November 2015

“These people know nothing!  Nothing!

This outburst from an eminent Antarctic researcher was as unexpected for me as it was emphatic.  It came just outside a seminar during one of the climate negotiating sessions before Copenhagen, where I thought the negotiators present (many former colleagues, known from my own years in diplomacy) had asked intelligent and knowledgeable questions about the current state of the cryosphere – snow and ice regions, from the poles to high mountains.

But this researcher was unimpressed, and close to alarm at the lack of understanding among those he knew held the future in their hands moving towards the planned 2009 climate agreement.  Our ensuing conversation about those gaps was one of two things that, several months later, led me to decide to found ICCI as I stood in the nearly-deserted Bella Center in Copenhagen, watching on a UNFCCC monitor as the talks fell apart after heads of state left.  (The other was meeting a scientist from the British Antarctic Survey on an appropriately snowed-in plane while he told me about black carbon sampling on a remote continent where “BC” frankly had no business being, underscoring just how similar were the different cryosphere regions – but that’s another story.)

Since then, in addition to its basic cryosphere climate policy work, ICCI also has made it its mission to ensure climate negotiators and stakeholders – and we are all stakeholders in this one — always had access to the latest cryosphere developments and their impact on the Earth’s climate.  However, we have watched as the negotiating goals  and what science is telling us have increasingly diverged.  As the science moved forward, spurred especially by a wave of results from projects started during the 2007-2009 “International Polar Year,” we have watched “the extremes becoming the means.” As one scientist put it:  what five years ago was considered an unlikely outlier (say, melt rates on Greenland) has become the average.  And that bar has kept moving.

Scientists also were noticing that gap.  After IPCC AR5 especially, with its very key cryosphere messages that seemed to go unheeded, their sense of urgency only increased as it was joined by new research confirming that many of the dynamics they most feared were drawing closer.

The “Thresholds” Report, now released just before COP-21, is the result of a two-year process to ensure that this time, not only climate negotiators but also their “political masters” – our heads of state – clearly understand what lies in the balance for Paris.  Please read it.  We can still slow these dynamics, but time is short.  As the “Thresholds” Preface says, the only thing lacking is political will – and courage, to see the science head-on.

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