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June: Deal or no deal: the influence of political risk in global climate decision-making

As the clock winds down on current efforts to avert an impending Greek default, it seems timely to consider the role of deal making in decisions that have far-reaching consequences. The Greek situation has produced extraordinary volatility on stock and bond markets through May and June 2015. Whilst the macroeconomic outlook for many European stocks would seem positively bullish, cognitive attention has been drawn to a relatively minor contributor in terms of GDP and anticipation of future risks from the no-win scenario of Grexit. In psychology, this might be referred to as perception narrowing; enhanced focus on a more immediate problem than the overall picture.

So, this prompts the question more generally of how, in a game when there are at least some certainties of a negative outlook, players can be drawn to act in the short-term interest. There is, of course, a wealth of literature in this field, but the parallels to the international negotiations on climate change are perhaps worthy of some note.

It was interesting to see the business-focused media outlet, Bloomberg, publish on June 24th an infographic ( that spelled out more clearly, and in a format accessible to all, the overwhelming case that greenhouse gas emissions from the activities of global society are the cause of recent global warming. It is interesting because this is not an article hosted by the left-wing press. It makes reference to NASA-GISS based data produced by Kate Marvel and Gavin Schmidt as part of the Coupled Model Inter-comparison Project “Phase 5”, where climate models are being tasked with attempting to reproduce climate trends of the past 150 years or so, to see just how well they can do it. The evidence is overwhelmingly clear: climate change is happening and human activities are having an effect. The models reproduce recent changes convincingly and those same models estimate truly astonishing change for the future if emissions are not curtailed.

Deal making is currently taking place in the run-up to the next annual UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (CoP) in Paris in December. As with Greece, once again, eyes will turn to the international political negotiating teams for the hope of some sort of deal that might allow our global society to take on a more certain trajectory and allow better anticipation of future climate change. I choose those words carefully. Global warming through to the end of the century is a near certainty. Past emissions from the burning of fossil fuels remain in the atmosphere for considerable time, continuing to heat the planet, even after activities below may have changed. Climate models have often come in for criticism from some for the ranges of “uncertainty” presented. It is taken that this means there is little certainty in the trajectory of future climate. This, however, reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of what climate models do. Like an expensive calculator, they tell you what climate is likely to result from a set of instructions they are given as to how people are living their lives. If we burn fossil fuels wildly and move things (and ourselves) unsustainably then we provide those instructions to the model and it tells us a range of future outcomes. Those instructions are known as “scenarios”. What this means is that the importance of the negotiations in Paris this year is not that a deal to cut carbon emissions is achieved for its own sake, but rather that it provides far less uncertainty in terms of the likely future “scenario”. Climate models should then be able to provide a narrower range of forecasts, allowing for better potential to make long-term cost-saving adaptations.

Political decision making, however, is obliged to consider more than scientific output. It must consider, among others, the influence of lobbying groups and the broader interests of the constituencies its selected few represent. I was recently fortunate enough to enjoy an assessed presentation from a masters student on our MSc in Sustainable Environmental Management, studying for the module on Climate Science and Policy. I was struck by the truly excellent representation of ideas that the student had learnt through sessions with Prof. Iain Stewart on the role for appropriate channels of communication of climate science. The argument made was that, despite the overwhelming evidence from science, many people are too distant from the process of science to really believe its offering. Instead, our responses are informed by our values and attitudes, themselves informed by our experiences through childhood, our parenting and our current situations. To that end, the argument presented was that religion and faith structures have a vital role in both ultimately shaping values and attitudes towards environmental management but also in terms of driving political settlement.

How timely it is, then, that just last week (June 2015) Pope Francis released his keenly anticipated Encyclical on climate change. In the text, he describes the moral obligation on political leaders to find agreement given that the poor and vulnerable are likely to suffer most from its effects. Through the Encyclical Pope Francis is calling upon not just the political representatives, but also 1.2 billion Catholics to respond to climate change. Whilst, of course, some will find the instruction a hard buy to reconcile with more individual or immediate concerns, the intervention should undoubtedly prove more influential than another academic text on the climate science.

The religious intervention is simply another voice in the chorus of opinions by which international negotiators will necessarily be influenced in the coming months. The short-term interests of some must of course be recognised. In a similar frame to the situation with a potential Grexit from the Euro, where overwhelming evidence points towards the negative effects of a no-win scenario, those voices will be heard and pose general risk. Perhaps the most uncanny parallel between the two deals is that the short-term will always pose volatility that overrides the fundamentals. Notwithstanding, the deal to be struck in December 2015 in Paris, will provide greater certainty in the future climate scenario, and perhaps, therefore model projection, regardless of whether the outcome limits or accelerates the rate of climate change.

Dr Tim Daley
Director of Plymouth University’s Institute for Sustainability Solutions Research and Lecturer on Climate Science and Sustainability through the Department of Geography.

Follow Tim on Twitter @DrTimDaley 

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