EDITOR: | October 26th, 2015 | 2 Comments

Paris climate change measures: Ready or not here I come

| October 26, 2015 | 2 Comments

2015-10-JaneSchuleThere is a seminal climate change conference coming up in Paris at the end of November that will test our collective negotiating skills and temper. This prompts epistemological insights into anthropogenic climate change for both side of the debate. For clarity, no one has proven that greenhouse gases are actually warming up the planet and causing havoc with absolute certainty. But it does not mean we can’t act.

The 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP 21 or CMP 11 will be held in Paris from November 30 to December 11. It will be the 21st yearly session of the Conference of the Parties to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the 11th session of the Meeting of the Parties to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. The conference objective is to achieve a legally binding and universal agreement on climate, from all the nations of the world.

The objective of the 2015 conference is to achieve, after 20 years of unsuccessful UN negotiations, a binding and universal agreement on climate, from all the nations. Even Pope Francis published an encyclical to influence the conference. He calls for action against human-caused climate change. The International Trade Union Confederation has called for the goal to be “zero carbon, zero poverty”; its general secretary Sharan Burrow has repeated that there are “no jobs on a dead planet”.

Pope Francis is not a scientist by all accounts but in the hide-and-seek game of climate change negotiations, his intervention translates as “Ready or not here I come.”

The Convention aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to limit the global temperature increase to 2 °C above pre-industrial levels. However, there are doubts the current pledges under the second commitment period of the Kyoto protocol are not sufficient to guarantee that the temperature will stay below 2 °C.

Whenever I write anything about anthropogenic climate change, regardless of which side I lean toward, I sustain a flurry of comments, many of them vehemently questioning science or my sanity, often-citing conspiracy. I’m thankful for those insights. In addition to the uptick of growing a thicker skin, I’ve been made to realize that climate change is no longer the scientific debate that is was twenty years ago; it has morphed into an epistemological debate.

In my heart of hearts, I don’t know how real anthropogenic climate change is: I have not read all the scientific papers and all the data that abound about the topic. I know for sure that climate is changing in all parts of the world, but we don’t know for sure the real contribution of green house gases. Despite all the measurements and correlations we have yet to do the real experiment, which entails having numerous planets identical to earth in all aspects except for greenhouse gases levels. Obviously, it is not possible, not even for Captain Picard. And so, like many others I am epistemologically challenged.

Keep in mind that I know for sure that air pollution exists and that is causes all kinds of issues.

But there should be absolutely no doubt that the people who do the research on climate change believe that climate change exists. The question is whether it is caused by human activity or whether it is the result of greater trends working at geological scales. Even geological scales, however, can be deceiving: If you were standing on a glacier, you wouldn’t know that it is moving because of its slow speed. Still it is moving.

At its core, the adoption of greenhouse gases reduction policies is neither a scientific issue nor a political issue. It is a philosophical issue rooted in epistemology, the sub-discipline of philosophy that preoccupies itself with the way we believe in things.

A scientific paper titled Epistemological issues raised by research on climate change by Vineis et al. (http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199574131.001.0001/acprof-9780199574131-chapter-23) gives insights into the debate. Here I’m excerpting its abstract to illustrate the complexity of the issue:

The amount and quality of information is often limited, at least as far as extrapolation to the remote past or future is concerned. In general causality assessment poses special problems, both in attributing meteorological events like tornados to man‐made climate change, and in attributing health effects to meteorological changes. We exemplify some of the major epistemological challenges in this chapter. This chapter stresses that climate change leads to extreme consequences the application of the Precautionary Principle: the consequences of certain forecasts would be so devastating (e.g. the melting of permafrost, that would free enormous quantities of CO2) that we have to act to prevent them, though their likelihood is extremely low. The usual balancing of the seriousness of the consequences vs. their likelihood of occurrence becomes very challenging.

The Precautionary Principle to risk management dictates that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is not harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on the safe side.

This Precautionary Principle then guides policy makers to justify discretionary decisions in situations where there is the possibility of harm from making a certain decision (e.g. taking a particular course of action) when extensive scientific knowledge on the matter is lacking. Politicians make these decisions all the time when scientific certainty is impossible to achieve: controlling speed limits on the roads, regulating new drugs.

The Precautionary Principle overrides scientific certainty as it implies that there is a social responsibility to protect the public from exposure to harm, when scientific investigation has found a plausible risk. These protections can be relaxed only if further scientific findings emerge to provide sound evidence that no harm will result.

In some legal systems, as in the law of the European Union, the application of the Precautionary Principle has been made a statutory requirement in some areas of law.

Regarding international conduct, the first endorsement of the principle was in 1982 when the World Charter for Nature was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, while its first international implementation was in 1987 through the Montreal Protocol. Soon after, the Precautionary Principle integrated with many other legally binding international treaties such as the Rio Declaration and Kyoto Protocol.

No doubt, the Precautionary Principle is seminal to the Paris conference. The question is how far are we willing to go to underwrite either resulting risks: the risk of no action, or the risk of excessive action.

I don’t know for sure if anthropogenic climate change is taking place but I know that the Precautionary Principle will be the driving force of the Paris meeting.

Dr. Luc Duchesne


Dr. Luc C. Duchesne is a Speaker and Author with a PhD in Biochemistry. With three decades of scientific and business experience, he has published ... <Read more about Dr. Luc Duchesne>

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  • alvarita

    Dr. Luc,
    It’s refreshing to see someone suggest that there are things we simply don’t know for sure. Just the other night a program aired in which some of the world’s leading scientists agreed that the Earth will eventually heat up and far surpass temperatures on Venus as a result of natural causes. It’s easy to make claims that can’t be proven, especially when job preservation is the goal. If we all were given a dollar for every unproven theory, there would be no need for investing.

    October 29, 2015 - 9:36 AM

  • hackenzac

    In epidemiology, 95% confidence is the threshold. The Surgeon General says that smoking tobacco leads to lung cancer. Most people who smoke don’t get lung cancer. Science is forced to extrapolate and we know with 95% confidence that smoking correlates with cancer. The vast majority of science believes that there is a climate correlation. But if you need actual pictures, look at Greenland. 2015 is for sure the warmest on record. There’s no argument over whether dramatic climate change is occurring and there shouldn’t be over the predominant cause of it. No “proof”, there never can be, but there is strong correlation. Of course with permafrost melting and methane hydrate starting to bubble up from the deep ocean, it looks like we tipped. I read yesterday that the Persian Gulf is going to be uninhabitable in a few years. Air conditioning, we’re gonna need it. We should all ask ourselves in each of our opinions, what if we’re wrong and what’s the worst that can happen? That question puts the deniers in an especially morally weak position where we could have done something but we were too slow. I wonder how hot China is going to be when they clean all that soot up? I have a strong feeling that we ain’t seen nothing yet. As the air cleans due to electrification, temperatures will go up. CO2, methane, particulates, it’s complicated. Runaway methane is the scary one and it looks like it’s on. Nice going guys.

    October 29, 2015 - 11:32 AM

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