Intrigue and Plot Twists in Global Climate Talks

Tom Zeller Jr.|The New York Times

In the otherwise ponderous and unhurried context of global climate negotiations, the past two weeks have seen a variety of gripping twists.

It started this month in Singapore, where Barack Obama, the U.S. president, and other leaders used the sidelines of an economic forum to deflate expectations for a treaty at the December climate summit meeting in Copenhagen.


“There was an assessment by the leaders that it is unrealistic to expect a full internationally, legally binding agreement could be negotiated between now and Copenhagen,” Michael Froman, a deputy U.S. national security adviser, said at the time.

Those rooting for a climate pact at Copenhagen were left to mull over the meeting’s shrinking significance until — twist! — computer hackers turned the global climate conversation on its head with a trove of spicy e-mail messages.

The correspondence — apparently purloined from a server at a British research center — suggested that a few of the globe’s pre-eminent climate scientists were of a sniveling sort, and perhaps inclined to fudge data, stifle contradictory voices and even traffic in a bit of geeky machismo.

“Next time I see Pat Michaels at a scientific meeting,” reads a message allegedly from Benjamin D. Santer, a climate scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, referring to a fellow climatologist and skeptic of human-driven warming, “I’ll be tempted” to beat him up.

As they relate to the notion that human industry — in its myriad forms — is having some sort of effect on the climate, the effect of the hacked e-mail messages seemed negligible. “No individual or small group of scientists is in a position to exclude a peer-reviewed paper” from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Rajendra K. Pachauri, the chairman of that panel, wrote in a statement late last week.

The I.P.C.C., in reviewing the vast body of climate research, has asserted that human activity — that is to say, the combustion of fossil fuels, the burning of forests, and so forth — is “very likely” contributing to global warming.

But for those inclined to view climate change as a grand hoax perpetrated by a tight-lipped conspiracy of environmentalists and clean-technology investors, the e-mail messages were red meat.

“I certainly don’t condone the manner in which these e-mails were released,” Senator James Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma and a longtime skeptic of global-warming science, said in a statement last week. “However, now that they are in the public domain, lawmakers have an obligation to determine the extent to which the so-called ‘consensus’ of global warming, formed with billions of taxpayer dollars, was contrived in the biased minds of the world’s leading climate scientists.”

Mr. Inhofe’s call for an investigation — twist! — had barely escaped his lips when the results of a Washington Post-ABC News poll were released, suggesting that the percentage of Americans who believe that global warming is happening had dipped to 72 percent from 80 percent over the past year.

“It’s a sad state of affairs when science becomes subject to partisan politics,” Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster, was quoted as saying in The Post.

“It can only be attributed to the sense that this issue has become part of a political battle.”

Of course, the matter has always been so.

Climate change pits the industrialized world, which has the financial means to adapt to a hotter planet, against poor ones demanding recompense for a problem they did little to create. It pits prosperous countries, which became so through copious use of fossil fuels, against developing economies reluctant to put a price on carbon, now that it’s their turn to grow. And it pits comparatively fuel-efficient and carbon-capping blocs like the European Union against a more reluctant and politically divided United States, itself keenly eyeing CO2-spewing trade rivals like China.

Biggest polluters step forward

Such was the stalled geopolitical tableau into which the climate-science e-mail “scandal” unfolded until — twist! — Mr. Obama titillated Copenhagen watchers with a pledge Wednesday to appear at the conference armed with a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the United States by something “in the range of” 17 percent below 2005 levels, by 2020. And the United States would aim for a reduction of 83 percent by 2050, White House officials said last week.

As my colleague John Broder noted in reporting the announcement, it was “the first time in more than a decade that an American administration has offered even a tentative promise to reduce production of climate-altering gases.”

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Still, reaction to the American gambit was mixed, with many leaders in Europe expressing disappointment that Mr. Obama planned only a brief appearance near the outset of the two-week negotiations in Copenhagen and that the planned emissions reductions were, by most measures, rather modest.

Environmental groups like Greenpeace, for example, were withering in their critique of the announcement. “The proposed emissions reductions target — 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 — is less than one-seventh of what the European Union leaders have said they are prepared to commit,” Greenpeace said in a statement.

“The proposed reduction refers to 2005 emissions and not the standard 1990 baseline used by scientists and policy makers around the world,” it said. “Arranging the numbers this way may be more politically palatable, but it misleads the public on information key to its welfare.”

Others, though, praised the move as having the potential to reignite the potential for meaningful climate action. “We are thrilled at President Obama’s announcement today,” John Doerr, a partner at the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, said in a statement. Mr. Obama’s presence, Mr. Doerr suggested, would “help drive these issues forward.”

And as if on cue — twist! — Chinese leaders said Thursday that they would aim to slow the growth of their country’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

For those hoping for ambitious emissions reduction targets from China, the pledge was disappointing — particularly in that it appeared to be even less aspiring than the cautious goals presented by the United States the day before.

But few failed to recognize that the Copenhagen plot line — after years, really, of stalemate, lowered expectations and continued scientific bickering — appeared to be moving forward.

“As we head towards Copenhagen, the world’s two largest emitters have stepped up to the plate at the highest political level,” Jonathan Lash, president of the World Resources Institute, said in a statement. “This shows that international engagement on climate change can produce real results.”

The Copenhagen talks begin Dec. 7. Stay tuned.