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A Death Foretold: Son of Kyoto

Dec 08, 2008
By Alan Stoga

Usually global negotiations have to start before they fail, even if they’re never quite declared dead. Think about the seven year-long (and counting) Doha Round of trade negotiations that most recently “failed” in July, or the UN Security Council reform, which has been a work in progress at least since 2004.

However, it looks like the effort to negotiate a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol on climate change could fail long before negotiators (now meeting in Poland) even get to Copenhagen a year from now, when they are supposed to agree on a new treaty.

That’s the conclusion of “Grasping the Climate Crisis” which has just been written by three Swedish climate experts and published by the Tällberg Foundation. “Even the best possible agreement signed in Copenhagen is likely to fail…because of the lack of political will to prioritize environment over short-term economic and geopolitical strategic interests.”

The basic problem is simple: reality is moving much faster than most of the people who are thinking about the issue. (See “We’re Melting” in FLYP’s current issue.) Since the climate isn’t as forgiving as a trade deal gone bad, the result of a failure at Copenhagen could spell planetary disaster.

The authors of “Grasping the Climate Crisis” include a research scientist, a strategist and a member of the European Parliament who have been deeply engaged with the climate issue for many years. According to the Swedes, the approach to the Copenhagen negotiations suffers from four problems:

•    Climate negotiators are focused too narrowly on carbon emissions, despite growing evidence that the earth’s ecosystems are nearing tipping points.

Remember the Dust Bowl of the 1920s? Scientists are increasingly worried that the Amazonian rainforest could follow a similar path and become a dry savannah. That would not only have profound consequences for Brazil, but would dramatically worsen the global emissions problem since the rainforest absorbs substantial amounts of carbon.

•    Negotiators are ignoring the most recent science that demonstrates that the pace of global warming is accelerating, which means the emission targets being discussed are inadequate.

For example, latest measurements show that the Arctic Ocean is losing summer ice more than 30 years ahead of the consensus scientific predictions. Barack Obama’s commitment to reduce U.S. emissions in 2020 to 1990 levels and even more ambitious European commitments were based on those now outdated predictions.

•    Countries like China and India are understandably intent on following the same path that produced wealth in the U.S., Europe and Japan. For their part, the industrial countries are equally intent on retaining the wealth and economic growth rates they are used to. Unfortunately, everybody’s economic model is based on burning more and more fossil fuel—which is why atmospheric emissions are accelerating.

That contradiction essentially explains why the Bush administration opted out of Kyoto—but also why emissions have risen 35 percent since 1990, despite Kyoto. The Swedes argue that ethics and equity demand the industrial countries finance more energy efficient development in emerging countries. However, it’s hard to imagine there will be any progress on that agenda while the industrial world is plunging deeper into recession (or while China is America’s largest creditor).

•    Climate negotiators are looking at only one aspect of the larger systemic question of how global political and economic decisions are made.

Any far reaching climate deal would inevitably be as much about politics and economics as it would be about carbon. The trade and the UN reform negotiations have failed—and international monetary reform discussions haven’t even started—because the world is frozen in a post-World War II global political framework. Global governance has not kept up with globalization.

In short, the Copenhagen negotiating process is fundamentally—and fatally—flawed. The only way to avoid a non-outcome like Doha or, even worse, an agreement like Kyoto that promises much more than it delivers would be to launch a truly global negotiation: global in scope and global in reach.

The alternative, suggested in a quote from Albert Schweitzer which appears at the start of “Grasping the Climate Crisis,” is pretty grim: “Man has lost the capacity to forsee and to forestall. He will end by destroying the earth.”

Download “Grasping the Climate Crisis” here (PDF).

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