by Danny Richter
VATICAN CITY- Today I got to see the Sistine Chapel. Instead of eating lunch. A good trade. This is a big compliment coming for me, because my grad student instincts for free food are still quite strong at this point, and it turns out that sitting, thinking, and paying attention is very hungry work! The opportunity to see this jewel of the Vatican was offered to observers and participants alike, and I wasn’t about to turn it down.
We had about an hour for the field trip from Casina Pio IV to the Sistine Chapel, which is accessed via the Vatican Museums. We were allowed to enter the museums from the Vatican side without waiting in line (hehehe), and we had our own tour guide, along with ear-buds in which we could hear her talk about what we were seeing without requiring her to shout. Aside from that, there was no special treatment or provision made, and we saw the chapel with all the same crowds as you might expect.
The chapel is at the end of a very long corridor, containing some great art in its own right that we were educated about. Inside the chapel, silence was strictly, and not-so-silently enforced (somewhat detracting from the serenity of the location), so our tour guide did all her explaining while pointing to pictures on some informational stands in the museum courtyard, outdoors. Down the long corridor and down a lot of steps, we found it, and had about 5 minutes inside. At least for me, just as interesting as the chapel itself was seeing the how the participants took in both the field trip, and the amazing art and culture we were walking by. It’s not often you get to see such individuals basically touring; on vacation. Usually, you only get to interact with such people in their offices or from your seat as they lecture to a room full of students.
What we took a break from for this happy little field trip was the best session of the conference by far. I’m afraid I will struggle to report it concisely and interestingly, because there was so much said that was just wonderful.
Though the session itself was wonderful, it got off to a bad start. Tim Wirth, an observer, but nonetheless a former US Congressman, Senator, Lead US negotiator for Kyoto, and President of the United Nations Foundation for 15 years was ungraciously and impatiently hushed by Chancellor Sorondo during his introduction to the session. It was frankly shocking. The Chancellor has been displaying great annoyance at the presence of observers throughout the conference, and there have been multiple reports of curt treatment, even to observers with such distinguished resumes. I suppose it throws into high relief the gratitude owed to the conveners of the session, Drs. Ramanathan and Dasgupta, who must have insisted on including such ragamuffins as myself.
The talks began with an excellent talk by Dr. Scott Barrett. He was seeking for a way of understanding climate talks, why they have thus far failed, and how they might succeed in the future. He framed the negotiations as an example of the classic Prisoner’s Dilemma, in which the maximum benefit is enjoyed by all parties if they all behave altruistically, but the benefit is greater for an individual behaving selfishly. This he contrasted with a “Coordination Game”, which involves some sort of penalty or sanction for those who fail to join in the agreement. The world is not good at altruism, he said, but it is great at coordination.
The challenge then is to figure out how to approach climate as a coordination game. This is what was done with the Montreal Protocol covering ozone-depleting substances. It involved trade-exclusivity of some sort for those who joined the compact, so everyone had an incentive to join, or be left out of lucrative trade. While this framing is interesting, useful, and thought-provoking in its own right, the questions that followed were equally fascinating because of the push-back Scott received. It is my interpretation that many people in the room, who have been deeply involved in climate negotiations for years, objected to the relatively simple framing of very, very complex negotiations. To his credit, Dr. Barrett pushed back, which was also fun to see. Nothing like intellectual fencing at 9 o’clock in the morning! In the end, I think Dr. Barrett felt a little poorly about his presentation, but this would not be the right take-away for him. It was fascinating, and there really is only so much you can say in 20 minutes!
Achim Steiner, the UNEP Executive Director and under-secretary-general of UN gave what appeared to be an extemporaneous talk in which he brought up what is emerging as a theme in this conference: if we are in the Anthropocene (the geologic period of time in which humans are the dominant driver of change on the planet), this also means we have opportunity to remake it. He also made the point that though climate deniers are forever calling for more data before action, humanity has forever been making decisions with imperfect knowledge, and this should not be different. This is also an argument I have heard made by US Flag Officers (i.e. generals, admirals) comparing it with the imperfect data available on the battlefield. He also brought up that in the debate about slavery and whether it should be abolished in England, the tone of that debate was so similar to the current one that you can substitute “climate change” for “slavery” in many of the arguments they were making, and the arguments still make sense. I bring this last point up because Marshall has of late been very into William Wilberforce, who was at the fore of the anti-slavery movement in England at the time. See that Marshall? You and the Under-Secretary-General of the UN are thinking alike and probably reading the same stuff!
The next talk of the day was by Dr. Ramanathan, one of the organizers of the session. I took a class from Dr. Ramanathan back in my first year of grad school, and co-taught a seminar with him in my 5th year. So, I might be biased when I say that I thought his presentation was the most powerful yet. But then again, they didn’t make him the organizer of the meeting for nothing!
Dr. Ramanathan framed his talk as highlighting the difference between the upper 4 billion (U4B) and lower 3 billion (L3B) people in the world, in terms of income. He began by showing a video from a 4-month sabbatical he took recently living in villages in rural India, where his family is from. Every few days he would get a “desperate craving for a beer”, which he could not find in the villages, and so he would go to a city for it. He noted the stark contrast between the rural villages and the city, and this is what inspired the framing for his talk.
The video focused on the daily lives of women in the rural villages of India. They will often begin their days at 3 am to light the stove and begin cooking. They walk 2 km for wood for the fires, and another 2 km for the water for the day, which they must then carry back without spilling, on their heads. The video also included video of him finding his beer in the city, and it gave a great sense of the contrast between the daily realities of the L3B and the U4B. The tie-in between the difficult lives of these women and the climate is the particulates in the smoke these women breathe in as they labor away over the cooking fire. These particulates kill them, and they warm the climate. They are deadly in the same way that the particulates in cigarette smoke is deadly. In fact, an estimated 4.2 million people die each year due to both indoor and outdoor pollution, and no small part of them are these hard-working women, doing nothing more than working to feed their families. In the atmosphere, these particulates absorb heat, warming the atmosphere as part of atmospheric brown clouds (ABCs) which Dr. Ramanathan’s work has focused on using drones (in his words, to “spy on pollution”).
The main thrust of his talk was that while CO2 is important, and we can’t solve climate change without solving the CO2 problem, we get a bigger bang for our buck by tackling the problem of soot, smoke, particulates, black carbon, or whatever you want to call these small particulates. Together with ozone and methane, these are known as short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs). In addition to affecting the climate, they also affect the health and safety of humans, and do enough damage to crops that they drop production in India by enough to have fed 95 million additional people. A big deal in a country that struggles with hunger. As for their climate effects, the new IPCC report indicates that these three SLCPs account for a combined 39% of the warming we’ve experienced since the industrial revolution (compared to 50% for CO2). This is a big deal.
Dr. Ramanathan’s work has not been limited to the cold hard science of black carbon. He has also tried to fix the problem. With help from others, he has helped build stoves that emit 80% less black carbon for the same cooking efficiency, thus extending and improving the lives of these women. Because the stoves don’t emit as much light and the women must still wake up early to begin the cooking, energy-efficient lights are also necessary to really fix this problem. So, for about $100 these women can buy both a light and a stove; an investment which pays for itself in 2 years. Though counter-intuitive, it is important for the women to pay for the stoves and lights, or they will not take care of them properly and use them, and then you really haven’t fixed anything.
Those were the highlights for the day. I was definitely glad to get the field trip in the middle, but it was rough in the afternoon after not having eaten a proper lunch. It was refreshing to hear that many of the participants also struggled; they are human!