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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 04/28/2008

Freedman: Three Statistics for Climate Change Talks

By Andrew Freedman

Recently, representatives of 17 nations met in Paris as part of the Bush administration's initiative to engage the world's biggest greenhouse gas emitters to reduce the emissions that are contributing to global climate change. You can probably guess how much progress was achieved... none. But there was at least some innovative name calling.

As has become expected at such negotiations, no major breakthroughs were achieved other than an agreement by the participants to keep talking to each other. That's better than the worst that could have happened (a gunfight?), but it's far from encouraging. In the one morsel of news from the conference, German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel called President Bush's recent climate change speech a "Neanderthal speech," that was evidence of "losership, not leadership." You always can tell that a political leader is really angry when they insult someone in the same way that the other person would have insulted them, in this case by making up words.

Click below to continue reading and see Jason's full forecast for the weather outlook through the weekend.

The wider United Nations-sponsored climate change talks in Bali, Indonesia in December ended in a similarly inconclusive fashion, with goals and guiding principles for further negotiations before the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012.

Why all the bitterness, stalemate, and name calling?

In short, the answer is a bit complicated. It's too simple, and unfair, to blame it on the Bush White House. The administration's position on climate change has certainly contributed to the increasingly rancorous nature of the recent climate talks, with growing frustration over its reluctance to commit to mandatory greenhouse gas reductions without similar commitments by developing nations.

At Bali, for example, normally staid diplomats loudly booed the United States in order to vent their frustrations. The German environment minister should take note that that turned out to be more effective than labeling the Americans Neanderthals, since the U.S. negotiators backed down from the position that was drawing the chorus of dissent.

The climate talks are difficult because they involve the central tension between the needs of the world's poor and the interests of the rich. Climate change is at its core a development issue, and its not going to be easy for the next president to broker an agreement between developing countries that are eager to achieve a higher standard of living, and industrialized countries that are hell bent on not giving up any part of their high standard of living in order to reduce emissions.

It would be a real step forward, however, if the talks would depart from their recent play book. The U.N. negotiations have so often resulted in acrimonious deadlock that I'm beginning to think they have been scripted ahead of time, although by a clinically depressed writer:

Day 1:

The U.S. representative demands developing countries, such as China and India, take action to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases along with industrialized nations.

China and India demand that the U.S. take action to reduce its emissions first, in accordance with the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. The United States signed that treaty in 1992.

Days 2 through 4:

"You first," "No, You first" bickering continues, interrupted by a plea for action by the Maldives, a small island nation that may be submerged by a climate-related rise in the sea level. As the Maldives representative talks, another negotiator pours a bucket of water on their head for dramatic effect. And one fish too.

Days 5 through 6:

Negotiations extend past deadline, until several negotiators fall asleep, wake up and speak, then fall asleep again. A compromise is put forward at the last minute.

Negotiations end with a press conference to portray the incremental or nonexistent progress in the best possible light.

As a primer for understanding the next round of negotiations, I propose that it is necessary to examine only three key statistics in order to discern the state of play of the climate issue in the international community. These statistics offer a window into the fundamental disagreements that are standing in the way of what scientists say would be a far less disruptive climate. The statistics have more of an influence on the negotiations than does the occupant of the White House.

Developing countries such as China and India emphasize the first two statistics, and the United States prefers that a new agreement be based on the third one.

The first statistic is carbon dioxide emissions on a per capita basis. Negotiators from China and India are seeking to have any new climate change agreement be rooted in this statistic, because it demonstrates that the average American has a far greater impact on warming the planet than the average Chinese or Indian does. For example, according to the International Energy Agency's World Energy Outlook 2007, the average Chinese person emitted only 3.9 metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2005. In contrast, Americans emit the most in the world, a whopping 21 metric tons of carbon dioxide per person, according to the web site The typical European emitted less than a typical American.

However, with China's rapid development, the average Chinese person in 2030 is expected to emit as much as the average European person does today, with Indians emitting less than that. For more information on this statistic, see this gapminder video.

The second statistic is the historical share of carbon dioxide emissions. Here too, China and India lag behind the United States and Europe. According to the IEA, the U.S. and the European Union combined were responsible for more than half of the carbon dioxide emissions between 1900 and 2005. China was responsible for only eight percent, and India a paltry two percent. This too is expected to change, with China's number rising to 16 percent by 2030 (1900-2030 emissions), and India's increasing to four percent.

Still, this statistic bolsters the developing countries' argument that nations such as the U.S. created the climate problem in the first place, and therefore it should be up to them to make the first big moves to fix it. This approach is in fact enshrined in international law, through the Framework Convention.

Finally, the U.S. prefers to discuss a climate change agreement based upon the total amount of greenhouse gases emitted by each country per year. The United States and China are currently running just about even for top place in this category, with China possibly already ahead of the U.S. for the first time. China is expected to be the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the coming years, with India moving up to number 3 by 2015. The U.S. emphasizes this statistic to make its case that developing countries need to take action in concert with the industrialized countries in order for a climate regime to be effective.

Of course, there are many other statistics involved in the complicated field of climate science. However, these three statistics offer the clearest view into the negotiating positions of the major players in the climate change talks. The ways in which each country emphasizes them helps to offer clues about their negotiating positions. According to James Connaughton, the White House environmental advisor, all of them are important to consider. "On the per capita approach, that's still an item in discussion. From the U.S. perspective, all of these metrics matter," he said in a press conference call on April 18.

The important thing to remember, however, is that it makes no difference to the atmosphere whether emissions come from countries with high per capita emissions rates or low ones, or whether diplomats hurl silly names at one another. The warming effect will still be the same, and the Maldives will still be swimming.

By Andrew Freedman  | April 28, 2008; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Climate Change, Freedman  
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According to the latest IPCC, the maximum sea level rise will be 18 inches.

According to the CIA "World Factbook", the maximum elevation of the Maldives is 2.4 meters, or approximately 7 feet.

But you write, "... the Maldives will still be swimming". Obviously, given the disparity between 1.5 feet and 7 feet, this is simply not true.

Could you please try to stick a little closer to the truth in future columns?

Many thanks,
Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr. Q. | April 28, 2008 11:43 AM | Report abuse

Seriously Mr Q - you had about 10 posts last week. Could you please just accept Mr Freedman's hyperbole was CLEARLY a joke and a continuation of the earlier humorous 'script' for these meetings?

This was pretty funny Andrew. My question is this - China having a huge population means their per capita emissions are obviously spread over a much larger sample and they get to look better, yet you can't see the sky in Beijing and everyone walks around wearing a mask. So while the Chinese have a point when they say that we created most of this mess, but how long can they claim a free pass on this?

Is there some other way to get them to the table, or do we just have to wait for a new administration to make the sort of progress they want to see?

Posted by: James | April 28, 2008 12:19 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Q: Good point, but that disparity does not render my argument a false one, for a few reasons. First of all, some scientists believe the IPCC's sea level forecast to be underdone, and a lot of work is now being focused on this area. Second, the Maldives' maximum elevation may prevent some of its landmass from sinking, but that doesn't mean that all of the nation (which is really a series of islands) will stay above water, because many areas are less than 7 feet above water.

Nor do you take into account the fact that as the sea level rises, low lying island nations such as the Maldives will experience more damaging storm surges, which has already been noted. Only small rises in sea level are necessary to significantly increase the impact of storms. This is the case for the U.S. as well.

If I were to extend your argument, it would be like saying that Florida will be protected from hurricane related storm surges because it's maximum elevation is 20 feet, even though most residents live close to the water's edge at lower elevations. Do all of the Maldives' citizens live at that maximum elevation? No, they don't.

You're welcome,


Posted by: Andrew Freedman, Capital Weather Gang | April 28, 2008 12:23 PM | Report abuse

James, yes, I was trying to extend the humorous script further in that last line, but there are also actual scientific justifications that back that line up (as my response to Mr. Q. indicates).

Thanks for your question. I think we already have China at the table, both in the Bush-led climate talks and in the U.N. talks, but that the most progress will be made when the U.S. is ready to take steps of its own in concert with China's efforts. China actually already has a renewable energy law, the U.S. doesn't on a national level, and they have more strict auto fuel economy standards than we do, so while they have major, major environmental challenges ahead of them, much of them climate-related, they also are not standing idly by.

What do others think about this? Are there other climate statistics that should be looked at to point the way to a cleaner future, or did I encompass the major ones in the column? How should the U.S. work with China, and India etc. to get a climate change agreement? That question is a bit outside the scope of this blog, which is focused on the weather, but it's worth asking based on this column.

Posted by: Andrew Freedman, Capital Weather Gang | April 28, 2008 12:30 PM | Report abuse

Andrew, touche:
You always can tell that a political leader is really angry when they insult someone in the same way that the other person would have insulted them, in this case by making up words.
You are funny!

Posted by: Camden, Capital Weather Gang | April 28, 2008 1:54 PM | Report abuse

$20 says Camden and Andrew are sitting next to each, but communicating through these boards :)

Posted by: Jake in Reston | April 28, 2008 1:57 PM | Report abuse

Well, I must confess, I did NOT see that coming.

All I did was ask a simple question, "Could you please try to stick a little closer to the truth in future columns?"

I thought I was setting the bar rather low. I didn't ask you to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I only asked that you "try to stick a little closer to the truth".

In your response to me, you argue that you what you said is basically (or theoretically) true.

In your response to James, you say you were trying to be funny with that line.

So you are arguing that you believe what you said to be true, *and* that it is funny? Holy crap! Do you find dog fighting funny as well?

WTF Mr. Freedman?!?

Posted by: Mr. Q. | April 28, 2008 2:01 PM | Report abuse

Is it me or is it sleeting outside my window by Crystal City?

Posted by: Jack | April 28, 2008 2:05 PM | Report abuse


Thanks for your information about China, I will look at some of their efforts in this area to better understand what we all still need to do. I may be able to scrutinize more carefully the progress (or lack of) at the next round of talks. Thanks.

Mr Q - WTF? Andrew was perfectly polite in his response to you; more polite than your snide comment deserved. And I am pretty sure that I said he was funny, not him.

I can tell from your comments that humor (and an ability to grasp science that you disagree with) elude you, but try to be polite to someone who deserves at least that and was good enough to respond to another round of your asinine comments.

Posted by: James | April 28, 2008 2:23 PM | Report abuse

James, perhaps you missed this comment by Mr. Freedman - "James, yes, I was trying to extend the humorous script further in that last line, but there are also actual scientific justifications that back that line up (as my response to Mr. Q. indicates)."

In that one sentence he is saying, "Yes it is true that an island group which is home to over 379,00 will be swimming, and that is humorous".

Perhaps you find that as "humorous" as Mr. Freedman does, but I fail to see the humor in it.

And just for the record, I have taken great pains to be extra polite to Mr. Freedman.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr. Q. | April 28, 2008 2:29 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Q has "taken great pains to extra polite to Mr. Freedman"? Wow! Really? You have? Huh, who knew just addressing someone as Mr. was being extra polite. Your "politeness" barely masks your disdain and contempt for his views. But it does make for interesting reading.

Posted by: Amazed | April 28, 2008 2:48 PM | Report abuse

Alright, let's calm down a bit folks. No, in that one sentence I am not saying that it is humorous that a nation is going to be under water. I don't find it funny that a nation is threatened with devastation. Instead, I was making fun of the tendency for negotiators from China and the U.S. to lose sight of the situation of the small island states. I was making a point using satire. That's all. The point, Mr. Q, is that negotiators from the U.S. and China can dance around each other all they want, but they are losing sight of those who have the most to lose from climate change.

That's where the original sentence came from, and is also where my response to James came from. Does that clarify this?

And Mr. Q, your first comment was disrespectful, contrary to what you may have intended. It seemed to be accusing me of lying, or at least purposefully obscuring the truth. It did not exhibit any "great pains to be extra polite" as you indicated in your post a few minutes ago. I apologize if I have misinterpreted you, but you should try to be more aware of the use of strong language like that right out of the gate, without giving the author a chance to respond to your query.

Posted by: Andrew Freedman, Capital Weather Gang | April 28, 2008 2:54 PM | Report abuse

Andy, you've got a one-track mind. With all due respect (and I'm not trying to be rude by saying this), get a life. People are getting tired of this global-warming nonsense....just as the equally "ice-age" Chicken-Little nonsense of 30 years ago.

Perhaps Mr. Gabriel over in Germany could also use a little education in both courtest and etiquette before he makes a fool of himself again by criticizing Bush.

Posted by: Mike | April 28, 2008 2:57 PM | Report abuse

Well, you see, there are many different kinds of humor. Not all humor is of the laughing AT someone variety. Given his obvious concern for the situation, I would guess that Andrew is using a type of sarcastic humor that draws greater attention to the seriousness of the issue. It may also be of the "gallows humor" variety, in which someone laughs about something troubling in order to create a buffer that allows the brain to deal with the situation at hand.

I'm surprised that this requires explaining. I've seen more than a few comments lately (remember the comments on Pope day?) that make me wonder if Data from the old Star Trek days is visiting this site. Which, now that I think of it, would be really cool.

That said, I really appreciate the quality of writing on this site. Thanks CWG.

Posted by: Laura in NWDC | April 28, 2008 3:08 PM | Report abuse

Mike the fantastic thing about the internet and the CWG site is that you have to physically type in the address to bring up the page. So here's where that is helpful to you; if you don't like Mr Freedman's opinions or his column each week...don't read it.

And when you can present your Nobel Prize for your research on climate change, or manage to spell courtesy, you should feel free to criticize someone else's reportage again.

Mr Freedman's comments are based on the science and policy discussions he follows pretty closely - the silent majority who enjoy this column are tired of your comments and those of people like Mr Q.

You don't have to agree with everything he says, but if you could contain yourself to actually contributing to the discussion rather than just complaining each week, that would be appreciated.

Laura, can't believe you needed to explain sarcasm either! Good work though.

Posted by: MJD | April 28, 2008 3:28 PM | Report abuse

Can we get some rain counts for the day so far? I have no tools for this sort of data collection.

Posted by: KP | April 28, 2008 3:33 PM | Report abuse

"- the silent majority who enjoy this column are tired of your comments and those of people like Mr Q." from MJD.

MJD - Spot on, I am.

I've been watching this topic today and the one that Mr. Freedman posted a few days back. It seems that Mr. Q. is just in it for an argument and not the science at all.

I agree 100%, if you do NOT want to read global warming, do NOT read it! Nobody is putting a dying penguin to your head and making you read this! If you just come to this site for weather forecasts and that's all you want to see, there's a nifty "Stories by Category" drop down menu on the left side of this page. Please, feel free to use it. The CWG put it there for a reason!

And KP...I discovered this cool site a few weeks ago called CoCoRaHS, they're a cooperative rain measuring network thing (to put it in technical terms ;) )

Posted by: weatherdudeVA (Lake Ridge) | April 28, 2008 4:28 PM | Report abuse

"Sleet Man" unmasked! (maybe...) Jack, is that you?

On topic: Venice has been "sinking" for centuries. So the folks there add another story. It's true, you can look it up. Think this is a frivolous response? They don't. They call it commonsense coping. I refuse to believe that people around the world are too stupid to move to higher ground or take equivalent commonsensical actions.

Posted by: tinkerbelle | April 28, 2008 4:49 PM | Report abuse

.86 rain last 24 hrs. 100+ miles w.s.w. D.C.

As usual, I read your column with great interest. Your description of the global complexity of this issue, perfectly illustrates the reality we face. Each society around the world has special interests that are often in conflict with it's neighbors.

Many, who signed on to the Kyoto Protocol have not complied with it's guidelines because, after the fact, they could not, within their best short term interests. Perhaps Pres. Bush had great wisdom of foresight.

This issue is no more likely to be solved through negotiation and global agreement than the "Cold War" was, which raged for 40 years after World War Two.

There is an excellent chance of this issue taking a back seat to other more pressing immediate concerns during the next several years, such as a world wide energy crisis, world wide food shortages and starvation, along with serious worldwide economic problems. The chickens seem to be "coming home to roost" in several areas!

Ultimately and perhaps ironically, the best chance for siginificant CO2 emission reduction worldwide will not be through agreement from "climate change" concerns, but result from inovation in developing new technologies because of the worldwide explosive demand and competition for crude oil.

During the next quarter century, mankind will likely evolve away from much of our current concerns. Our knowledge and capability to adapt to whatever future climate trends may have in store will also increase.

We need to get serious and create great incentive for the development of new sources of energy. We need to act with more wisdom in the future than we have during the past 10 years. We need to understand that we can't afford to make future mistakes of the magnitude of the movement toward Corn based ethanol as an environmental cleanup. During the past year, 25% of the corn produced in this country went into ethanol. Our consumption of fossil fuel only decreased 1%. Many food prices have skyrocketed in a pursuit of this climate change mitigation. Environmental harm has actually increased as a result of the significant land use changes from a pursuit of more corn production.

If we get change from a new administration next year, hopefully that change will be positive.

Posted by: Augusta Jim | April 28, 2008 5:30 PM | Report abuse

I can't entirely agree with Mike, but he has some good points. Climate warming has been WAY oversold, without any REAL edvidence to back it up. The fact that Gore won a Nobel prize shows that the prize has become more politics than real science.

Mike apparantly was NOT questioning Andrew's right to post articles about global warming, only that it is being done to extremes here on Capital Weather. I happen to also share this view. Andrew can indeed post global warming articles, but it has literally been shoved down our throats.

Posted by: Bob | April 28, 2008 6:42 PM | Report abuse

Let's all say a prayer for the folks in S.E. Va., whose lives have been destroyed by the Tornado this afternoon!!!!!!

Posted by: Augusta Jim | April 28, 2008 7:56 PM | Report abuse

From Mr. Gore on Dec.1, 1998 : "I was also proud to stand up for the ethanol tax exemption when it was under attack in Congress-at one point, supplying a tie breaking vote in the Senate to save it. The more we can make this home grown fuel a successful widely- used product, the better off our farmers and our environment will be."

Mr. Gore gave the tie breaking vote. We can all give him great thanks for the food shortage and price crisis today, while environmental damage is greater under his wonderful ideas!!!!

How much more does it take to educate the American people?????

Posted by: Augusta Jim | April 28, 2008 8:27 PM | Report abuse

Here is why we never turn to other solutions (from an article in Salon, referring to specific geophysical "solutions"):

"grand-scale sun-blocking schemes feel dubious in part because they challenge our intuitive sense that large-scale wrongs can be atoned for only with equally large-scale sacrifices. Drastic emissions cutbacks require drastic lifestyle changes, like taking shorter showers and scrapping the Hummer. Such changes feel right because they're a little painful; putting the squeeze on ourselves is suitable penance for the collective sin of spewing tailpipe fumes into the atmosphere for the past 100-plus years.

"Geoengineering, by contrast, seems like an undeserved dispensation, a free-lunch promise that technology can whitewash our past transgressions. Let's go on a fossil fuel binge, never mind the CO2 hangover; scientists will cure it by blotting out the light and fertilizing the oceans! 'It's like giving alcohol to a drunk; you've got a knife in your drawer so you can put in a new liver if he ever needs it,' said Dale Jamieson, director of environmental studies at New York University, at February's AAAS conference."

See? We have sinned. There must be penance. (And people wonder why those not completely sold on this issue think it smacks of religion.)


Posted by: JO | April 28, 2008 9:38 PM | Report abuse

Augusta Jim: Thanks for your analysis of the issues at play right now.

As I said last week in my response to some of your comments, corn-based ethanol is not the only ingredient to the global food crisis, nor is it necessarily the dominant factor right now. There is a confluence of events that is leading to rising food prices, which actually includes the rising cost of crude oil, since oil products are a key agricultural input via fertilizer. I suggest that you look deeper into this issue before you toss all the blame onto the climate change community for pushing corn-based ethanol on the world. The fact is that the climate change community wants corn-based ethanol out of the picture, not in it, because it does little to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Farm subsidies are hard to kill in the U.S. Congress, kind of like weapons programs (V-22 Osprey, anyone?), so I don't hold out much hope for a new administration to suddenly take away ethanol supports because of the food supply concerns. The fact that Gore supported it is not the best example here, because ethanol has enjoyed wide bipartisan support on non-global warming grounds.

Posted by: Andrew Freedman, Capital Weather Gang | April 28, 2008 11:48 PM | Report abuse

Bob: Writing one post a week devoted to climate change, on a weather blog in Washington D.C., is reasonable. It's certainly not "shoving it down" people's throats, as you call it. There were multiple posts today on the weather forecast. If you wanted to just come to get a forecast and leave, you could have done that unimpeded.

Posted by: Andrew Freedman, Capital Weather Gang | April 28, 2008 11:53 PM | Report abuse

Andrew: "Victory has a thousand fathers, defeat is an orphan". Your feelings and reaction to my comments are easily predictable.

Regarding your mistaken belief that I am attempting to "toss all the blame onto the climate change community for pushing corn based ethanol on the world". This community, which Mr. Gore has been a perceived leader of, certainly shares a significant portion of that responsibility, but most voices of this community are now running away from corn based ethanol like stampeding cattle! If this initiative had produced the wonderful results envisioned by Mr. Gore 10 years ago, he and that "global warming community" that you refer to and support, would have stampeded toward the pinnacle of being the "Father" of this idea.

Regarding share of food price increases, any reasonably intelligent person should understand that fuel price increases are responsible for a large portion of food price inflation. Until we understand that we need to eliminate our unquenchable thirst for deficit spending and the resulting devaluation of the American dollar, crude prices will continue to rise. An explosion in global demand for crude oil will certainly continue to inflate prices. Is it possible that we need to clear the way for search and development of new sources within our jurisdiction to supply us until we can evolve out of this mess. How high will gasoline prices have to go before Americans realize that the solution is not as simplistic as some politicians would have us believe? Elect me, and I will sock it to the greedy oil companies for robbing us with these high gas prices. This is such a joke, and yet millions believe it!! Nancy Pelosi told us during April of 2006 that the Democrats had a plan to bring gasoline prices down. We gave the Dems. control of Congress 7 months later. Since that time crude oil prices have doubled. What happened to the "plan" that Nancy referred to back in 2006??? Enough, off-subject!

The Biofuel initiative is responsible for probably a quarter to a third of commodity price increases which is directly linked to your grocery bill. This is certainly significant!!!

I have to go, because Mr. Bush is going to give us the solutions in about 30 minutes. I certainly can't miss that!!!!

Posted by: Augusta Jim | April 29, 2008 10:05 AM | Report abuse

Augusta Jim: I hate to be predictable ;).

One of the potential solutions to getting us off corn-based ethanol is to stop penalizing the importation of Brazilian sugarcane-based ethanol, which doesn't compete with food for fuel and also actually reduces greenhouse gas emissions. But removing tariffs on foreign ethanol doesn't sell well in Iowa.

Posted by: Andrew Freedman, Capital Weather Gang | April 29, 2008 12:40 PM | Report abuse

Bob -- Have to agree with Andrew. There's nothing extreme about our climate change coverage. We have about 20 posts per week, with 1 or 2 of them about climate change and the rest mostly devoted to the weather or weather-related topics. So there is nothing extreme about that. As for the coverage itself, I think if you surveyed a sample of climate-related columns throughout the media and blogosphere, extreme would be the last word one would use to describe Andrew's commentary.

Posted by: Dan, Capital Weather Gang | April 29, 2008 2:26 PM | Report abuse

Thank you and CWG, I will look forward to your message next week!!!!, but I may be late in my comments because I look foward to a very busy next 10 days.

Gotta make bread to pay for this high Petrol!!!!

Posted by: Augusta Jim | April 29, 2008 7:54 PM | Report abuse

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