COPENHAGEN COMMENTARY: I'm hearing only bad news

Posted: 12 March 2009

Author: Andy Rowell

Does anyone remember the song written by the pop group, Latin Quarter, called "Radio Africa", written in the mid-eighties whose repeated starting line was "I am hearing only bad news on Radio Africa"?

That song came back to my mind reading the reports from the climate conference in Copenhagen. I am hearing only bad news from Radio Copenhagen, as it were. They promised us bad news and we are getting it in bucket loads.

So let's get the assessment from a political advisor, the UN and a team of scientists: which all gave a very sobering assessment of the state of climate science and how politicians respond to it.

Science speak

First up was John Ashston who is the British government's special representative on climate change, who spoke at the start of the conference. He argued that that politicians were "willfully ignoring and misunderstanding" the science of global warming. He said: "In science the truth is out there. It's there to be discovered. In politics often the truth is whatever is expedient to this or that project," he said in the opening session of the conference.

Urging the scientists to speak the "language of politicians", he said: "We need to do this better to stand any chance of keeping climate change on the right side of the last acceptable risk. There has to be much better communication between the world of science and the world of politics."

Speaking outside the conference hall, Ashston added: "There are plenty of people in the political world who are quite happy to abuse the [scientists' conclusions] to serve political purposes. Politics is a shark-infested sea."

Next up was Rajendra Pachauri, the head of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), who said domestic political constraints made it impossible for President Obama to announce ambitious short-term climate targets similar to those set by Europe: "He [Obama] is not going to say by 2020 I'm going to reduce emissions by 30 per cent. He'll have a revolution on his hands. He has to do it step by step." There is no doubt that such a stance could threaten attempts to agree a new global deal in December.

Rising seas

And the final piece of bad news: the voice of the scientists themselves. We were told the news would be bad, but this is really bad. Sea levels are predicted to rise twice as fast as was forecast by the United Nations only two years ago, according to leading scientists at the conference.

Rapidly melting ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica are likely to push up sea levels by a metre or more by 2100, swamping coastal cities and obliterating the living space of 600 million people who live in deltas, low-lying areas and small island states.

Professor Konrad Steffen, from the University of Colorado, Dr John Church, of the Centre for Australian Weather and Climate Research in Tasmania, Dr Eric Rignot, of Nasa's jet propulsion laboratory in Pasadena, and Professor Stefan Rahmsdorf, from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, who are all experts in sea-level rise gave an alarming press conference.

Professor Steffen said Greenland was losing 200 to 300 cubic-kilometres of ice into the sea each year - about the same amount as all the ice in Arctic Europe. Dr Church said that the most recent satellite and in situ data showed seas were now rising by more than 3mm a year - more than 50 per cent faster than the average for the 20th century.

"As a result of improved estimates of the observed rise, the thermal expansion, the melting of the glaciers and of the ice sheets, we now have a much better quantitive understanding of why sea level is rising," he said. "Without significant, urgent and sustained emissions reductions, we will cross a threshold which will lead to continuing sea level rise of metres."

Professor Steffen added: "What we have learnt in the past three or four years is that the ice dynamic is much stronger than the models indicated, and the prediction has to be revised up to a metre or more - which is enormous if you look at the impact."

So I am hearing only bad news from Radio Copenhagen. Will it be playing a more optimistic tune in December? Only time will tell...

This commentary was published by our partner agency One World Online on March 11, 2009