A climate for change

Adozen years ago, most of the countries of the world signed on to an unwieldy attempt to reduce greenhouse gases known as the Kyoto Protocol, which the U.S. Congress declined to ratify. Ever since, Americans concerned about climate change have been hoping that when the successor treaty was negotiated in 2009, the United Nations would come up with something better: a verifiable, enforceable and fair way of assuring that nations curb carbon without ravaging their economies, a global effort that the U.S. could proudly take part in.

Tough luck.

With just six months to go before negotiations culminate in Copenhagen in December, the outlook isn’t good. This week in Bonn, Germany, delegates from 182 nations are holding talks in the run-up to the Copenhagen summit, and for the first time they’ve got the texts of draft agreements to work with. The specifics have yet to be determined, but so far it appears that poor countries are placing such extravagant demands on wealthy ones that no American president, even a strong environmentalist like Barack Obama, could possibly accede. It’s not too late to salvage the situation, but given the extraordinary complexity of the treaty and the political challenge of drafting it, Obama should be ready to pursue an alternative strategy.

The negotiating texts for the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change look sort of like multiple choice exams. For nearly every provision under consideration, they present a list of possible options ranging from very strong actions to weaker ones. For example, one of the most important provisions is the global emissions goal -- how much will countries cut carbon, and by what date? Under one draft text, developed nations have the option of cutting anywhere between 25% and 40% below 1990 levels by 2020, and between 50% and 85% by 2050.


Those numbers were suggested by the International Panel on Climate Change, the U.N.'s scientific advisors, and are believed to be the minimum cuts necessary to head off the worst effects of climate change. Yet there is no practical way the United States could meet even the minimum 25% goal. Economically and politically, the country is in no position to make the needed changes that quickly.

Congress is negotiating sweeping climate change legislation, often referred to as the Waxman-Markey climate bill after its sponsors, Reps. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), that calls for the nation to cap its greenhouse gases at 17% of 2005 levels by 2020; this translates to about a 4% reduction from 1990 levels. By the time the bill comes to a vote, the bar might be lowered further still. Given the difficulty of passing even this modest cut, it is almost inconceivable that the Senate would ratify an international treaty (which requires a two-thirds vote for approval) demanding vastly greater reductions. That’s just as well, because the technologies that would allow the country to wean itself so thoroughly off fossil fuels in the course of a decade aren’t yet available, and attempting to get it done would probably cost an economically ruinous amount of money.

The U.N.'s draft texts aim to resolve a host of complex and politically sensitive issues, such as parsing the difference between a “developing” nation like China or India and poor, undeveloped countries, and then defining the responsibilities of these states. Particularly sticky is the question of how much money rich countries are obliged to give to poor ones, both to reduce their emissions and to help them adapt to climate change (which is expected to cause more damage in undeveloped equatorial countries than in industrialized northern ones).

Because the historic emissions of mature industrialized societies in Europe and North America are responsible for the overwhelming majority of the atmospheric carbon that is altering the planet’s climate, the rest of the world thinks it’s only fair for them to compensate with cash. It’s a legitimate point, but there is great danger that the climate talks will degenerate into an attempt by poor countries to extort money from rich ones. One option in a draft treaty calls for governments of developed countries to pay between 0.5% and 2% of their gross national products annually for international climate mitigation. Given that the entire U.S. foreign aid budget currently amounts to about 0.17% of GNP, it’s safe to say this belongs in the “never going to happen” category.


All hope isn’t necessarily lost for Copenhagen. Observers suggest that, at this stage, participants are just staking out extreme positions in the hopes of maximizing their gains and minimizing their losses. Yet a number of insiders, including the U.N. climate convention’s executive secretary, Yvo de Boer, have pointed out that the treaty may well be the most complicated the world has ever negotiated. And there’s a good chance the world isn’t ready to handle such complexity, especially when the extent of the threat posed by global warming is still unclear.

That’s why President Obama should be prepared to try something else if the Copenhagen process fails. It is notoriously difficult to get anything done at the United Nations given the competing interests of its 192 members, but when it comes to climate change, some countries matter a great deal more than others. At the top of the list is China, which has surpassed the U.S. as the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter. Other key players include Russia, India, Japan, Indonesia and Brazil.

If the Copenhagen talks break down or result in a meaningless pact, Obama could still form a climate partnership with these select nations, creating a standing process for bringing leaders together regularly to discuss climate matters and agree on solutions. This wouldn’t be as desirable as a U.N. treaty, but it would be better than the status quo -- and maybe the best we can expect.