Earth Island Institute logo, tap or click to visit the Institute home page

Go Back: Home > Earth Island Journal > Latest News > Post and Comments

Latest News

Cancun Success or Failure – Compared to What?

Cancun was not a surprise. Nor was it a failure. This much is easy to say.

But was it a success? This is a more difficult question. I used to have an irritating friend. Every time you made a strong, implausibly simple claim – something like “Cancun was a success” – he would reply “Compared to what?” It was a pedantic device, but it worked well enough. It made you think, which, I suppose, is why it was irritating.

Compared to what the science demands, Cancun was obviously a failure. The Climate Tracker crew made that clear in an evaluation filed before most people even got home – if the pledges in the Cancun Agreements are delivered upon, but only just barely, the result would be at least 3.2C of warming, and possibly far more – the CO2 concentration of the atmosphere would be about 650 ppm in 2100.

Why then wasn’t Cancun a failure? Because, just maybe, it will put us onto a better road. Because it was so meticulously (though undemocratically) managed that, even in the face of immense discord and multi-polarity, it produced a weak – though still substantive – agreement. Because we’ve lived to fight another day, and the UN-based multilateral climate negotiations have been relegitimized, at least for the moment. Which is why most of the assembled NGOs, citing a pre-meeting study by UK think tank E3G, decided that the Cancun outcome met the qualifications for the “Lifeline scenario”:

“Skilful diplomacy led by the Mexican Presidency provides just enough substance to move the process forward; and does not compromise environmental integrity of reaching a global deal in the future… This scenario provides sufficient movement on key issues and rolls the negotiation process forwards another year, but must contain a high degree of trust and confidence to prevent moving back into Zombie.”

The Zombie scenario, suffice it to say, would have been worse.

As for the “high degree of trust and confidence,” the jury is still out. For one thing, the Agreements go a long way towards locking in a 2020 financial support target of $100 billion per annum. But this, believe it or not, is a ridiculously small sum that has absolutely no relationship to the likely costs of emergency climate transition. Moreover, the signs point to a future in which, despite the severity of the climate crisis, the wealthy world muddles forward by way of funding strategies in which small offers of public finance are padded out with loans, repurposed and non-additional “aid,” and of course a great deal of private (profit seeking) money.

And there’s an even deeper concern, that, in the words of the South Centre’s Martin Khor, “Cancun may be remembered in future as the place where the UNFCCC's climate regime was changed significantly, with developed countries being treated more and more leniently, reaching a level like that developing countries, while the developing countries are asked to increase their obligations to be more and more like developed countries.” Nor is this a perverse reading of the Agreements, which for all their surface complexity are built upon simple and frightening truths: The Kyoto Protocol is passing away, there’s not yet anything global on the table to replace it, and the battle to ensure that the coming global accord is actually a fair one – that it ensures developmental justice around the world – has barely been joined.

There’s much to be said about the flaws in the Cancun Agreements, and about their adoption. The difficulty is that, in the last instance, these flaws do not argue that the Agreements were a mistake. This is because, finally, the case for the defense rests on appeals to realism, and such appeals cannot be refuted in any simple way. The reason that so many people are celebrating the Agreements is because they believe that, setting aside the details, they capture the only agreement that was possible. The euphoria of the last plenary, in other words, was actually desperation. The details, beyond the basic requirement to keep the future open, were entirely secondary.

What, then, of the strong and inspiring agreement we need? The one that will establish trust, and build momentum, and allow us some real measure of honest hope? Here the most useful answer is perhaps a call to arms, and a warning: The climate movement since Copenhagen has spend altogether too much time calling for the protection of the Kyoto Protocol, and altogether too little explaining why that protection is so critical.

Which is to say that Kyoto, alone on the negotiating table, represents the obligations of the wealthy world, obligations that must be affirmed if we’re to lay the foundations of a fair global climate regime. And that de-emphasizing this admittedly difficult aspect of the Kyoto storyline was always unwise. Doing so opened space for analytic opportunists (see for example the boys at the Breakthrough Institute) to argue that Kyoto deserves its inevitable death, and, critically, it established a fatally downsized public political agenda.

Now we get another chance. Now there will be a new round of negotiations, one that grinds though another exhausting year of inter-national meetings and culminates, in December of 2011, in Durban, South Africa, where we’ll have our next big chance for a meaningful breakthrough. There’s a lot to say about Durban, but there will be time to say it later. For the moment, just keep in mind that, after Cancun, we’re closer, and perhaps much closer, to the debate we should have had twenty years ago. The one that begins by asking what would be fair enough to actually work.

Tom Athanasiou, Author and director of Earth Island Project EcoEquityTom Athanasiou photo
Tom Athanasiou, the director of the Earth Island projectEcoEquity has been a close observer of the climate negotiations since 1999. He codirects both the Climate Action Network’s Equity Working Group and the Climate Equity Reference Project. His principle interest is distributional justice within the context of an emergency global climate mobilization, which he hopes to live to see.

Email this post to a friend.

Write to the editor about this post.

Subscribe Today
cover thumbnail EIJ cover thumbnail EIJ cover thumbnail EIJ cover thumbnail EIJFour issues of the award-winning
Earth Island Journal for only $10



Each and every time this happens, you get to re-run the same joke about how such-and-such a seicnce meeting happened while some freak weather was going on.It’s perfect, really.You could just create a template and just switch around the locations and the labels, rather than type up a new article each and every time.In fact, why wait for a specific conference or seminar?Just dust it off every every winter..or even every time you “Wow, it’s cold in my freezer.Those dumb scientists.”“Wow, there’s snow outside my window at Christmas.Those dumb scientists.”“Wow, it’s snowing in England!Those dumb scientists.“Would you balance your checkbook or invest in a business or buy shares on the stockmarket using the same screwy logic?Statistics.  Data points.  Long-term trends.I’m positive most of them rode bicycles, sailed, swam or hiked to Cancun. And then camped vs. using air conditioning and blowing their carbon allowancesBut they didn’t…and that’s how you can tell that it’s all just a gigantic global conspiracy!They can’t fool those in the know.Obama still gets driven around in a big car.Gore lives in a big house.The Pentagon still has big planes and big tanks and big ships.NASA still launches satellites and uses electricity for their fancy-shmancy computers.Anyone care to guess how many physicists and chemists and geologists and glaciologists and biologists and atmospheric scientists and fluid dynamicists and oceanographers use hot water every time they take a shower?(...insert righteous smirk here…)Irony is so lost on those people.  Clearly, NONE of the politicians believe ANY of the Anthropogenic Global Warming Horsecrap.  NONE.  An easy way for them to gain power from the gullible?The green scam does not apply to them, and it never will.  Good for thee, but not for me.  How much longer are you going to take it? Study politicians.See their That’s how real seicnce is done.The kind you learned in seicnce class.The seicnce that Carl Sagan tried to educate the public about.Right?

By Drew on Sun, June 10, 2012 at 9:48 pm

Leave a comment

Comments Policy

Remember my personal information?

Notify me of follow-up comments?

Please enter the word you see in the image below:

View Posts by Date View Posts by Author


Four issues for just
$15 a year.

cover thumbnail EIJ

Join Now!