Climate Summit Begins in Doha; Fiscal Cliff Could Mean Cuts to Science

BY Jenny Marder and Rebecca Jacobson  November 26, 2012 at 12:20 PM EST

The opening ceremony of the United Nations climate conference in Doha was held on Monday, launching the talks. Photo by Karim Jaafar/AFP/Getty Images.

World leaders, climate scientists and activists are converging in oil-rich Qatar this week for the United Nations summit on climate change, as scientists warn that extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy are likely to get increasingly more common.

Delegates in the next two weeks will seek to negotiate a new climate deal to replace the flawed Kyoto Protocol, which runs out at the end of the year.

But if the past is any indicator, progress could be painfully slow. Andy Revkin of the New York Times’ Dot Earth blog posted this 83-second history of the past 20 years of climate negotiations, which shows, via animation, how world leaders have managed to sidestep binding commitments:

And the Guardian’s environment editor John Vidal offers this critique:

“Evidence of global warming mounts both on the ground and in science, but in the bubble world of international climate diplomacy, little happens. Countries have become less and less able to collectively address the crisis unfolding around them. When U.N. talks fell apart in Copenhagen in 2009, world leaders claimed they could cobble together a new binding agreement to cut emissions within six months. That became a year, then two years, and now the rich countries tell a bemused public that it will be 2015 at the earliest before a final agreement will be reached.”

Still, Wael Hmaidan, director of Climate Action Network International, says there’s “real hope building around the potential of the Doha meeting.” Newly reelected President Obama mentioned the need for climate action in his victory speech and China’s new leader Xi Jiping called for a “better environment” in his acceptance speech, he pointed out in this column for CNN.

The conference comes just a week after the World Bank predicted that the world is on track for a 4-degree temperature rise and that such warming could lead to a host of catastrophic consequences: malnutrition as heat waves blister and kill crops, flooding as sea-level rise inundates coastal areas and washes away islands, a sharp loss of biodiversity, a deluge of extreme storms and the spread of life-threatening disease. In other words, a very different world.

But the world is already different. Scientific American’s David Biello points out that “if you were born after April 1985 you have never lived through a month that was colder than average.” Fossil fuel burning and other activities have added more than 375 billion metric tons of carbon to the atmosphere, he adds.

Follow the Doha Climate talks on Twitter here:

FISCAL CLIFF COULD MEAN R&D CUTS

The looming “fiscal cliff”, an end of last year’s tax breaks and the start of automatic deep cuts to government spending, could mean the loss of thousands of jobs in scientific research and development.

A recent study conducted by Steve Fuller, professor of public policy at George Mason University, found that 31,000 jobs in the sciences would be cut if federal funding is sequestered. And that figure doesn’t include indirect job cuts, such losses to suppliers or vendors, Fuller said.

In an interview with Discovery News, Matthew Hourihan, director of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences R&D Budget and Policy Program, said these cuts would cause more than just temporary setbacks:

“We won’t really know where the job losses will be until they happen, but it will probably be most acute in those states with the most knowledge-intensive workforces, since most of these are substantial performers of federally funded science… Not only would research itself suffer, but the cutbacks would likely have ripple effects into the future, as young scientists and science students would have fewer opportunities. So the immediate and direct job losses don’t really tell the full story, because you’ll also have fewer opportunities for new jobs.”

PLANETS PASS IN THE NIGHT

Early Tuesday morning, a brilliant Venus will pass by a dimmer, yellower Saturn, reports Space.com.

The event is known as a conjunction, and in the months that follow Venus will become dimmer and more obscure as Saturn becomes more vivid and prominent in the sky. By 5:30 a.m. local time on Nov. 27, Saturn should be high enough for prime telescope viewing. More here.

LINE ITEMS

  • Scientists think they can recover a newly-extinct subspecies of giant tortoise — made famous by the late Galapagos resident and “reptile prince” Lonesome George, the Associated Press reports. It would be the first time any animal was knowingly cross-bred back from extinction.

One downside: It’s unlikely any of us will live long enough to see the project accomplished.

  • The shells of some marine snails in the seas around Antarctica are dissolving as the water becomes more acidic, threatening the food chain, according to a study released on Sunday in the journal Nature Geoscience.

  • A suffocating stench has blanketed La Jolla Cove, and tourists, business owners and California officials are scrambling to find a way to deal with it.

  • A 16-mile island in the South Pacific shown on Google maps, Google Earth and marine charts turns out to be a phantom, BBC reports. Scientists are investigating how a landmass that doesn’t exist keeps showing up on maps.

  • These guys controlled a cockroach leg with a human brain. Watch here or below.

TOP TWEETS

Joshua Barajas, Jeremy Blackman and Hari Sreenivasan contributed to this report.