The most recent round of United Nations-led climate change negotiations began this week in Cancun, and although international expectations are muted this year, the stakes are still high. As Mother Jones' Kate Sheppard explains,"The 2010 meeting could make or break the future of global negotiations."
This is the sixteenth Conference of the Parties, convened by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). After the tepid results of last year's conference in Copenhagen, when a last-minute, backroom deal produced a non-binding accord, participants and observers of the negotiations are beginning to question whether it is the best forum for these sorts of conversations. Central to the progress, or lack thereof, on international climate change policy is the United States' intransigence. As one of the world most proliferate carbon spewers, it's essential for the United States to commit to dramatic reductions in its carbon emissions.
But if American negotiators have always been reluctant to make those promises, even if they did this year, their promises would ring empty. The results of the 2010 midterms mean there's little chance Congress would ratify a treaty. Republicans just eliminated a special House committee on global warming. They certainly aren't interested in making the sorts of concessions that international negotiators want and need to convince their own governments to move forward.
It's unclear, at this point, if the UNFCCC framework will ever produce a worthwhile results. Inter Press Service's Kanya D'Almeida reports that "the meeting in Cancún is foreshadowed by a deep pessimism." D'Almedia offers, for instance, this take from Nigel Purvis, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States:
"Global climate talks have begun to resemble a bad soap opera," Purvis wrote in an essay entitled 'Cancún and the End of Climate Diplomacy. "They seem to never end, yet seldom change and at times bear little resemblance to reality. This is why climate diplomacy as we know it has lost its relevance."
The last landmark climate treaty—the Kyoto Protocol, which the United States never signed onto—will expire in 2012. The Copenhagen Accord, the agreement that came out of last year's negotiations, does not bind countries to their commitments, as Kyoto did.
The next major step in tackling climate change could be for countries across the world to re-up their commitments to reducing carbon emissions through a Kyoto-like (i.e. legally enforceable) pact. The alternative is to base global action on an agreement along the lines of the one produced at Copenhagen, with less stringent standards for accountability.
Kyoto v. Copenhagen
Tina Gephardt writes at The Nation that "Serious tensions threaten to derail the UNFCCC process entirely. At the heart of these skirmishes are two camps: those nations who want to extend the Kyoto Protocol and those nations, including the United States, who want to ram through the Copenhagen Accord."
The Accord's mechanism for oversight and enforcement relies on countries monitoring each others' progress on carbon reductions, but as Mother Jones' Sheppard reports, an early point of disagreement in this year's session centers on how important it is to agree how that monitoring will happen.
What does seem certain is that if, at the end of this session, international climate negotiations have become so messy and tangled the world abandons them, and starts over, much of the blame will lie with the United States. Tom Athanasiou lays out the case in Earth Island Journal:
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.
It's not that American leaders aren't aware of the problems the world could face (although some on the right continue to deny they exist). As Nancy Roberts points out at Care2, "Up to one billion people could be displaced by rising sea levels this century." To a certain extent, the United States is insulated from the impact of climate change. As this map, which ColorLines highlighted a few weeks ago, illustrates, America is not particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. But it'd be foolish for American leaders to ignore the security and economic implications wrought by the migration of one-sixth of the world's population.
But Washington has shown time after time that it is willing to look past problems until they become unavoidable. The consequences of that attitude have been devastating in recent years. The BP oil spill is only the most recent example. This week the Obama administration announced it would not open up new coastline areas in the southeastern U.S. for offshore oil drilling—a decision that came only after it became clear just how much havoc a drilling disaster could cause (and would likely cause again).
With climate change, however, the tons of carbon already in the atmosphere can't be mopped up or "dispersed," or forgotten, within months. The consequences will linger on, and by the time they become clear, it will be too late to act, and international negotiators won't be talking about emission levels, but food, water, and refugee crises.
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