Top researchers are huddled with government officials in South Korea this week to confront the scientific consensus that maintaining a safe global climate will require immediate and aggressive action.
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is expected to release a long-awaited study Monday showing what the world will look like if temperatures rise an average of 1.5°C over preindustrial levels, versus the 2° scenario scientists once deemed safe.
The study is expected to call for deep cuts in fossil fuel use and stepped carbon sequestration efforts in line with the lower temperature goal. It is also likely to warn that a 2° increase would cause substantial damage.
But first, governments have their role to play.
"This is a tried and true method by which governments have an opportunity to own, with the scientific community, the topline findings of the report," said Peter Frumhoff, chief climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Representatives from 195 countries have been sequestered with scientists since Monday, working out of sight of the press and public to hash out the report's so-called Summary for Policymakers. That's the outline of the report's findings that will likely get the most attention. It will be used most widely in setting policy and informing the implementation of the Paris agreement.
National representatives are going line by line through the summary, requesting changes on everything, from wording to the placement of semicolons.
"Obviously, those changes, whether small or large, can have different interpretations and therefore implications for all manner of things," Frumhoff said. "But the bottom line in terms of the rules of the game is that it's not a negotiation among equivalents."
Government officials, however, don't get the final say. That responsibility belongs to the 91 scientists from nearly 40 countries who were nominated by their nations to write the report's chapters. They must choose to accept the governments' line edits.
The goal of the exercise is to arrive at a final summary that the body agrees captures the core findings in the underlying report on issues like mitigation and impacts—not to ask bureaucrats to endorse the scientists' work.
But that doesn't mean it's impossible that one country or more could part from tradition and try to hold up the whole process, especially as this report is expected to recommend much deeper cuts in emissions than called for in the past.
"Could anything trip this up? Sure," Frumhoff said.
He and others say governments could move to delay the release of the summary, and possibly also of the underlying report. It's not clear they will. The meeting in Incheon is moving slowly, but experts say that's nothing new. The negotiators have a deadline: They must wrap up by Saturday evening to make way for a meeting of the Green Climate Fund at the same venue.
The United States, which has declared a retreat from the Paris accord, is represented in South Korea by Trigg Talley, director of the State Department's Office of Global Change.
In comments obtained by E&E News, the United States and other countries took issue with 66 elements of the draft summary prepared by scientists.
The United States complained that the report focused too much on sustainable development, which is "beyond the mandate given the authors of the report and beyond the mandate of the IPCC itself." It admonished the authors to play up areas where it said there were "significant uncertainties," including on core scientific questions of climate sensitivity and the so-called carbon budget, or the amount the world can still emit while staying within a certain range.
The United States also noted that global poverty has lessened in the last few decades as fossil fuel use has "exploded" in the developing world.
"The report and SPM do not present a balanced assessment of the economic, social and development costs associated with the trade-offs of pursuing actions consistent with limiting global warming to 1.5 C," state the comments, which would have been prepared by the State Department with sign-off from the White House National Economic Council.
"Too often," the comments continue, "authors dismiss tradeoffs as being solvable by using redistributive policies or by pursuing actions that are deemed consistent with sustainable development."
President Donald Trump’s administration highlighted similar themes at last year's climate talks in Bonn, Germany, where then-White House adviser George David Banks touted the importance of nuclear and advanced fossil fuels technology in combating climate change and the need to balance climate objectives against the apparently competing priority of alleviating global poverty.
If the 1.5° report were delayed by months, it could affect a collective stocktaking exercise in Poland in December—the so-called Talanoa Dialogue, which is meant to inspire countries to strengthen their commitments to Paris. Countries were asked to ready new commitments in time for the U.N. secretary-general's summit in New York next September; they're officially due at year-end climate talks in 2020.
The 2015 Paris summit mandated the IPCC report in part to address concerns from vulnerable nations that feared the new agreement wouldn't be strong enough to guard against the worst impacts of climate change.
The deal's text called for the nations to keep temperature rise "well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius," but island nations and poor countries argued that 2° wouldn't protect them.
And current Paris pledges don't add up to a 2° limit even if countries implemented them. Estimates of temperature rise with Paris commitments range as high as 3°C.
Business-as-usual scenarios are higher still.
"Governments across the world must take the report seriously and respond with science-based policies to spur genuine emissions reductions," said Ethiopia's Gebru Jember Endalew, chairman of the Least Developed Countries negotiating group within the U.N. climate talks. "Our world's natural systems place limits on us that we cannot negotiate, and all countries need to respond accordingly with fair and ambitious climate action."
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. Copyright 2018. E&E provides essential news for energy and environment professionals at www.eenews.net