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Indiana University

Climate talks in Copenhagen: IU professors offer perspectives

December 3, 2009
Bloomington, Indiana --

Matt AuerU.S., China and India could still be 'climate heroes.' It may seem that proponents for tough measures on climate change have fallen on hard times -- that global warming has hit the back burner with barely a pilot light to keep it warm. But "keep an eye on that pilot light," says Matt Auer, professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs. For one thing, retired U.S. military leaders, including Anthony Zinni, are calling climate change a "threat multiplier" that could have disastrous consequences for unstable countries like Somalia, Sudan, Kenya and Nigeria. Leaders of China, India and Pakistan are mindful of these risks and know their countries may suffer from water scarcity as climate change dries up mountain snowpack and disrupts the monsoon season. In international negotiations, Auer argues that the U.S. could still agree to "Kyoto-lite" -- a set of targets and a timetable that, in treaty language, look weaker than what most advanced industrialized countries agreed to in 1997 in Kyoto, Japan. Nevertheless, in volumetric terms, the U.S. would be agreeing to reduce more carbon dioxide than any other single country. Auer also contends that "the U.S., China and India could turn out to be climate heroes if they put their minds to it. . . . China is getting smarter about how it produces and uses energy, with everything from high-tech furnaces at steel mills to newly insulated office buildings now saving energy in Chinese cities. China's solar power and wind turbine industries compete fiercely with U.S. firms for global market share. In India, Tata Motors' peppy Nano minicar gets 65 mpg, and new alternative fuel and electric battery models are in the works. With that kind of ingenuity, and their newfound wealth, China and India in partnership with the U.S. could go a long way in fighting global warming, with or without a resounding diplomatic triumph at Copenhagen."

Auer is also dean of the Indiana University Hutton Honors College. His research areas include sustainable development, energy efficiency and international forest policy. He can be reached at 812-855-3550 or mauer@indiana.edu.

Rafael ReuvenyA 'Global Warming Marshall Plan' could help. Copenhagen may be the last chance to head off disastrous effects from climate change, says Rafael Reuveny, professor in the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. However, it may already be too late. "The climate change train has left," he says. "What we are trying to do now is limit the rise in temperatures to an acceptable level, and this may not be possible." According to some models, he says, we may be close to a "climate tipping point" where the effects of global warming generate positive feedbacks that make the trend almost impossible to stop. Reuveny's research shows that changes in climate produce devastating socioeconomic upheaval, including forced migration and increased conflict, especially in the developing world. But he is also concerned the sacrifice required to prevent a climate disaster might bring about a "social tipping point," a dangerous social disruption. Pointing to the anger and polarization generated by the relatively small economic sacrifice associated with reforming the U.S. health-care system, he says that reducing greenhouse gases enough to make a meaningful difference could upset the social order, at first in countries with less robust governance systems than the U.S., and then in developed nations. In Copenhagen, Reuveny says, there could be two outcomes. First, it is possible, though unlikely, that there could be a broad-based agreement to slash greenhouse gas emissions by enough to avert serious climate effects. Second, we will essentially continue with business as usual. Sooner or later, this would lead to economic decline and social chaos, at first in the developing world and then in the rich nations; "It's a gloomy scenario, but unfortunately the most likely," Reuveny says. However, there is yet another way to approach climate change, he says, which seems to the best policy given the constraints we face. The developed nations could agree to relatively modest emissions reductions. The developing nations could agree to slow their rate of emissions growth for a while and then accept modest emissions reductions. Most importantly, the rich nations would create a massive "Global Warming Marshall Plan" to help vulnerable developing nations begin adapting now to problems brought on by climate change, which they did not cause.

Reuveny may be reached at 812-855-6112 or rreuveny@indiana.edu.

John D. GrahamMore than climate is in the balance. Agreements resulting from Copenhagen could have profound economic consequences, says John Graham, dean of the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. There will be "winners" and "losers," depending on the approaches taken to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. "The talks in Copenhagen are not simply about climate change and environmental protection," Graham says. "They are about the future of the global economy: future prices of motor fuels and electricity, the possible payoffs for investors with interests in new technologies, the fate of workers, unions and communities linked to coal, oil, steel, cement and other carbon-intensive industries, and the promise of geographic regions, states and cities that may win or lose economically from efforts to slow the pace of climate change."

Graham, whose research interests include government reform, energy and the environment, was administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the White House Office of Management and Budget from 2001-06. To speak to Graham, contact Jana Wilson at 812-856-5490 or wilsonjs@indiana.edu.

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