Doha Climate Change Conference: Politics and Ideologies Ruled, Science Won Through at the End

The city of Doha is a metropolis in progress. Tall architectural skyscrapers glitter as only the wealthiest jewellery does. Fifty years ago the capital of the Gulf’s poorest country was scratching a living from pearl fishing. Today, Qatar exports hydrocarbons. Energy is cheap, petrol is 1 Riyal per litre (16p) and free desalinised water sprinkles verdant lawns and fills shimmering swimming pools. I am sitting on a long-haul flight returning from Doha’s UN climate summit. I go to the UN climate summits for the science not the politics and once again, despite the science, the world’s big emitters edged closer to dangerous climate change.

The UN Nations’ agreement in principle made 15 years ago is to stop the world from warming by too much, an average of 2 degrees globally. This seemed straight forward for back then. On a huge scale and before 2050, use only sources of energy that are not fossil fuelled, use only the most efficient technology and don’t waste energy.

Unfortunately in its current form, the UN Summit is a largely ideological trade and international development negotiation designed to obfuscate any global agreement on reducing of greenhouse gases. Poor countries want money and technology for development, rich countries don’t really want to give it, there is anyway little evidence that the money will be used for clean energy or preparedness, and the lucky countries with oil and gas want to keep pumping it because it makes them rich countries not poor ones, like Qatar.

The science from the Global Carbon Project and others shows that it is too late for the world to avoid dangerous climate change. Global carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels are this year 58% above 1990 levels and tracking the highest of the temperature scenarios, predicting a minimum of 4 degrees of warming. Overshoot of 2 degrees is therefore inevitable, unless you think that the world can go to near-zero emissions starting today. Or can suck-out the excess emissions from the atmosphere a little later on.

In the early hours of the final Saturday in Doha perhaps in recognition of inevitable climate change, a text on the concept of cash compensation for loss and damage from floods, storms, droughts, and other impacts was tabled. This same week, the president of a developed country announced that he is asking his congress for $60bn to compensate the costs of Superstorm Sandy. The poor countries would like some too.

For the many years that I have been working in science communication I have been asked by journalists at each weather change whether a particular hot and dry spell, wet, cold or snowy, is due to global warming. The standard answer is ‘no because science cannot show that any one weather event is linked to climate change, but unusual weather is expected to get more common in the future’. If the journalist is in the UK, I can then look at the UK Climate Impact Projections to see how frequent that weather might be, and by when. More recently, I began to say ‘not yet’ instead of ‘no’.

Over the past few years physics and math researchers have been looking at the new area of ‘climate detection and attribution’. They use statistical techniques and powerful computers to understand if extreme weather can be explained by the extra greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, or not. The team in Oxford, for example, showed that the high temperatures reached in Southern Europe in the summer of 2003, contributing in part to 15,000 extra deaths, can only be explained when greenhouse gases are factored into their models.

With the UN agreeing compensation for loss and damage, this new and suddenly policy relevant area of attribution research will now deservedly become more central to a better understanding of the manmade causes and consequences of extreme weather. It will also become a battle ground as different assumptions and methodologies, and in some cases ideologies, are tested out. It is an international shame that the negotiators are agreeing to compensate for weather disasters rather than to prevent them. But the best science won through in the end.