Analysis: A world apart
Scientists discussed climate data during the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco (left) while delegates at the United Nations climate talks negotiated an emissions deal (right). The gatherings, both huge annual events, remain antipodal. Photos courtesy AGU and the UN.
Dec. 15, 2011
In San Francisco, a massive meeting discussed climate science while in Durban, another huge gathering debated climate politics. Two roads, on opposite sides of the Earth, diverge – and send progress along at very different speeds
By Douglas Fischer
Daily Climate editor
SAN FRANCISCO – Nearly 36,000 people gathered last week in two groups on opposite ends of the Earth to discuss the same thing: Our planet and our future. But their responses are starkly divergent.
One group – scientists at the American Geophysical Union meeting drilling ever deeper into the evidence – said, in broad terms, 'Change is worse than we thought.' The other group – delegates at the United Nations climate talks – countered, 'Mañana.'
I've been to both meetings, which happen annually in the fall. And I'll confess that I most enjoy the excitement infusing the onset of both gatherings: Two polyglot affairs, the atmosphere charged with creative energy. At AGU, it's a sense of discovery. At the UN talks, it's a potential to shape the globe's future.
Different values color each meeting. The AGU meeting now draws 20,000 scientists annually to parse the data, looking for science's cutting edge. The UN talks gather 16,000 delegates and others to hash and rehash negotiating texts, trying to find common ground.
Both science and diplomacy are hard, intense endeavors. The limits of human knowledge do not yield easily. By the end of both meetings, the freshness in those cavernous halls grows stale; exhaustion fills the air.
But for all this work, these herculean efforts remain antipodal. Scientific findings barely grasped by the politicians are old news at AGU. And negotiating blocks that halt diplomats remain unfathomable to the scientists.
'Death is a marker'
This disconnect hit me last week at AGU, midway through a talk on rapid transformation – in this case, of Alaska's boreal forest. "Death is a good marker of rapid change," said Andrea Lloyd, a biology professor at Middlebury College.
And Lloyd has seen death.
As the Northern Hemisphere grows drier and hotter, researchers knew the forests would struggle. The surprise, Lloyd said, was finding such a sudden shift in the tree line: Across the north country, trees are dying back and being replaced with drought-tolerant grasslands in response to fairly minor changes in moisture. "There's this potential for small amounts of ... warming to produce large changes," she said. "As we move forward into novel climate regimes – things we haven't seen before – trees might surprise us."
Lloyd's observations are not unique. The discoveries revealed last week at AGU suggest physical change is happening faster than scientists' hypotheses and models predicted.
- Four years ago scientists thought the Arctic would not be ice-free in summer before 2100. Two years ago, the estimate was 2060. This year, scientists say the ice could be gone by 2030, possibly even 2020.
- As Arctic ice melts and temperatures rise, vast stores of methane frozen under the Arctic Ocean are starting to thaw and vent to the atmosphere. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, 20 to 56 times as powerful as carbon dioxide. Researchers had seen small plumes. But a recent survey showed, to their shock, large areas of the ocean pocked with continuous, powerful plumes stretching a half-mile or more across.
- In the Andes, conventional wisdom held that residents had 20 years to 40 years to find a replacement for the dwindling glaciers serving as key dry-season water reservoirs. That time is up, reported Michel Baraër, a researcher at McGill University in Montreal. The era of "peak water" is past, he said, and hundreds of thousands of people living downstream face an immediate future of diminished and more variable flows.
"The planet is going through incredible change," said Jonathan Foley, director of the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment. "Through rapid uses of the environment, we are pushing our planet in extreme ways."
The news from Durban makes clear, meanwhile, that political hurdles are only slowly eroding. Politics and science are still operating in different realms.
Case in point: The Durban talks concluded this year with participants touting as an "important milestone" the commitment to keep talking. The Kyoto Protocol, a questionably effective treaty requiring emissions cuts from much of the developed world (but not the United States and, soon, Canada), will be extended five years while those talks continue. Kyoto's replacement, delegates agreed over the weekend, should be in place by 2020.
"We shouldn't kid ourselves that action is happening," said Lance Pierce, executive director of CERES, a nonprofit coalition of investors and environmentalists working with companies on climate change and other issues. "We still have a long way to go.... The atmosphere isn't going to wait for the negotiators to get it right."
Not all of the change discussed at AGU can be stemmed by a strong treaty limiting emissions, of course. Two years ago a consortium of scientists mapped out nine "planetary boundaries" that, if crossed, risk plunging the earth into a vastly different state from anything humanity has experienced. The team concluded society has already crossed three: Compromising the nitrogen cycle via agriculture, the atmosphere with greenhouse emissions, and biodiversity with population growth.
Crossing those boundaries will present humanity a challenging and uncertain future, said Foley, who co-authored the boundary-mapping effort.
It seems clear to me that, at some point, the political and scientific realities need to align. I wasn't at Durban this year, but science on display at AGU suggested it will be the political reality, not the physical reality, that does the bending.
"We are now on a very different planet than anyone has ever seen before," Foley said. "All of our predictions are going to be wrong. We are going to be very, very surprised."
DailyClimate.org is a foundation-funded news service that covers climate change. Contact editor Douglas Fischer at dfischer [at] DailyClimate.org
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