The Paris postulate: the hidden assumption in the latest climate accord.

Postulate (n.) something taken as self-evident or assumed without proof as a basis for reasoning. –
Read the draft Paris Agreement from the 21st session of the conference of the parties to the Framework Convention on Climate Change and you’ll find it explicit on virtually every aspect of this real-world challenge:

  • shared international intent to limit warming to 1.5– 2.00C;
  • reducing emissions due to deforestation and forest degradation;
  • building the mutual trust and confidence needed for collaboration and implementation;
  • anticipating and compensating for loss and damage resulting from climate change; and
  • establishing and drawing upon a number of financial instruments to cover the costs of all this.
  • Each of the signatories promises to update and communicate a new, more ambitious, nationally-determined contribution every five years.

But the document postulates – accepts as a given, without any real discussion – that Earth observations, science, and services will be available to enable all this. Also unspoken? Such observations, models, and conceptual understanding, taken together, comprise an international critical infrastructure that underpins any national or global hope of assessing progress toward these goals. To illustrate:

Limit warming to 1.50– 2.00C? This requires detailed measurements of greenhouse gas concentrations – globally, as well as near sources and sinks, and able to assign attribution. It assumes scientific models that capture the direct radiative impacts of these gases, accurately predict the resulting higher-order climate feedbacks, and incorporate coupled human-natural system interactions.

Deforestation? This implies an ability to monitor deforestation and its opposite, afforestation, an understanding of the longer-term fates of carbon released or captured in these ways, the functions of the ecosystems that replace the forests or are replaced by them, the related implications for storage of carbon in soils, and much more.

Loss and damage? This refers not simply to property loss and economic disruption, but also to environmental degradation, compromised ecosystem services, and impacts on other forms of natural capital – vital functions and capabilities that are hard to inventory and to monetize.

Trust and confidence, collaboration, communication? This presupposes the existence broadly across the 200-some signatories of in-country expertise on all aspects of climate science and technology sufficient to monitor progress, establish goals, compare with other nations, etc. It also assumes an educated public in each nation, holding scientists and political leaders accountable for continuing progress.

The bottom line? Without measurements, without science, without STEM education, sustained over decades, the Paris climate accord is meaningless.

This reality should both hearten and prompt concerns.

Why take heart? A quarter-century of climate-change framework conventions suggests that the science community has been doing its job – identifying emerging risks and opportunities from a long way off, and bringing them to the world’s attention. Science – in particular the NOAA-Keeling CO2 curve, and the NOAA-GFDL model equating a doubling of CO2 to a temperature rise of several degrees – drove the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Every IPCC report and conference since has reflected not only the great body of pre-existing science but continuing new contributions and additional understanding.

The course of that progress has not been smooth. It’s been marked by rough patches and bumps in the road – sharp disagreements among scientists, between scientists and policymakers, and among the world’s many publics, both domestic and international. Understandably, many if not most of the players have felt beleaguered and put upon by the conflict and criticism. At the same time they’ve been frustrated by the slow pace of progress on both the scientific and policy fronts. But the contentiousness has not stemmed from any defects in the knowledge or understanding or character of the parties. Instead it’s characterized the conversation because the climate change issue is so consequential. What’s more, unlike, say, the ozone hole which was amenable to a simple fix, it’s threaded through the whole of society and will require write-offs of sunk costs and years of additional investment to unwind. But viewed in the rearview mirror, the discussion and the policymaker response over the past twenty-five years arguably looks as much like a success as a failure.

Why be concerned? Because all players can see clearly that the mountains left to climb are far steeper and more forbidding than the middling foothills we’ve surmounted to date. The Earth observations, science, and services community is in the position of the precocious college senior who’s aced all the courses and dazzled peers and faculty alike, but now recognizes that the adult workplace will demand tangible accomplishment versus mere demonstration of potential. The observations that sufficed for the first exploratory work need to be improved with respect to diagnostic power, local detail, global coverage, temporal resolution, and staying power. The models that showed heuristic promise don’t yet show the chops needed to guide a society placing trillion-dollar bets on climate mitigation, adaptation, and reparations. The scientific understanding that seems so advanced relative to 18th– or 19th-century ideas looks wobbly and vague measured against future needs. The integration of natural-system and human-system models looks particularly problematic. Scientists able to contribute substantively to progress are in short supply, especially across the developing world. Publics struggle to comprehend yesterday’s science, let alone the complexities that will characterize the future implications of science and technology for society.

Especially sobering is the realization that what’s demanded in all these respects is not simply incremental improvement but a transcendent leap forward. Our community might be forgiven for harboring very real doubts about our ability to deliver.

Fortunately, there are additional reasons to take heart. These will be covered in the next post.

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2 Responses to The Paris postulate: the hidden assumption in the latest climate accord.

  1. Pingback: Without Measurements the Paris Climate Accord is Meaningless | News of Temperature & Moisture Sensors & Their Uses

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