Jonathan Pershing last year at a meeting at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado.

Dennis Schroeder / NREL

As Paris talks open, meet a geoscientist who has attended every major climate negotiation

As the world today kicks off the 21st, and perhaps biggest, meeting of nations who have joined the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Jonathan Pershing is aiming to keep his perfect attendance record.

Pershing, a Ph.D. geologist turned climate diplomacy wonk, has attended every past conference of the parties (COP) to the framework agreement. Now, he’s attending the Paris meeting, known as COP-21, as a top technical advisor on energy matters to the U.S. delegation.

After earning a doctorate in geology and geophysics at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, in 1990, Pershing landed a fellowship at the U.S. State Department. He then climbed the ranks to serve as one of the top U.S. negotiators at several world climate meetings between 2009 and 2012. At other times, he has attended the conferences representing the International Energy Agency and the nonprofit World Resources Institute.

Pershing, who currently serves as the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) deputy director of the Office of Energy Policy and Systems Analysis, spoke with ScienceInsider as he prepared to travel to the Paris summit. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: What it’s like to be inside one of these climate meetings?

A: It’s easiest in some ways to think about this like a three-ring circus. It’s huge.

The innermost ring is the negotiators. They’re there because of the deal. There are anywhere from [1000 to 3000] people involved. Bigger countries send on the order of 100 [representatives] ... Smaller ones a dozen, maybe as few as five.

The second ring [is] the press and the interested parties. In some sense people are there to lobby … to persuade people that, at the last minute, if you change this word to that word it would make a difference, and here’s why. That group is probably about 1000. The press may be as many as 3000.

The third ring is the biggest in number, but the least connected. If you’re working on [climate] you come. Not because you’re in the negotiations, but because everybody who works on climate change is there. It’s the chance to explore what in the hell is going on. That number is on the order of 10,000.

Then there are the people seeking to influence public opinion. That’s the protesters on the outside. They’re not really in the meeting, but they exist because of the meeting.

Q: What will you be doing?

A: I’m one of the people who can supplement our technical capacity. I will serve as the climate advisor for the Secretary of Energy [Ernest Moniz]. He has not been to many of these climate negotiations. So I can provide a bit of an entre and a window. I can also support him as he has his own meetings. I would be there if he needed some technical material or information.

[Once an agreement is reached in Paris], my guess is that very, very few people will read anything but the very high-profile decisions that we make. But all the other stuff is going to be done between technical teams. And they’ll come back home. And the question is: How is DOE going to implement that? I will have had a host of conversations with my counterparts in other countries about what we intend to do, and what they intend to do. When we come back home it will be a chance for us to say: We’ve had these discussions. Here’s the language that we’ve agreed to. What does it mean? Well, here are the specific details of how we would implement.

These issues are arcane. [For example], we debate until we are blue about something called blue carbon [carbon stored in oceans and coastal ecosystems]. So we have that discussion and the language, in whatever jargon, occupies four sentences—which nobody except those experts really understands. How do you [interpret] that matter to the larger community? You want to have somebody who is the interpreter of the science to the public. And that is in some ways what many of us in this process do. We have technical skills, academic backgrounds, but we are also involved in the world of communication.

Part of our job as experts for the government is to articulate, in an accessible way, what’s been done, why it matters, and what we’re going to be doing next.

Q: Do you expect to sleep?

A: You tend to run from about 6 [in the morning] to about midnight. And then you have getting back and forth to your hotel. And those are the short days. At every previous meeting, there were 2 or 3 days where you didn’t go back to your hotel.

Q: Is there a big scientific question that you expect to be at the center of these talks?

A: I think the AR5, [the most recent Fifth Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change], is a fairly current and comprehensive review. The one question that may come up, and it’s not yet clear how this will play, is: Should the international community set a different long-term goal? The goal was to try to avoid dangerous anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases. Dangerous was not defined. Starting in Copenhagen [in 2009], people began to [ask]: What’s the temperature that we really ought to try to avoid? And people are currently using 2° [Celsius, above pre-industrial levels].

The question now—and there are number of people who would like to see this—is should there be another goal? Should there be a goal, for example, [of setting targets for] 2050 levels of emissions reductions globally, or perhaps at a national level? That kind of thing may be asked of the scientists.

In some ways, you can see it’s really a question of risk evaluation. And a risk evaluation is a policy question, not really a science question. I can say: Should it be a reduction of 50% globally in emissions? And scientists will tell you that 50% gives you a some 66% probability of staying below [an atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide of] 450 parts per million, which in turn is a reasonable proxy for not exceeding two degrees. But that only is a 66% probability. Are you satisfied with that? Would you like a 90% probability? Would you be satisfied with only 10% because you’re pretty optimistic that the atmosphere is resilient and robust?

None of that is amenable to a scientific consensus. It becomes a policy question. The scientists can inform, but they can’t give a dispositive answer.

Q: Scientists sometimes point out a gap between what the science says about the magnitude and risks of climate change, and the actions that come out of these agreements. Do you think anything will happen at this meeting that would bring the policy more in line with the science?

A: I think there’s a legitimate complaint here. And I think it partly has to do with the rates of change that the scientific community is observing. There are very few issues that have this degree of in-depth assessment and consensus. So the scientist looks at this and says: If the problem is apparent, we ought to be taking more aggressive action.

The policy community starts at the other end and says: We have a host of priorities in each of our countries and this is one of them. How do I compare the immediate damages of this issue versus having insufficient capital—say I’m India—to provide access to electricity in my rural communities? Or how do I compare this issue—and say I’m in Europe—to my interest in immigration or terror policy? And this takes a second seat. Not because it’s not important, but [because] something else comes up that’s a bigger deal. And so the politics inevitably is in conflict in these spaces.

But if you ask many scientists about their own priorities, many would acknowledge that they haven’t stopped driving cars, or flying to meetings, or consuming things that lead to emissions, and aren’t proposing to do that. They are balancing these questions in their own lives. And the political world is seeking a comprehensive view that accommodates all of those perspectives. So the science is, in some ways, the easier part of this deal. The politics of how you get people to buy in and create consensus around action which requires some quite fundamental changes to world economies, that’s tough. So I think the gap is real.

I think the gap will increasingly be addressed. We are seeing it being addressed because the problem is no longer theoretical. We can point to damages, and as those become more and more significant the policy community elevates this in their list of priorities.