How do scientists rate the prospect of a global climate deal?

2,000 of science’s best minds mingled this week in the last meeting of its size before December’s crunch Paris summit

The Our Common Future under Climate Change took place at UNESCO's headquarters from 7-10 June (Pic: Fabiola Ortiz)

The Our Common Future under Climate Change conference took place at UNESCO’s headquarters from 7-10 June (Pic: Fabiola Ortiz)

By Fabíola Ortiz in Paris

Scientists mingled over keynotes speeches and roundtables in Paris this week to dole out fresh cuts of climate research.

In fewer than five months, the atmosphere in the French capital will be somewhat more fraught, as it welcomes thousands of delegates charged with hammering out a global deal.

Climatologists had four days this time. Negotiators will have two weeks. None of them question that climate change is the critical task at hand.

“Warming of the climate system is unequivocal. Human activities are to blame for much of the warming to date. Its solutions require a bold commitment to our common future,” reads the scientists’ declaration.

Governments have committed to holding temperature rise to 2C from pre-industrial levels to avoid catastrophic climate change.

So far, 45 countries have delivered national carbon-cutting plans, but analysts say the collective effort won’t stop the planet overshooting that goal.

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But planetary chaos isn’t a foregone conclusion, scientists believe.

From speeches in the plenary hall to chitchat over canapés, all at the forum signal a 2C world is still possible.

As the Paris climate summit nears, the scientific community is strongly pushing this message.

Intentionally, businessmen or policymakers haven’t been invited, save a few politicians from the host country.

Are these messages from science’s best minds getting through to those key cogs of the global economy?

Dominique Charron at the International Development Research Centre in Canada says scientists have to promote ideas, “but without the financial side, bank investments and business, scientists here are still talking among themselves”.

It is clear that there is still a gap between science, as collated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and policy makers.

Efforts to move past presenting problems to solutions still haven’t been fully realised, says France’s top climate diplomat, Laurence Tubiana.

“Scientists have to send the alert and IPCC has already done that. But the role of scientists for suggesting solutions hasn’t been played”.


“Bridges between political and scientific process are not traditionally easy to build,” said Carlos Nobre, of Brazil’s National Space Research Institute.

“Nowadays we are stimulating the co-design and co-production of knowledge. The policymaker should participate in the knowledge process.”

He calls the process of delivering climate plans as a “global poker game where no one wants to show their cards”.

Nor will voluntary national pledges, known as “intended nationally determined contributions” in UN jargon, add up to the 2C target.

That’s a view shared by Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz.

With no repercussions for those that miss targets, with the environment a public good, we must recognize this “voluntary agreement is not going to be enough,” he says.

Seriously tackling climate change offers huge economic opportunities, but to get there, a “enforceable” price on carbon among a “coalition of the willing” across borders is essential.

“At some point the world will have to recognize it will need to have a carbon price. We don’t know when the world will wake up but it will have to wake up. We need some principles of ethics to compromise,” Stiglitz adds.

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Another issue perplexing leading scientists is the unwieldy negotiating text, which needs to be cut from its present size of 85 plus pages to something more manageable.

“How do they expect that to become a serious agreement in less than five months?” asks Penny Urquhart, one of the authors of the latest climate review by the UN scientific agency, the IPCC.

The Fifth Assessment Report, which projects the planet to warm by as much as 5C by 2100, is the scientific underpinning of global negotiations.

Urquhart says talks are reaching “crunch time”.

“We would want to see a tight negotiation text, there’s a lot of things to be agreed.

“If this is the farthest that we’ve got after 21 years of negotiation, one begins to despair”, she adds.

Carbon budget

After long and meandering speeches typical at climate summits, it appears the scientific community’s main aim is to be heard at the negotiating table.

Greenhouse gases need to fall dramatically to 40-70% on 2010 levels by 2050, says the IPCC.

The atmosphere is two-thirds of the way to its maximum storage of carbon dioxide before incurring a 2c warming effect. On current trends, it could cross that line within the 2030s.

For 2007’s Nobel peace prize winner and IPCC member, Jean Jouzel, countries’ tardy action is galling.

“We need to be clear at this point: if we want to keep the temperature up to 2°C, we have to leave 80% of fossil fuels on the ground.

“The energy matrix shouldn’t be built on fossil fuel energy; this is clear for scientists.”

Christopher Field, a director of the US Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology and contender to be the next chair of the IPCC, says this is a “turning point” for climate change science.

“We should focus on solutions, renewable energies, decarbonising transport, early warning of risk of disasters and coastal protection,” he says.

“It is an opportunity; the time for action is now. This conference is a deep expression of the entire science community for solution to build a sustainable future”.

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