Global Climate Change Negotiations

28 October, 2013


There were many interesting talks at the Interdisciplinary Climate Change Workshop last week—too many for me to describe them all in detail. But I really must describe the talks by Radoslav Dimitrov. They were full of important things I didn’t know. Some are quite promising.

Radoslav S. Dimitrov is a professor at the Department of Political Science at Western University. What’s interesting is that he’s also been a delegate for the European Union at the UN climate change negotiations since 1990! His work documents the history of climate negotiations from behind closed doors.

Here are some things he said:

• In international diplomacy, there is no questioning the reality and importance of human-caused climate change. The question is just what to do about it.

• Governments go through every line of the IPCC reports twice. They cannot add anything the scientists have written, but they can delete things. All governments have veto power. This makes the the IPCC reports more conservative than they otherwise would be: “considerably diluted”.

• The climate change negotiations have surprised political scientists in many ways:

1) There is substantial cooperation even without the USA taking the lead.

2) Developing countries are accepting obligations, with many overcomplying.

3) There has been action by many countries and subnational entities without any treaty obligations.

4) There have been repeated failures of negotiation despite policy readiness.

• In 2011, China and Saudi Arabia rejected the final agreement at Durban as inadequate. Only Canada, the United States and Australia had been resisting stronger action on climate change. Canada abandoned the Kyoto Protocol the day after the collapse of negotiations at Durban. They publicly blamed China, India and Brazil, even though Brazil had accepted dramatic emissions cuts and China had, for the first time, accepted limits on emissions. Only India had taken a “hardline” attitude. Publicly blaming some other country for the collapse of negotiations is a no-no in diplomacy, so the Chinese took this move by Canada as a slap in the face. In return, they blamed Canada and “the West” for the collapse of Durban.

• Dimitrov is studying the role of persuasion in diplomacy, recording and analyzing hundreds of hours of discussions. Countries try to change each other’s minds, not just behavior.

• The global elite do not see climate change negotiations as an environmental issue. Instead, they feel they are “negotiating the future economy”. They focus on the negative economic consequences of inaction, and the economic benefits of climate action.

• In particular, the EU has managed to persuade many countries that climate change is worth tackling now. They do this with economic, not environmental arguments. For example, they argue that countries who take the initiative will have an advantage in future employment, getting most of the “green jobs”. Results include China’s latest 5-year plan, which some have called “the most progressive legislation in history”, and also Japan’s plan for a 60-80% reduction of carbon emissions. The EU itself also expects big returns on investment in climate change.

I apologize for any oversimplifications or downright errors in my notes here.


You can see some slides for Dimitrov’s talks here:

• Radoslav S. Dimitrov, A climate of change.

For more, try reading this article, which is free online:

• Radoslav S. Dimitrov, Inside Copenhagen: the state of climate governance, Global Environmental Politics 10 (2010), 18–24.

and these more recent book chapters, which are apparently not as easy to get:

• Radoslav S. Dimitrov, Environmental diplomacy, in Handbook of Global Environmental Politics, edited by Paul Harris, Routledge, forthcoming as of 2013.

• Radoslav S. Dimitrov, International negotiations, in Handbook of Global Climate and Environmental Policy, edited by Robert Falkner, Wiley-Blackwell forthcoming as of 2013.

• Radoslav S. Dimitrov, Persuasion in world politics: The UN climate change negotiations, in Handbook of Global Environmental Politics, edited by Peter Dauvergne, Edward Elgar Publishing, Cheltenham, UK, 2012.

• Radoslav S. Dimitrov, American prosperity and the high politics of climate change, in Prospects for a Post-American World, edited by Sabrina Hoque and Sean Clark, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 2012.

What To Do About Climate Change?

23 October, 2013

Here are the slides for my second talk in the Interdisciplinary Climate Change Workshop at the Balsillie School of International Affairs:

What To Do About Climate Change?

Like the first it’s just 15 minutes long, so it’s very terse.

I start by noting that slowing the rate of carbon burning won’t stop global warming: most carbon dioxide stays in the air over a century, though individual molecules come and go. Global warming is like a ratchet.

So, we will:

1) leave fossil fuels unburnt,

2) sequester carbon,

3) actively cool the Earth, and/or

4) live with a hotter climate.

Of course we may do a mix of these…. though we’ll certainly do some of option 4), and we might do only this one. My goal in this short talk is not mainly to argue for a particular mix! I mainly want to present some information about the various options.

I do not say anything about the best ways to do option 4); I merely provide some arguments that we’ll wind up doing a lot of this one… because I’m afraid some of the participants in the workshop may be in denial about that.

I also argue that we should start doing research on option 3), because like it or not, I think people are going to become very interested in geoengineering, and without enough solid information about it, people are likely to make bad mistakes: for example, diving into ambitious projects out of desperation.

As usual, if you click on a phrase in blue in this talk, you can get more information.

I want to really thank everyone associated with Azimuth for helping find and compile the information used in this talk! It’s really been a team effort!

What is Climate Change?

21 October, 2013

Here are the slides for a 15-minute talk I’m giving on Friday for the Interdisciplinary Climate Change Workshop at the Balsillie School of International Affairs:

What is Climate Change?

This will be the first talk of the workshop. Many participants are focused on diplomacy and economics. None are officially biologists or ecologists. So, I want to set the stage with a broad perspective that fits humans into the biosphere as a whole.

I claim that climate change is just one aspect of something bigger: a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene.

I start with evidence that human civilization is having such a big impact on the biosphere that we’re entering a new geological epoch.

Then I point out what this implies. Climate change is not an isolated ‘problem’ of the sort routinely ‘solved’ by existing human institutions. It is part of a shift from the exponential growth phase of human impact on the biosphere to a new, uncharted phase.

In this new phase, institutions and attitudes will change dramatically, like it or not:

Before we could treat ‘nature’ as distinct from ‘civilization’. Now, there is no nature separate from civilization.

Before, we might imagine ‘economic growth’ an almost unalloyed good, with many externalities disregarded. Now, many forms of growth have reached the point where they push the biosphere toward tipping points.

In a separate talk I’ll say a bit about ‘what we can do about it’. So, nothing about that here. You can click on words in blue to see sources for the information.

The EU’s Biggest Renewable Energy Source

18 September, 2013

Puzzle. The European Union has a goal of producing 20% of all its energy from renewable sources by 2020. Right now, which source of renewable energy does the EU use most?

1) wind
2) solar
3) hydropower
4) tides
5) geothermal
6) trash
7) wood
8) bureaucrats in hamster wheels
9) trolls

Think about it a bit before reading further!

The Economist writes:

Which source of renewable energy is most important to the European Union? Solar power, perhaps? (Europe has three-quarters of the world’s total installed capacity of solar photovoltaic energy.) Or wind? (Germany trebled its wind-power capacity in the past decade.) The answer is neither. By far the largest so-called renewable fuel used in Europe is wood.

In its various forms, from sticks to pellets to sawdust, wood (or to use its fashionable name, biomass) accounts for about half of Europe’s renewable-energy consumption. In some countries, such as Poland and Finland, wood meets more than 80% of renewable-energy demand. Even in Germany, home of the Energiewende (energy transformation) which has poured huge subsidies into wind and solar power, 38% of non-fossil fuel consumption comes from the stuff.

I haven’t yet found confirmation of this on the EU’s own websites, but this page:

• Eurostat, Renewable energy statistics.

says that in 2010, 67.6% of primary renewable energy production in the EU came from “biomass and waste”. This is at least compatible with The Economist‘s claims. Hydropower accounted for 18.9%, wind for 7.7%, geothermal for 3.5% and solar for just 2.2%.

It seems that because wood counts as renewable energy in the EU, and there are big incentives to increase the use of renewable energy, demand for wood is booming. According to the Economist, imports of wood pellets into the EU rose by 50% in 2010 alone. They say that thanks to Chinese as well as EU demand, global trade in these pellets could rise five- or sixfold from 10-12 million tonnes a year now to 60 million tonnes by 2020.

Wood from tree farms may be approximately carbon-neutral, but turning it into pellets takes energy… and importing wood pellets takes more. The EU may be making a mistake here.

Or maybe not.

Either way, it’s interesting that we always hear about the rising use of wind and solar in the EU, but not about wood.

Can you find more statistics or well-informed discussions about wood as a renewable energy source?

Here’s the article:

Wood: the fuel of the future, The Economist, 6 April 2013.

If its facts are wrong, I’d like to know.

P.S. – This is the 400th post on this blog!

Localizing and Networking Basic Technology

8 May, 2013

guest post by Iuval Clejan

Natural philosophy (aka science) is distinguished from pure philosophy or mathematics by coupling theory to experiment. Engineering is distinguished from science in its focus on solving practical problems rather than merely coming up with more accurate models of the universe. Climate change will not be fixed by pure philosophy or argumentation. We need to use the methods of science and engineering to make progress towards a solution. The problem is complicated and involves not just climate dynamics and ecology, but psychology, economics and technology. Besides theory and experiment, we now have the tool of simulation. I propose a think-tank (or more properly, a think/do/simulate-tank) analogous to the Manhattan Project, which developed the first atomic bomb. However, this project would involve social and physical scientists, computer programmers, engineers, farmers and craftspeople who are trying to collaboratively solve the problem of how to provide food, shelter, water, clothes, medicine and recreation for a self contained village in a sustainable way. Sustainability has psychological dimensions, not just ecological. For example, it implies that people would want to keep living in this village, or similar villages. If we are interested in sustainability beyond the initial village, then sustainability implies replicability—that the village would inspire many other people to live similarly.

Initial outputs of this project would be well-founded suggestions regarding what kinds of production skills are needed and how to effectively network them, how many people, how much land, how much time spent on production in order to achieve village-scale independence and sustainability. An eventual outcome would be an actual demonstration of a functional village.

Why village? The word village is used here to mean a group of people who are economically networked in isolation from the rest of the global economy. It also implies choosing a particular geographic location, so not all outputs would be transferable to other locations, though with the initial simulation stage many locations could be tried.

Why economic isolation? Without putting a boundary on the experiment, the problem is too complex, even for simulation. Entropy reduction is the same reason cells have membranes and scientists have labs. The membrane could be permeable to sunlight, wind (and emissions) and water, but at first it might be simpler to keep it impermeable to economic exchange. In addition, it is easy to externalize all unsustainable practices without a membrane. But the size of the membrane is not predetermined. One possible conclusion might be that the village has to be the size of the whole earth. Another reason for starting with a village is that changes in biological (and probably other complex) systems always proceed from small populations that can spread out by replication. It is more practical to achieve a global change in lifestyle and technology starting with a small group of willing people who can then inspire others by example, rather than try to impose a change on a large population, the way fascist and communist experiments have proceeded. Another reason for keeping things smaller and more local is that a stronger feedback between production and consumption may arise, which would regulate unsustainable consumption, because the environmental, social and psychological costs of production are visible in the village, as opposed to hidden or abstracted from the consumers. There are other reasons for localization (e.g. resilience, freedom, more meaningful employment for more people, better relations among people or between people and nature), less directly related to climate change, and more speculative.

This is probably the place to admit my main bias. I am a Gandhist Luddite (who has a PhD in Physics, worked as a semiconductor engineer and a molecular biologist) , not the angry, machine-smashing kind, and I like not only to tinker with technology, but to think how it affects people and nature. I don’t think all technology can be equated with progress. I call this project the Luddite Manhattan Project (or or Localizing and Networking Basic Technology project) for that reason and because it parallels the project that produced the nuclear bomb. I think that the craftspeople and farmers would contribute more to this project than the scientists and engineers. I think that in the multidimensional optimization of technology, we have focused too much on efficiency (disregarding other human values) and that the industrial revolution was largely a mistake (though some good things came out of it, like global communication). If we focus on other human values, we can optimize technology better. I think that localism of basic-needs production (when coupled to non-technological things like democracy) is a constraint from which many other good things such as sustainability, full, meaningful employment, freedom, and good social relations would follow, though it too can be taken to extremes. Given my bias, I suspect that the kind of technology network that would be most sustainable would be pre-industrial, with a few modern innovations. If we really did the book-keeping accurately we would probably find that industrial production is unsustainable. Or rather we would find that pre-industrial production can be sustainable, while current industrial production is not (I leave open the possibility that industrial production might be sustainable in the future, with new innovations, but even then it tramples too many human values). But these conclusions would be outputs of the project, not pre-assumptions or inputs of the project. I welcome some discussion of these ideas, followed by computation, testing and implementation.

The technical part of the project is basically a networking problem. It would allow initial imports (in a way that would allow replicability—that is don’t hog a disproportionate fraction of resources into the village) into a specific location and then network existing technologies so that the system is self-sustaining. What one craftsperson produces, others in the village must use so that the village can continue in perpetuity. A blacksmith needs some fuel, but also customers who need his products and can exchange stuff that he needs. A cooper is mostly useless in the current industrial economy, but would probably find some use in a local village economy, where people need ways to store water and other liquids.

Here are some typical challenges and questions the project would face: How can antibiotics be made on a village scale with no external inputs? What can’t be made and can we find substitutes? Are there missing technology links and can we invent them, or do we need to start with another scenario? What food needs to be produced to provide basic caloric needs to all inhabitants of the village? How much area is required? How can water be captured and transported without plastic or rubber? How much carbon is emitted in production of everything? Where does garbage go? How can metals be recycled? Can plastic be produced? Can electronics be produced? Is there enough time for art, science, scholarship and other forms of edifying human activity? What kind of economic systems work? Is there an optimal one as far as sustainability, or is it a matter of personal preference? These are all questions that can be tackled, if we face them with curiosity and realism, instead of with fear and the kind of magical thinking that most people have towards technology and other things they don’t understand. I’ve heard that Leonardo Da Vinci was the last man to understand the technology of his age, but we have computers to help us.

It might be appropriate at this stage to mention that I do not advocate giving up entirely the industrial mode of production, or the global trade it requires. The Localizing and Networking Basic Technology project would address only food, shelter, water, medicine, all the subsidiary crafts necessary to sustain these, and a few edifying human activities like art, music and scholarship. Computers and internet hardware are almost certainly best left to industrial production, and so are cars, airplanes (but the need for these will drastically decrease if this project is successful), some of the parts for particle accelerators and fancy biotech equipment, etc.

The initial computational stage of the project could model itself on online multiplayer games like Warcraft and planning games like Sim City (I have tried to contact Will Wright, to no avail). I do not play these games (I prefer simple low tech games personally), but I see the usefulness of online collaboration and computation for this project, as a sort of in-silico evolution. Programmers and mathematicians could set up the software to allow both online collaboration and some central planning. I think the simplest solutions should be tried first, i.e. the most primitive technologies, like hunting and gathering. My educated guess is that they will be shown incapable of providing basic needs given the current world population. The same conclusion would probably follow for current industrial production, except the incapacity would be with regards to sustainability. I predict the sweet spot where both sustainability and capacity to “feed the world” (meaning provide a decent life) would be achieved by pre-industrial, agrarian and craft-based production.

I am totally willing to be proven wrong by this experiment about my anti-industrialization bias. With regards to scientific experimentation, there needs to be well posed hypotheses that can be proven wrong, and good controls. The engineering approach is an alternative. Who is willing to work on this project? Let’s make amends for unleashing the horror of the Bomb on the earth, tackle climate change realistically and have some technical fun. For further information please see:

• Iuval Clejan, Luddite Manhattan Project, first stage, 16 April 2012.

• Iuval Clejan, A proposal for funding a blueprint of a village-based technology ecosystem, 5 February 2012.

Energy and the Environment – What Physicists Can Do

25 April, 2013


The Perimeter Institute is a futuristic-looking place where over 250 physicists are thinking about quantum gravity, quantum information theory, cosmology and the like. Since I work on some of these things, I was recently invited to give the weekly colloquium there. But I took the opportunity to try to rally them into action:

Energy and the Environment: What Physicists Can Do. Watch the video or read the slides.

Abstract. The global warming crisis is part of a bigger transformation in which humanity realizes that the Earth is a finite system and that our population, energy usage, and the like cannot continue to grow exponentially. While politics and economics pose the biggest challenges, physicists are in a good position to help make this transition a bit easier. After a quick review of the problems, we discuss a few ways physicists can help.

On the video you can hear me say a lot of stuff that’s not on the slides: it’s more of a coherent story. The advantage of the slides is that anything in blue, you can click on to get more information. So for example, when I say that solar power capacity has been growing annually by 75% in recent years, you can see where I got that number.

I was pleased by the response to this talk. Naturally, it was not a case of physicists saying “okay, tomorrow I’ll quit working on the foundations of quantum mechanics and start trying to improve quantum dot solar cells.” It’s more about getting them to see that huge problems are looming ahead of us… and to see the huge opportunities for physicists who are willing to face these problems head-on, starting now. Work on energy technologies, the smart grid, and ‘ecotechnology’ is going to keep growing. I think a bunch of the younger folks, at least, could see this.

However, perhaps the best immediate outcome of this talk was that Lee Smolin introduced me to Manjana Milkoreit. She’s at the school of international affairs at Waterloo University, practically next door to the Perimeter Institute. She works on “climate change governance, cognition and belief systems, international security, complex systems approaches, especially threshold behavior, and the science-policy interface.”

So, she knows a lot about the all-important human and political side of climate change. Right now she’s interviewing diplomats involved in climate treaty negotiations, trying to see what they believe about climate change. And it’s very interesting!

In my next post, I’ll talk about something she pointed me to. Namely: what we can do to hold the temperature increase to 2 °C or less, given that the pledges made by various nations aren’t enough.

Mathematics for Sustainability (Part 2)

21 November, 2012

guest post by John Roe

• Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot, Commonsense Guide to Understanding Numbers in the News, in Politics, and in Life, Gotham, New York, 2008. (Review at New York Times.)

In Mathematics for Sustainability 1 I explained that I want to develop a new Gen Ed course “to enable students to develop the quantitative and qualitative skills needed to reason effectively about environmental and economic sustainability”. With this as the general objective, what are some of the specific content areas that the course should address, and what should be the specific objectives within each content area?

Right now, I see four mathematical content areas:

• Measuring
• Changing
• Networking
• Risking

Measuring – using numbers (including “large” and “small” numbers) to get an idea of the size and significance of things. Including, for instance: physical units, prefixes (mega, giga, nano, and all that), percentages/ratios, estimation, reliability. That’s a list of concepts on the math side but of course the examples should be sustainability focused. So I’d like the students to be able to answer questions like

• An inch of rain falls over a forest plot of an area 3.21 square miles. How many tons of water fall?

• Roughly, what is the total mass of carbon dioxide in the
Earth’s atmosphere at present?

• Suppose that a nuclear accident spreads 2.3 grams of cesium-137 uniformly over an area of 900 square miles. Compare the radioactivity from this source with the natural background.

• On average, how many gallons of gasoline per second are burned on the Pennsylvania Turnpike?

• A 10-acre farm near State College can produce enough food to support how many people on a vegetarian diet? On a “standard American” diet?

• Roughly, how many birds do you think there are in the world? How accurate do you think your estimate is?

Of course, part of “being able to answer” such questions is being able to know what additional questions to ask in order to give reasonable answers.

I am looking at several books in order to get a handle on this part of the course. Right now I am reading The Numbers Game by Blastland and Dilnot. It starts with an arresting example: how many centenarians are there in the US? That should be easy: just count, right? In fact, census returns ask people to report their age. But the self-reported numbers vary wildly and are estimated to be exaggerated by factors of 20 or more in some cases. Starting from this example, the book seems to give a good overview both of the difficulty and the importance of measuring, both in absolute and relative terms.

Any more suggestions for this part? Thanks!

I am thinking now to put the important distinction between stocks and flows in this section too. (We have to know what we are measuring!) Logically, it might belong in the Changing section but pedagogically it seems better here. A reader on Azimuth sent me a link to this interesting paper which points out how important the stock/flow distinction is in public (mis)understanding of the greenhouse effect:

• John D. Sterman and Linda Booth Sweeney, Understanding public complacency about climate change: adults’ mental models of climate change violate conservation of matter, Climatic Change 80 (2007), 213-238.


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