Via Grist:

TIANJIN, China — China will on Monday host its first U.N. climate conference as it seeks to showcase its green credentials, but hopes are dim that the event will yield major breakthroughs that environmentalists crave.

Three thousand delegates will converge on the northern port city of Tianjin for the latest round of tortured United Nations negotiations aimed at securing a post-2012 treaty on tackling global warming.

But even the most optimistic forecasts for the six days of talks foresee only incremental progress amid the continuing fallout from last year’s failure in Copenhagen by world leaders to forge a comprehensive deal.

“Our expectations are not very high, in the sense that we have not witnessed a willingness from governments to really move the negotiations forward,” Greenpeace International Climate Policy Director Wendel Trio told AFP.

Check the Oh Crap box in the right sidebar.  These guys are foot-dragging, and we’re already out of what most people think is the safe range for CO2 concentrations.  What do I mean by safe?  Well, it comes down to the odds of catastrophic change.  The concern is that, as CO2 levels inch upward, we are approaching a situation where nonlinear changes start to happen – that is, where slow, steady changes in the climate “jump” to a new state very, very rapidly (in decades or less).  We can cope with slow, steady changes in rainfall in most parts of the world.  That is much of what adaptation planning is about these days – adjusting livelihoods and infrastructure for expected changes in the future to minimize the negative impacts.

What worries me, however, is what I don’t know.  Global climate and ecology are extraordinarily complex, linked systems that are not completely understood.  Changes in some parts of these systems may have no effect at all on the larger picture.  Other changes might radiate through these systems, having massive, unintended and largely unpredictable consequences.  As we inch the CO2 concentrations ever upward, and we inch global temperatures upward, we create conditions in which the likelihood of this sort of non-linear change increases.  The big example of this you might have heard of is the potential shutdown of the Gulf Stream, a shift in ocean circulation triggered by larger changes in oceanic circulation linked to salinity and temperature.  If this happens (and it could, though I think it remains unlikely), Europe (for example) would become much, much cooler, radically altering agricultural production and the accessibility of ports from France north much faster than we could keep up with the changes.

This is an extreme example, but there are many other such shifts we worry about . . . and many, many more that we’ve not yet thought of because of the complexity of the systems with which we are engaged.  It is possible to plan for adaptation to such events, though – in fact, I would argue that the idea of the discontinuous change is an opportunity for more productive adaptation and development thought than that which is practiced today.  All you can do in the face of discontinuous change is make communities and countries as resilient as possible – build as much capacity for change as you can, and then let people address these changes in locally-appropriate manners as they start to happen.  In other words, discontinuous change gives us the opportunity to take our hands off the wheel – to stop lying to ourselves that we can plan for everything, or that we even have all of the knowledge we need to make such plans.  Instead, it encourages us to think about a more flexible, resilient world in which people are empowered to address the challenges in their lives.

In every challenge, there is an opportunity . . .