On acronyms and opacity

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Going Green in Cancun, Cancun, Mexico

If there is one thing that is agreeable to all of the parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, it is the need for transparency.

The United States has lamented the lack of transparency in the reporting of pollution output by other countries. Bolivia daily calls for transparency among negotiators. China says that every nation should be as a transparent as it is.

But for all of the hue and cry for transparency, the United Nations just isn’t made that way. It is not and never will be a transparent organization, and the COP is positively byzantine. It’s too big and too complex to ever be accessible to anyone who doesn’t make their fulltime vocation.

It’s no wonder that the science of climate change gets pushed into the weeds. In order to get the science, anyone interested in reporting or even attending the meeting must first hack through a jungle of jargon. There is COP16, COP/MOP, UNFCCC, IPCC, REDD, REDD Plus, AWG-KP, AWG-LCA, AOSIS, SIDS, LDC, NGO, BINGO, Annex 1, Annex 2, CCS, CDM, NAMAs, mitigation, adaptation.

This is by no means a complete list.

Even hardcore policy wonks get confused. A colleague covering one of the negotiating sessions related how two delegates from different countries negotiated one of the finer points of climate change policy for several minutes before one finally asked the other which policy document was under discussion. I asked one long-time observer about CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage) only to be asked what the acronym stands for, and another was unsure what BINGO (Business and Industry Group) is. Andy Revkin, environmental blogger for the New York Times’ environmental blog Dot Earth, related in a post yesterday how an inaccurate description of the scientific conclusions on climate change made it into a draft proposal to be considered by delegates. The mistake basically hinged on where the word “unequivocal” appeared in a sentence.

Once participants, observers, NGO (Non-Governmental Organizations) and the press have cleared a path though the forest of esoteric lingo, they must then navigate a crocodile-infested swamp of international politics. Everyone here has an agenda, and it is virtually always hidden.

The U.S., for example has set up a single email address through which all questions for its delegation must be routed. When I sent a question about the projected decline of coal production in Appalachia, which now supplies 42 percent of the nation’s coal, and how that might affect the U.S. negotiating point, the answer I received was “We have received your message and we will take your request into consideration.” The question was sent Nov. 30, and they are apparently still considering.

A couple of days ago a “spontaneous” protest broke out in one of the rooms, after which security guards led the demonstrators outside where they met with the Bolivian representative, who had a speech already prepared for the occasion.

This morning I stopped in the room where the BINGO (Business and Industry Group) meets before time for the meeting to begin. I was there for less than five minutes when I was informed that it was a closed meeting and I would have to leave. This is the group that includes the people interested in carbon capture and sequestration, and one participant whom I met on the street informed me that the CCS subgroup even excludes the rest of the business and industry people from its daily strategy session, which is held in the corner of the room, away from prying eyes and ears.

So much for transparency.

Unfortunately, all of these opaque proceedings have effectively obscured the real reason these meetings take place to begin with. That reason is the one short, scientific phrase that Andy Revkin noticed was misquoted in a UN document earlier this week;

“3. Recognizes that warming of the climate system is unequivocal and that most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid twentieth century is very likely due to the increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations, as assessed by the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change in its Fourth Assessment Report;”

Translation?

Climate change is real, and we’re probably the main cause of it.

This first appeared Dec. 9, 2010, on Going Green in Cancun on the http://www.kentucky.com/greenspot