Who’s to Blame for the Impasse in Global Climate Talks?

Earth Island Reports

The first thing to say about the climate negotiations this December is that they’re teetering at the edge of what, back in the day, we used to call a “legitimacy crisis.” On every side, people are eager to suggest that the negotiations have become a waste of time. It’s gotten to the point that folks are apologizing for going to Cancun, as if it were bad for their image to be seen at the climate talks.

The climate negotiations, to be sure, are a complicated mess, and the “blame game” now in full swing just adds to the confusion. In the United States, China bashing is much in vogue, and China has recently developed a taste for bashing back. But at least China’s positions make sense. If someone were to organize a climate-spoiler sweepstakes, the US would have to be the presumptive winner. It’s the US, after all, that reduced the Kyoto Protocol to a non-starter, and the US that led the Copenhagen charge to abandon top-down emissions targets in favor of bottom-up “pledge and review.” It’s the US that, in the words of chief negotiator Todd Stern, is looking for a “new paradigm for climate diplomacy” that asserts a world in which the developed countries are no longer presumed to bear the overarching, if inconvenient, obligations of the rich and the responsible. The US doesn’t even look to be particularly flexible when it comes to the “innovative finance” proposals that, frankly, look to be our best way forward.

photo of sign carrying demonstrators

There are, of course, extenuating circumstances raising their heads here in the US, most notably the “Tea Party,” a corporate amplified, nihilistic upwelling of self-satisfied, flat-earth, far-right libertarians that bitterly opposed even climate science, let alone international solidarity. It almost makes a good excuse. And there is, in fact, plenty of competition from the usual suspects for the role of the world’s leading climate spoiler. The Saudis (and, well, the entire global carbon cartel), the Russians (who haven’t yet fully digested the world-historic heat wave that just ravaged their country), and the World Bank (you want coal with that?) are still around, and largely unreformed. And there’s the usual crew of science denialists. Plus squads of disoriented reporters, with their usual failure to understand, let alone explain, the South’s position. Don’t forget the endless ranked phalanxes of corporate opportunists. Oh, and there are the subtle Europeans, who until recently were poised to strengthen their emission-reduction target (down by 20 percent by 2020, off the 1990 baseline) while simultaneously pushing for new loopholes designed to render their pledge almost meaningless. The talk of a stronger target, alas, has faded, but the loopholes remain.

Issues abound, wheels within wheels. It’s hard to tell whom to forgive for what, and which issues are absolutely decisive. Given the huge work still ahead of us, it’s probably fortunate that the focus in Cancun is on a small set of keystone issues that must be resolved before the big problems can move onto the stage. Or, put another way: What we really need is an open debate about the architecture of climate justice, and that is not on the Cancun agenda. What is on the agenda is “Fast Start Finance,” and finance in general, and the linked issue of transparency. All of which is to say that the Kyoto Protocol is still the only working game in town.

The North’s Move

Recall that Copenhagen ended with a shaky, acrimonious, and altogether unsatisfying political deal in which most countries agreed to openly publish their emission-reduction pledges and actions. This wasn’t in itself a bad idea. The problem was that it came packaged with the repudiation, particularly by the US, of legally binding targets and timetables. Even worse, the Copenhagen Accord is custom made to take the spotlight off the North’s long-recognized obligation (enshrined in 1992’s Framework Convention and 1997’s Kyoto Protocol and 2007’s Bali Action Plan) to “take the lead.” This is a long story, but it’s important to recall, especially if you want to get beyond the ritual predictions of failure and the absurdly simplistic reports of US-Chinese friction that have come to dominate the international media.

Why absurdly? Because the bottom line, rarely explained, is that the so-called “North-South impasse” will not be broken until the industrialized world begins to keep its promises. So it’s not really a North-South impasse at all; it’s the North blocking progress. To be sure, the southern elites are hardly above criticism – they have badly mixed loyalties, and like elites everywhere they are self-interested. But it’s still the North’s move, and no amount of pretended symmetry is going to change this fundamental reality.

An Interim Deal?

The hope in Cancun is for an interim deal, one that would change the tone, encourage statesmanship, and maybe, just maybe, set us up for a more meaningful breakthrough in December of 2011 in South Africa, when the next milestone climate meeting is scheduled to take place. Who’s fault will it be if such an interim deal doesn’t materialize? That, dear reader, is the question that climate watchers are soon going to have to answer.

What’s on the table? Basically, “finance for transparency.” The North needs to start delivering on its Copenhagen promise to provide $30 billion in fast-start finance to support mitigation (greenhouse gas reductions) and adaptation (preparing for rising waters) in the South. This would only be a down-payment on the far larger “incremental costs” that the climate transition will inevitably drop upon the already overburdened shoulders of the developing world, costs that, by all moral and developmental logic, belong in large part to the North. These costs will not be easily negotiated. But in the meanwhile the actual delivery of the promised funds would be an important good-faith gesture.

In exchange, the South – including China – would agree to a large measure of transparency. This is a natural move, for the South is already doing a great deal. China has repeatedly signaled its willingness to open its books. Leaving aside the details (and there are many) both North and South would publish plans, conduct audits, and in provide clear visibility into everything they are doing to shift rapidly to a low-carbon development path. Measurement and reporting and verification – these are the keywords. It would finally be possible to tell what everyone is doing. Or not doing.

Does this seem, in the face of the climate emergency, to be a trivial thing? It is not. Nor will it be easy for the South to agree to. The problem is not simply that “verification” is a charged and intrusive process in which industrial secrecy and state sovereignty are both at risk. The problem, rather, is that trust is low. Or, less euphemistically, the developing world believes that it’s going to get screwed.

The core problem is that the South’s distrust is justified. As I write this, in November, we already strongly suspect that the North’s negotiators will arrive in Cancun with a financial package in which a small offer of real support it padded out with loans, repurposed assistance that was already in the “aid” pipeline, and a great deal of private money. Will the South accept the offer? Should it? Because doing so would imply seting aside the high-flown aspirations that launched the climate talks back in 1992 in the interests of realpolitik.

Back to Kyoto

The turbid straights into which we’ve wandered, they shouldn’t be surprising. The gears of history are turning again, and as they turn they are revealing a great deal of unfinished business.

Which brings us back to the Kyoto Protocol, which remains an explosive issue. It’s worth asking why so many delegates and activists are fighting to save it. Especially when they know that it’s inadequate to the global challenge. For one reason: because, almost alone among all the papers on the table, it stands for the responsibilities and obligations of the wealthy world. To abandon it now, with nothing to replace it, would be – as Yvo De Boer, the former Executive Secretary of the UN’s climate effort, once wryly noted – “like jumping out of a plane and being assured that you are going to get a parachute on the way down.”

Not a strategy, it should be obvious, for civilization’s survival.

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