The energy/enviro geek news is awash with gloom and doom over the dimming prospects for anything of substance coming out of next month’s Copenhagen meeting. If you read this site, then you’ve likely seen far more reports along those lines than either of us cares to think about. I know I have.

I’ve tried to stay away from commenting on Copenhagen largely because I think we didn’t need yet another outsider (me) telling other outsiders (you) What Will Happen, and I have no more of a clue about it than any other outsider. But Scientific American has run a piece talking about What Failure Will Mean, i.e. what happens if Copenhagen turns out not to be Hopenhagen, as some have started to call it, but Copenfloppen. And it serves as an excellent example of something I really think we need to avoid, namely false brinkmanship.

What Would Failure at Copenhagen Mean for Climate Change?:

This is the consequence of failure at Copenhagen: A marked shift in scientific effort from solving global warming to adapting to its consequences, a hodge-podge of uncoordinated local efforts to trim emissions - none of which deliver the necessary cuts - and an altered climate.

Climate experts, scientists and negotiators say that, absent international agreement, the children and grandchildren of those living today will negotiate a world where planetary geo-engineering is a part of daily life, sea-walls defend coastal cities, the world’s poor are hammered by drought, floods and famine and our planet is heading toward conditions unseen for the last 100 million years.

The December talks are, in other words, the last, best chance to change course before chaos descends.

“The choice facing the present generation is an awesome one,” said former Vice President Al Gore during a speech before the Society of Environmental Journalists last month. “Never before has a single generation been asked to make such difficult and consequential decisions that will have implications for all succeeding generations.”

Failure, Gore added, would be “catastrophic” - not only given the urgency of changes already underway, but because it challenges the efficacy of the rule of law as “an instrument of redemption.”

“Copenhagen is mitigation,” said Guy Brasseur, director of the Climate Service Center in Hamburg, Germany. “If that fails, we move to adaptation and geo-engineering.”

First and foremost, can we please stop this insane casting of our current situation as being balanced on a knife’s edge and requiring us to take action right this very moment? No one, and I mean not one bloody person, has to convince me of the seriousness of climate chaos and peak oil. But there is no way in the world I believe that a failure to reach a good agreement in Copenhagen necessarily means we’re suddenly flipping the switch from “mitigation” to “adaptation and geoengineering”.

Notice that there’s a sloppy bit of writing and reasoning (or intentional misdirection) going on here. Experts, including Al Gore, are saying that without an international agreement we’re in Big Trouble. I agree 100%. But are they saying that such an agreement must happen next month in Copenhagen? (Clearly Mr. Brasseur thinks so, but who else is in that camp?) What if it the negotiating breakthrough happens a few months later in a follow-up meeting? Would that still doom us to the kind of problems and responses the author describes? And if the timing is that incredibly precise, then isn’t it also true that the details of any agreement arising from Copenhagen in 20-something days are absolutely critical–just a smidge less in CO2 reductions and we’re back in Big Trouble territory?

The bigger issue–and there’s always a bigger issue when talking about energy and the environment, it seems–is that this kind of envirobrinkmanship actually hurts “our” side. If we jump up and down and scream about how we absolutely must, without the possibility of exception, get this political agreement or that law signed, or find a way to fund this project or whatever, then I can guarantee that we’ll quickly get a reputation for being a bunch of Chicken Little who can be ignored. The real problem is that the perception that we’re “always screaming about something and always getting it wrong” is itself wrong; the fact that we can’t explain in minute detail exactly when or how the sky is falling doesn’t mean that we’re wrong about the basic assertion that it’s falling.

(For the record, there’s much more to the article than just this one piece I’m pounding the keyboard and table over, and I recommend you go read the whole thing.)

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