Countdown to Copenhagen

NCAR staff gear up for high-stakes climate conference

World leaders, diplomats, policy makers, scientists, activists, and others, including participants from UCAR/NCAR, will con­vene in Copenhagen, Denmark, on December 7–18 for a United Nations-sponsored conference on climate change. With stakes high and global emissions still growing, ministers and officials from an estimated 192 countries will attempt to negotiate a new framework for climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Oil refineries. An oil refinery in south Texas. Fossil fuel emissions from industry, automobiles, electricity production, and other energy uses are driving global greenhouse gases to new highs each year. Warming caused by greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere will continue over the coming century, even with a stabilization or reduction in new emissions. (Photo by Bob Henson, UCAR.)

The talks take place under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which emerged from the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Representatives from each UNFCCC nation meet each year for a Conference of Parties (COP). The Copenhagen meeting (COP15) carries extra weight because members agreed at COP13, held in Bali, to move toward a new global climate treaty in 2009 that would replace the soon-to-expire Kyoto Protocol. Activists warn that Copenhagen might offer the last chance for the world to reach a consensus on reduc­ing greenhouse gases enough to avoid dangerous climate impacts.

Between 10,000 and 15,000 people are expected to attend the conference and several hundred related events. Among the participants will be a handful of NCAR staff. For the past five years, NCAR has partici­pated in the UNFCCC's periodic climate conferences as a member of the constituency group RINGO (Research and Independent Non-Governmental Or­ganisations). RINGO members will host side events in Copenhagen aimed at informing delegates and others about climate change research and related topics.

Bella Center.Copenhagen's Bella Center, where the conference will take place. (Image courtesy

Bringing NCAR science to the global table

The NCAR delegation, led by Peter Backlund in the NCAR Research Relations Office, includes Rachel Hauser (also Research Relations), Shannon McNeeley (RAL), and Lawrence Buja (RAL). Also attending the conference are Bob Henson (UCAR Communications) and Donna Charlevoix (GLOBE).

The delegation will manage a booth display at the conference and distribute resources about NCAR research. Several members of the group have attended previous COP meetings and found them fruitful.

"The premise for getting involved is that we could have a positive influence on the conference and gain visibility for NCAR's science," Peter explains. "It gets a lot of exposure for us as we spend time talking to sci­entists and decision-making officials, explaining our results and models. We've had follow-up with people we've met at these meetings in the past, as well as press reports from our presentations."

Lawrence BujaLawrence Buja, head of RAL's Climate Science and Applications Program, will be on hand in Copenhagen.

Informing climate change policy

Lawrence Buja, who heads RAL's new Climate Science and Applications Program (CSAP), served as project manager for NCAR's modeling efforts for the 2007 IPCC report and is now beginning climate simu­lations for the next IPCC report, due in 2013.

Although NCAR doesn't make policy, it has an important role in informing it, Lawrence says. NCAR's presence in Copenhagen will help the organization stay on top of policy developments and interact with the policy community. "There's an increasing conver­gence between the fundamental climate science we do here at NCAR and the broader economics impacts and policy sphere," Lawrence says. "It's not enough for us to sit here and carry out our climate modeling research in a vacuum. We need to be closely inte­grated with societal needs in terms of assessing our adaptation and mitigation options."

Shannon, an ASP postdoctoral researcher in RAL and ISP, will bring expertise to the NCAR delegation on climate change vulnerability and adaptation. She recently completed a dissertation on climate change and indigenous peoples in Alaska, and is now working to develop frameworks for assessing vulnerability and adaptation that can be applied throughout the world.

The opportunity to network with delegates and researchers at the conference and seek new partner­ships will be especially helpful as Shannon is help­ing build a vulnerability, impacts, and adaptation group within CSAP. "The field is really emerging and burgeoning," she says. "There's a lot of activity going on, with groups positioning themselves and trying to create their identities. We're looking tobuild our pro­gram and get ourselves positioned within the global research community."

Windmill farm outside Copenhagen.The Middelgrunden offshore wind farm is located several miles outside Copenhagen. Built in 2000, it delivers more than 3% of the city's power. Renewable energy sources such as wind farms will play an important role in reducing future emissions. (Photo by Kim Hansen.)

Education and outreach

Donna Charlevoix (GLOBE) is another staff mem­ber traveling to Copenhagen. In addition to promot­ing GLOBE's primary and secondary school activities at an outreach booth, she'll do a short presentation on the program with an emphasis on the upcoming GLOBE Student Climate Research Campaign. Set for 2011–2013, the campaign aspires to engage one million students in climate research.

"I think it's going to be really interesting and I'm thrilled for the opportunity to go," Donna says. "I really want to share what young students who are interested and engaged in climate issues are doing, since that's what so unique about GLOBE."

Bob Henson (Communications) is sending himself to Copenhagen to gather background for an upcoming third edition of his book, The Rough Guide to Climate Change, which was first published in 2006.

"The book covers the politics as well as the science of climate change, both in the United States and in other countries," he says. "I think the conference will provide a really helpful glimpse of how diplomats, scientists, and activists deal with the issue."

While in Copenhagen, Bob will join attendees from the NCAR delegation in posting updates to Notes from Copenhagen, a blog-style feature that will appear as part of the Currents section in UCAR Magazine.

The pressure is on

The Copenhagen conference is a successor to the current global agreement on climate change, the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012. This 1997 agree­ment set binding emissions reduction targets for 37 developed countries, but not for developing ones.

Adding to the sense of urgency in Copenhagen is a growing body of science on "climate commitment," the future impacts that will result from past emissions. Because the lifespans of most greenhouse gases range from a decade to century, warming caused by green­house gases already in the atmosphere will continue over the coming century, even with a stabilization or reduction in new emissions.

NESL/CGD's Jerry Meehl and recent retiree Tom Wigley were among the first scientists to publish research emphasizing the risks of climate commitment. A comprehensive new analysis from the United Nations Environment Programme released in October asserts that existing greenhouse gases have most likely committed Earth to at least 1.4°C (2.5°F) and as much as 4.3°C (7.7°F) of warming by 2100 (above preindustrial surface temperatures). The analy­sis reviewed more than 400 studies undertaken in the two years since the 2007 IPCC report. It warns that many predictions that were at the upper ranges of the IPCC forecasts are increasingly likely, and some events that were judged probable over the long term are already occurring or may occur sooner than expected.

The UNEP analysis points to the expansion of the global economy in this century and continued reli­ance on fossil fuels as obvious factors that contribute to warming. It also notes an increasing number of signs that oceans and land areas are becoming less capable of absorbing excess carbon.