Do climate change meetings progress the climate debate?
What we going to do with this piece of work is actually ask the question. We are now in the middle of the Paris COP21 meeting. There there have also been a lot of other meetings and keynote reports that have been published over recent decades. At the same time, we know we are changing some features of the Earth’s system, that atmospheric greenhouse gases are continuing to rise. What we have attempted to do here is plot these changes in the atmosphere against time and the occurrence of these meetings.
Now, the question we want to ask is 'Is it the case that there have been many meetings at international level with heads of state, yet the emissions and warming is still going up and continuing and hence is a rather unfortunate reflection on the success of these meetings' or is it actually the opposite situation, 'that the unprecedented interest, when we compare it against the changes in the physics of the system we can be confident now that this unprecedented interest is going to raise a real drive to keep climate change constrained, for instance within the 2° warming levels since pre-industrial times.'
Global warming and atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases
Okay so when we consider these plots, in this diagram we have the change in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases of which some carbon dioxide is a dominant one. In one of the other panels we have the amount of warming that haas been recorded since pre-industrial times.
Explaining warming and IPCC statements
Now, the warming is going on. We do know that their have been quite significant levels of global warming. That doesn’t imply causality between global warming and CO2 concentrations - the changes to atmospheric gas composition. But in a sense that is what climate research is all about. So far it's been very very difficult, admittedly based on a lot of different computer modelling to some extent but also ice core records, it has been extremely difficult to explain the warming we have seen as a potential natural cycle. All the indications are that there is a correlation between the amount of CO2 that ends up in the atmosphere, the amount of warming that we witness and that has led the IPCC, which is marked as the top five quotations on this timeline diagram, [to make]] increasingly strong statements that there is attributable link between anthropogenic emissions of fossil fuels and global warming.
On the second panel of this diagram, we not only have atmospheric CO2 concentrations, but we also have the cumulative emissions for fossil fuels, in other words the totals since pre-industrial times to now. This is a very interesting metric that has gained a lot of interest. There is a strong link between the cumulative emissions - total emissions - and the amount of warming, or peak warming, so we can relate that to future emissions by adding them all up with historical emissions and come to some assessment of whether we are likely to cross over the 2° target.
Now, this commentary is operated in parallel with the special issue of by Environmental Research Letters that picks apart this metric. The reason that metric is of such interest is it very easily allows us to get, and characterise, the generational issue. In other words the less that we emit in this generation allows more essential emissions to survive for future generations. So this metric captures this issue of our behaviour and how it will impact on generations ahead, and that is the brown curve in the second panel of the multipanel diagram in the paper.
Link between references to climate change and publications
OK so perhaps almost perhaps as a slight novelty, we look at the number of times that the words 'climate change' or 'global warming' appear in research paper titles or in the text of books in general. So obviously there is going to be a lot of technical books discussing climate change but it does also suggest a very very rapid growing interest in this subject and I think it should be encouraged and is encouraging in its own right because it suggests that we [as a human race] are taking this potentially serious issue seriously.
OK so just to summarise again, the usual procedure for writing a paper or even a commentary is to provide an answer. In this instance we have provided a question: "Is it the case that we have many more meetings yet CO2 continues to increase' or is is 'having many more meetings grounds to be optimistic that we can resolve and avoid potential dangerous climate change'. I think that this meeting is very exciting meeting in Paris. It is where people are bringing pledges of their emissions into the future and how they intend to decrease them. It raises hopes that we will be able to contain climate change within bounds that don't become dangerous, but hopefully also their is also realism that so much of the economy depends on burning fossil feels and I think it was worth remembering that climate change researchers do recognise the other side to this debate.
Will I attempt to answer my own question? Well, that is probably not fair to do that but their is a little bit of me that thinks that humans' incredible ability to resolve problems, that the Paris meeting is where we finally begin to get on top of this issue.