Straining to Find Good News as 2011 Winds Down

What’s a CCW (Climate Change Worrier) to do? If you followed the climate news in recent weeks, you probably experienced mood whiplash, if not the journalistic whiplash (Andrew Revkin’s term) that results from reading  news reports about science and medical topics that veer from one interpretation or cure to another, contradictory one.  You may have conquered the despair aroused in early November by the International Energy Agency (IEA)’s warning that nations have only a 5-year window to switch from a fossil-fuel energy infrastructure to alternatives by seizing on a cautiously hopeful story–the Earth may be able to absorb more carbon than expected, and therefore warm less drastically than some scientists had predicted–only to be jerked back to reality with the December 5 report that 2010 saw the largest jump ever in carbon emissions.  Can’t  worriers hold on to a bit of hopeful news a little longer? Apparently not, as the climate talks in Durban are winding down with ominous warnings of a do-little conference threatening to postpone significant action until 2020.

I intend for Climate/Oceans Action to offer at least 50% hopeful commentary, to avoid triggering the defense mechanisms that enable people to give up or tune out, because the problem of runaway climate change needs everyone mobilized–to action, conservation, even sacrifice. So I’m determined to foreground optimistic news readers may have missed–first digging it out from the recent, mostly negative, reports and adding news about related developments that fall on the plus side.

Even the IEA warning, despite being grim indeed as it moved the deadline for required action to avoid irreversible warming to well ahead of the year the US wants to commit to, ends on a hopeful quote from the UN climate chief, Christiana Figueres. She conceded that the continuing growth in carbon emissions with no binding international agreement requiring nations to move from fossil-fuels to renewables was “not the scenario we wanted.” But she seemed to find the challenge bracing, calling what was needed “nothing other than the biggest industrial and energy revolution that has ever been seen.”

Although the IEA’s analysis was not widely reported except by bloggers–too scary, perhaps?–the study out of Oregon State University published just before Thanksgiving, which looked at how the Earth’s climate reacted to changing conditions in the past, was taken up everywhere, probably because it questioned the worst-case scenarios regarding the Earth’s so-called climate sensitivity. Time‘s environmental blog, like most mainstream accounts, emphasized the positive, calling the predictions of near 10-degree warming by the IPCC and others “unlikely, buying us more time . . . to shift the world to a more sustainable energy economy.”

The relief this study provided was short-lived, however, for other scientists questioned not only its interpretation of the historical data but the way journalists spun the results. Then about a week later came the impossible-to-spin data that the global recession of 2008-2009 had not slowed emissions of CO2 for long, for the amount of carbon pumped into the atmosphere in 2010 was the largest ever and the largest percentage increase since 2003. It’s hard to find anything positive in that news, but New York Times science reporter Justin Gillis did point out that in response to the economic downturn many countries poured billions into developing alternative energy systems; although the investment has not paid off yet,  it may bear fruit later on. We might think of the recession as a missed opportunity, but we may get another chance, for if the EU fails to resolve its debt crisis a worldwide depression is the likely result, and the longer it lasts, the more emissions will fall off and the countries that invested in R&D will be reaping the green payoff.

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