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Unstoppable momentum

It’s that time of year again. The latest climate change summit – COP23 – has opened in Bonn, this time with a surprisingly low profile. This annual event is, of course, an opportunity to highlight the key issues that activists and many mainstream scientists worry about, so there is an accompanying stream of news releases, featuring, for example, the claim that records are being surpassed: 2017 ‘very likely’ in top three warmest years on record. If this turns out not to be the case (quite possible after the end of the recent El Niño), the fact will quietly be ignored.

This hype is not new, but one innovation is the chairing of this meeting by the President of Fiji, chosen as a representative of the small island nations considered to be at high risk from sea level rise. This, of course, is not just a conference to agree policies, but a stage-managed show to reinforce the importance of climate change as an issue. For a flavour of this, it’s worth looking at the Guardian’s picture gallery (Politicians and activists gather for COP23 Bonn climate talks – in pictures).

It’s the activist events and demonstrations, with politicians and officials looking on, that provide the eye-catching images. There are demonstrations against German coal mines and coal-fired power stations and in favour of gender equality and, judging by the final picture in the gallery, this event provides an opportunity for just about any other issue to be aired at the same time; a sort of all-inclusive campaigner-fest.

Perhaps most worrying is the use of a children’s climate change march in the conference centre. Encouraging youngsters to parade with banners in support of ‘saving the world’ smacks of exploitation. Using impressionable young people to promote a cause they are too young to have developed their own views on is distasteful, whatever the cause.

Earlier events have made front-page news and prime-time television, but public (and media) interest has been on the wane since the supposedly pivotal Copenhagen conference in 2009. This seems to be becoming another issue people live with rather than worry too much about. Although the transfer of most articles on the topic to the inside pages gives a clear suggestion that this is the case, hard data is difficult to come by.

Recently however, an interesting nugget emerged recently, reported by Paul Matthews on the Climate Scepticism blog (Ipsos Mori: UK climate concern decreasing). The very name of the blog would unfortunately mean that a great many people would ignore it, but the report is a factual one: at a recent event for environmental communicators at Bristol Zoo, a speaker from the polling firm reported that the percentage of people in the UK saying they are very or fairly concerned about climate change has fallen progressively from a figure of 82% in 2005 to 60% in 2016.

For those people convinced that climate change is the issue of the day, this is a worrying trend and one indication of why campaigners (including quite a number of scientists) are so keen to keep up the pressure on policymakers. Messages are worded and spun to reinforce the case that more action is urgent. It is now generally recognised that the climate models used to make projections for the IPCC are biased upwards and that climate sensitivity is highly likely to be significantly lower than was stubbornly believed until recently. But, rather than welcoming this as good news, the message is that this simply gives us a slightly better chance of keeping the increase in average temperatures to 1.5° (a target already deemed impossible a decade earlier).

As it happens, the choice of Germany as the country to physically host the conference is likely to prove a mixed blessing for the re-elected Angela Merkel, currently in negotiations to form a new coalition government. She may be perhaps the most successful European leader of this generation, but her CDU party’s reduced majority (as well as the loss of votes for the SDP, now in opposition) shows that Germany is not immune to the current wave of popularism and disenchantment with the political establishment.

One crucial factor is the need this time to include the Green Party in the coalition. Despite Frau Merkel’s prominent role in promoting the energiewende, the Greens are demanding a more rapid withdrawal from the use of coal to generate electricity, and stronger policies to eliminate the petrol and diesel cars, replacing with electric ones.

And yet, despite the clear problems associated with running a stable electricity grid with the high levels of solar and wind generating capacity already put in place, no-one has a clear answer as to how to guarantee continuity of supply in a cold, dark winter (other than importing nuclear- or fossil fuel-generated electricity from neighbouring countries).

Could this turn out to be the straw that broke the camel’s back in terms of putting together a stable coalition? The alternatives are either for the Greens to compromise on their ambitions, or for the CDU to commit to a transition away from fossil fuels that this currently impossible to achieve.

And if a rich, environmentally-friendly country such as Germany can’t achieve the rapid decarbonisation demanded, what chance is there for the rest of the world to slash emissions as governments pay lip service to? This is highlighted by the annual summary of emissions published by the UN just prior to the Bonn conference (Emissions gap ‘alarmingly high’ says UN). The Paris agreement allows countries to make individual pledges towards the overarching emissions reduction target. To date, these cover only a third of the cuts deemed necessary by 2030.

From the point of view of campaigners, continued pressure is clearly needed to bridge that gap. But if countries are either unwilling or unable to meet the challenge, as seems to be the case, then what is to be done. Is it enough, as activists suggest, simply to build up an unstoppable momentum for change, when this is likely to run into the brick wall of lack of technical capacity to achieve the goals? Or are those of us sceptical of this course simply being unambitious and negative? Time will tell.