Copenhagen: Games People Play

Professor Bruce E. Johansen

Global Warming Graphic

I was reading the New York Times web page in my office when a story popped in describing how “dozens of developing countries, including China and India, threatened to walk out [of the Copenhagen climate talks] in protest, saying that the world’s richer countries were not doing enough to cut their greenhouse gas emissions.” Within minutes of that post, I received an email from NASA scientist James Hansen regarding a new paper he and several colleagues (most of them from China) had just had published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, entitled “Black Soot and the Survival of Tibetan Glaciers.”

“We find evidence,” the authors wrote, “that black soot aerosols deposited on Tibetan glaciers have been a significant contributing factor to observed rapid glacier retreat. Reduced black soot emissions, in addition to reduced greenhouse gases, may be required to avoid demise of Himalayan glaciers and retain the benefits of glaciers for seasonal fresh water supplies.”

Observing that concentrations of black soot (mainly from cooking fires as well as coal-fired power) have increased rapidly since the 1990s, along with increasing industrial activity and accelerating glacier retreat around the Himalayas, Hansen and his colleagues describe how seasonal factors intensify its effects: “[The] impact of albedo [reflectivity] change is magnified in the spring, at the start of the melt season, because it allows melt to begin earlier. Then, as melting snow tends to retain some aerosols, the surface Asian Haze, which peaks during November–March, spreads northeastward along the south side of the Himalayas. Thus, highest black soot concentration in un-melted snow occurs at the time of maximum snow extent, accelerating spring melt and lengthening the melt season.”

And here’s an important point: they conclude that black soot may be responsible for as much regional warming during the past century as carbon dioxide. In other words, in the greenhouse equation, coal-fired power counts twice, creating both soot and CO2.

The same morning, I read another piece in the Times, about Bolivia, which began: “When the tap across from her mud-walled home dried up in September, Celia Cruz [of El Alto, Bolivia] stopped making soups and scaled back washing for her family of five. She began daily pilgrimages to better-off neighborhoods, hoping to find water there. Though she has lived here for a decade and her husband, a construction worker, makes a decent wage, money cannot buy water.“ As glaciers melt, parts of cities in Bolivia are already going without water.

He might be a global warming skeptic, but in the words of Nebraska famous son Dick Cheney: a lot of people are “dithering” about climate. While our politicians dither and debate, carbon dioxide levels are reaching the highest they have been in 2 to 3 million years. And the atmosphere is not waiting on the games people are playing. The Copenhagen climate conference was quite a political piece, as everyone protected his (or her) own nationalistic interests. Greenhouse gases, in the meantime, have no politics. They merely retain heat in the lower atmosphere, where we live.

To quote Bill McKibbin, whatever one calls the outcome at Copenhagen, “the talks ended without any kind of fair, ambitious or legally binding global agreement.” A lot of heat was vented in Copenhagen; more than 1,200 people were arrested in two days of protests, and even more after that. In the meantime the well-oiled senator from Oklahoma, James Inhofe, who will deny global warming’s influence down to the last ice cube, visited the talks to brag that the U.S. Senate will not commit the United States to greenhouse-gas limits. He called himself “the skunk at the picnic” (his phrase, not mine).

The “skunk” was at the “picnic” in Copenhagen to remind everyone that whatever greenhouse-gas reductions President Obama made are (to borrow from George W. Bush’s favorite global warming lexicon) “aspirational”: e.g. promises. In the meantime, the skunks will continue to stink up the picnic by advancing such notions as carbon dioxide levels don’t matter (equivalent to the tobacco industry's denials that smoking causes cancer). Do not, I warn you, get your science from guys like Inhofe. Geophysics is not the senator’s strong suit.

Whenever I hear Inhofe (among others) complain that reducing greenhouse gases will ruin the economy, I remember that within the past 150 years some people have made the same argument to defend slavery, oppose Social Security, argue that women should not vote, and rail against the dangers of federal medical care for the elderly. Vested interests has a long history of distorting reasoning.

The New York Times article about Bolivia continued: “'A lot of us think about not having kids anymore,' said Margarita Limachi Álvarez, 46, a blue Andean cap with ear flaps pulled over her head. 'Without water or food, how would we survive?' A hundred miles away, in a middle-class neighborhood of El Alto, water has also become a gnawing concern. From September through November, the taps gave forth at best eight hours a day, often with little pressure."

As the Copenhagen conference was taking place, the journalScience carried a paper describing how scientists had estimated carbon dioxide levels back 20 million years, finding that the levels of today (almost 390 parts per million) resemble those of the Late Pliocene (about 2.4 to 3.3 million years ago) and the Middle Miocene (about 10 to 14 million years ago), when sea levels were 25 to 40 meters (82-130 feet) higher than today. In other words, once the thermal inertia of the oceans reaches a level reflecting today’s figures (perhaps 150 to 200 years) seas may reach that level again.

At present, roughly 1 billion people live within 25 meters of sea level. Not one of them votes in Oklahoma. One wonders whether international diplomacy (not to mention the U.S. Congress) are up to the task of confronting climate change, as greenhouse gases -- the real skunk at the picnic that matters -- continues to shape the geophysical facts for future generations.


Rosenthal, Elisabeth. “In Bolivia, Water and Ice Tell of Climate Change.” New York Times, December 14, 2009.

Tripati, Aradhna K., Christopher D. Roberts, and Robert A. Eagle. “Coupling of CO2 and Ice Sheet Stability Over Major Climate Transitions of the Last 20 Million Years.” Science 326 (December 4, 2009):1394-1397.

Xu, Baiqing, Junji Cao, James Hansen, Tandong Yao, Daniel R. Joswia, Ninglian Wang, Guangjian Wu, Mo Wang, Huabiao Zhao, Wei Yang, Xianqin Liu, and Jianqiao He. “Black Soot and the Survival of Tibetan Glaciers.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Published online before print December 8, 2009, doi: 10.1073/pnas.0910444106

Bruce E. Johansen is a professor of Communication at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and author of Hot Air and Hard Science: Dissecting the Global Warming Debate and the two-volume Encyclopedia of Global Warming Science and Technology.

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