Learning to live with global warming

GENEVA — As the White House point person on the issue of climate change, Sherburne “Shere” Abbott arrived this week at a meeting in advance of the U.N.’s climate change conference which will take place in December in Copenhagen.

As she posed for photographers Monday while cutting a large red ribbon to inaugurate a booth extolling NASA’s role in providing satellites to monitor weather, she assured a small group of reporters about the need for action and Obama’s determination to get back in the game of dealing with the global perils of climate change.

"The new development is that we are now fully engaged and we want to take a leadership role," she said.

GlobalPost had a chance to sit down briefly with Abbott about a more complex set of questions that surround the Obama administration’s policies on climate change, or as many critics might suggest, the lack thereof.

It wasn’t easy to get answers out of her.

Abbott’s official title is Associate Director for Energy and Environment in the White House’s Office of Science and Technology.  She is effectively Obama’s go-to person to explain the science that underlies the administration’s take on climate change.

She flew into Geneva this week for WCC-3, the acronym for the third World Climate Conference, hosted by the World Meteorological Organization. She will have significant impact on the U.S. research and development budget on climate change which she said will more than double in 2010 to $150 billion to be paid out over the next 10 years. She stresses that the administration sees climate change as a long-term threat that is not going to go away.

“It may not affect my generation as much as that of our children and our grandchildren,” she said, “but the message is that it is real, and it is here.”   

For Abbott, the Geneva meeting provided a chance for early exposure to an increasingly contentious debate in which the U.S. as the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases is often seen as something of a villain.

While passionate on the threat of climate change, Abbott was skimpy on the details of what the administration realistically expects to accomplish.

Asked about which research direction seems the most promising, she said that the administration is approaching the problem on multiple fronts.  

“There is no single solution,” she said, “other than to make the shift towards a clean energy economy.”

The focus of the week-long meeting is on adapting to global warming — not stopping it.
The trickier issues ranging from emission capping and trading to making technology transfers inexpensive enough for emerging super-emitters like China and India to afford them is being reserved for the U.N.’s Framework Convention on Climate Change, which will take place in Copenhagen on Dec. 7-18. 

The meeting in Geneva this week, which gathered together some 2,500 delegates and 50 invited heads of state from the far corners of the planet, is essentially an admission that some of the nastier effects of climate change are already here, and we might as well learn to live with it.

Abbott is the face of the administration’s policy, but the negotiations at Copenhagen, and the U.S.’s international policy on climate change are actually authored by Todd Stern, who was appointed special envoy on climate change last January.

Stern is heading up the negotiations for Copenhagen, which will decide on the follow up to the Kyoto accords. Copenhagen is being billed by some as the make or break meeting for the future of the planet.

Just how the administration will play Copenhagen is far from  clear.  A major question is how much political capital Obama is prepared to spend on saving the planet while he is struggling to get domestic health reform passed through Congress.  In an interview with GlobalPost, Abbott noted that the president is strongly convinced that legislation is the prerequisite for meaningful change. The major legislation in circulation at the moment is the 946-page Waxman-Markey bill, which would commit the U.S. to begin reducing carbon emissions by 3 percent in 2012, and would eventually reduce them by 80 percent in 2050.  The bill would also require 6 percent of  electricity in the U.S. to be produced from renewable sources by 2012, and that figure would rise to 20 percent by 2020.  The bill passed the House in May, but now faces the Senate, and there is some question about it being put on hold. The death of Senator Edward M. Kennedy has further complicated its prospects.

In the meantime, the alternative is to learn how to cope. The operative term at the Geneva meeting this week is “climate services,” a euphemism that covers many things, ranging from early warnings about dangers from floods, raging forest fires and cyclones, to overall emergency preparedness.  

Thomas Karl, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s lead for developing climate services, noted that NOAA’s National Climactic Data Center, which he also heads, is definitely seeing a change in the climate in the U.S.  

The southwest of the U.S. is short of water in general, and in some cases hydroelectric power has been cut and even nuclear power plants have had to curtail operations because there wasn’t enough water to cool them.  Other parts of the country face increased danger of flooding. 

“Many of the nation’s airports are only a foot above sea level,” Karl said.

The longer it takes politicians to deal with the problem, the more “adaptation,” like early warning systems and establishing evacuation procedures, is emerging as the only option available, albeit an expensive one.

“Adaptation was the step child of the process until now,” Michel Jarraud, Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization, told the conference here. “Now it is a major pillar. Without it, we won’t have any agreement in Copenhagen at all.”

Maybe so, but the one point that nearly all experts agree on is that adaptation is at best a temporary solution, and time is running out on the larger issue of mitigation.