above 2oC will be very difficult for contemporary societies to cope with, and will increase the level of climate disruption through the rest of the century.

Key Message 3: Long-Term Strategy
Rapid, sustained, and effective mitigation based on coordinated global and regional action is required to avoid ?dangerous climate change? regardless of how it is defined. Weaker targets for 2020 increase the risk of crossing tipping points and make the task of meeting 2050 targets more difficult. Delay in initiating effective mitigation actions increases significantly the long-term social and economic costs of both adaptation and mitigation.

Key Message 4: Equity Dimensions
Climate change is having, and will have, strongly differential effects on people within and between countries and regions, on this generation and future generations, and on human societies and the natural world. An effective, well-funded adaptation safety net is required for those people least capable of coping with climate change impacts, and a common but differentiated mitigation strategy is needed to protect the poor and most vulnerable.

Key Message 5: Inaction is Inexcusable
There is no excuse for inaction. We already have many tools and approaches ? economic, technological, behavioural, management ? to deal effectively with the climate change challenge. But they must be vigorously and widely implemented to achieve the societal transformation required to decarbonise economies. A wide range of benefits will flow from a concerted effort to alter our energy economy now, including sustainable energy job growth, reductions in the health and economic costs of climate change, and the restoration of ecosystems and revitalization of ecosystem services.

Key Message 6: Meeting the Challenge
To achieve the societal transformation required to meet the climate change challenge, we must overcome a number of significant constraints and seize critical opportunities. These include reducing inertia in social and economic systems; building on a growing public desire for governments to act on climate change; removing implicit and explicit subsidies; reducing the influence of vested interests that increase emissions and reduce resilience; enabling the shifts from ineffective governance and weak institutions to innovative leadership in government, the private sector and civil society; and engaging society in the transition to norms and practices that foster sustainability.

The idea is now those six overarching messages we will populate with examples from the different sessions in a summary report. I am really looking forward to this process of putting that together and of course we are peer reviewing that document, so I don't know Bjorn's been pushing pretty hard. There was an interview on Danish television I saw on the net, an interview with Lord Stern and Joachim Schellnhuber who is Angelika Merkel's advisor on climate change, they were both plenary speakers here at the meeting. They were interviewing the two of them on television and then suddenly they brought Bjorn Lomborg into it and Stern was so good. He basically said the man is not an actual scientist, he explained how Bjorn gets it wrong, and in the end he said, the interviewer kept carrying on about but Bjorn says - but Bjorn says... Bjorn made the most amazing quote he said that politicians are talking like Stern but they are acting like Lomborg, I mean how arrogant can you be? Anyway Stern says, "you are actually wasting your viewer's time with this rubbish."

I was with James Hansen in DC last week and we were talking; given the IPCC process and it is consensus based agreement, he is very skeptical that anything meaningful in terms of addressing carbon based emissions is going to be accomplished in Copenhagen this December. He is optimistic but very skeptical. You sound to be very optimistic at this point, is that correct?

Well yes and no. I agree totally with Jim that I think we all know that the actual reduction goal which will be agreed in Copenhagen will not be enough to solve this problem - I mean there's just no question about that. In my heart of hearts I feel that like Jim I would really like to have them do that now, first, but I do recognize it's not just about saving the planet it's also about making a government institution in which we can regulate our relationship with the planetary system and that means having a global governance institute and we don't have that yet. The only thing we have on the shelf which might be useful for this process is the UN, and the UN was not actually put together to try and solve problems like this. So at the same time that we want to get some goals in there to try and cut the emissions and save the world as it were, we also will have to create the government structure within which you can deal with the regulation and enforce the regulations and so on. My gut feeling is there is going to have to be compromises made on the actual goals that we set for reduction in order to get the framework in place and that's worrying but maybe necessary.

I think back over our history of the planet and our relationship with this planet. I know when we first began to make rules about dumping into the oceans for example, the concentrations of various toxic substances that we allowed were very much higher than the concentrations that we allow today but we got the framework in place. Within that framework we were able to turn the screws and tighten up the goals as more knowledge became available. I am very optimistic there will be a global agreement in Copenhagen; I am very pessimistic about it being strong enough to reduce the risk of what we are looking at but I am confident in the political process. I am also very optimistic that in the long run we will crack this one.

How many people in the US realize that the UN panel on climate change which is based on thousands of scientist's work - peer reviewed - how many realize that the panel said there is 90% chance that the climate change we are seeing at the moment is caused by human activity?
We must do more to try and communicate this risk. Most of the articles you read are sort of prediction problems; will it happen, will it not happen? Nobody can say with a 100% certainty whether this will happen or not. You and I don't know if we are going to be alive tomorrow, there's a good statistical probability but it's not a given.

It is a pretty big role of the dice to be taking when there are alternatives.

This is one thing that came up at the conference. Russian roulette is a one in six chance of something drastic happening. Right now what would it take to get down to a Russian roulette chance? The risk we are taking at the moment of something very serious happening is much, much greater than Russian roulette and none of us would play, or I don't think any of us would play, Russian roulette. If you went to the airport and they told you that the plane you were going to fly on had a 10% chance or less of getting to where you wanted to go, would you go on it? I don't think so. That's what it's all about, making people understand the risk and that's exactly what we were trying to do at this meeting. Not to tell them what to do but to help them understand the risk because they are very real and they are very high. If people really understood the risk - I don't think politicians would be willing to take that risk with future generations, and future generations who are not that far down the line.

What we showed yesterday was that now we have four or five years more data than the IPCC did to work with. The IPCC made predictions about what trajectories the world climate system would develop upon and now we have this data where we can actually go in and plot them with real data and try and see how does the climate system look compared to the predictions made by the IPCC. It turns out that basically on every point we are running right on the worst case scenario, or worse. Which means in fact that the IPCC got it right guys. There are some things that are worse, that's the sea level rise. On the other hand the IPCC said very clearly we did not take into account the shifts in ice caps because we did not have any data. Now we have the data and the estimates for sea level rise by 2100 are moving upward. Instead of a max of 59cm now there is a likely increase of about a meter and possibly much more. That's a big difference if you are trying to plan for cities now, that's only 90 years time. You come from Colorado - that's not a bad place to be.

Thank you Katherine and your colleagues for putting this together and for all you do.