The U.S. State Department has been tap-dancing for the last week, trying to quell the outrage over remarks made by Todd Stern, America’s chief climate negotiator, in a speech at Dartmouth. Stern implied that global, top-down targets for limiting climate change – specifically, the goal of keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius – should be abandoned in favor of national initiatives to limit carbon emissions.
“Insisting on a structure that would guarantee such a goal will only lead to deadlock,” Stern said. “It is more important to start now with a regime that can get us going in the right direction and that is built in a way maximally conducive to raising ambition, spurring innovation, and building political will.”
Representatives of the European Union, and of developing nations vulnerable to rising seas and other climate change effects, spluttered in outrage.
“Suddenly abandoning our agreement to keep global warming below 2C is to give up the fight against climate change before it even begins,” Tony de Brum, Minister in Assistance for the Marshall Islands, told the BBC. “‘Flexibility’ on our 2C limit would set the world on a path to irreversible, runaway climate change. For many low-lying island states, including my own, that is not a solution – it is a death sentence.”
Stern quickly backtracked: “There have been some incorrect reports about comments I made in a recent speech relating to our global climate goal of holding the increase in global average temperature to below 2 degrees Celsius. Of course, the U.S. continues to support this goal; we have not changed our policy. My point in the speech was that insisting on an approach that would purport to guarantee such a goal — essentially by dividing up carbon rights to the atmosphere — will only lead to stalemate given the very different views countries would have on how such apportionment should be made.”
“Apportionment” is a diplomatic term for the so-called “firewall” between the economies of the developed world, which have nominally agreed to make major cuts in their emissions of greenhouse gas emissions, and developing nations, which have so far largely avoided such limits, arguing that they should have the same right to unfettered economic development, and to the production of millions of tons of carbon, that the First World has long enjoyed. That firewall has become somewhat porous, as the emerging economic powers China and India attempt to retain their status as “developing nations” and thus avoid accepting internationally mandated emissions cuts. In that light Mr. Stern’s remarks sound only sensible: “As a matter of substance, you cannot meet the climate challenge by focusing only on developed countries when developing countries already account for around 55% of global emissions from fossil fuels and will account for 65% by 2030.”
On this, Stern and EU Commissioner for Climate Action Connie Hedegaard are in agreement.
The Coalition of the Unwilling
Unfortunately the firewall debate has become an excuse for countries on both sides to engage in spitball fights while avoiding the monumental task of finding a way out of the carbon impasse. The recent talks in Bonn, following last year’s Durban climate summit, degenerated into “angry exchanges between rich nations, fast-industrializing ones and those prone to climate impacts,” the BBC reported, as the “coalition of the unwilling” – including the United States, China, India, and Saudi Arabia – blocked the path to further binding agreements on carbon emissions and on financing mitigation measures in the poor, low-lying countries that are already seeing the effects of rising seas, widespread drought, and so on.
“It’s absurd to watch governments sit and point fingers and fight like little kids while the scientists explain about the terrifying impacts of climate change,” remarked Tove Maria Ryding of Greenpeace International. For all its public commitment to finding a new energy strategy that will confront the realities of global climate change, the Obama Administration has been unsuccessful, to date, in shifting away from the obstructionist policies of the Bush years. That’s most clearly demonstrated in the fight over emissions from airliners arriving and departing from European airports. The EU wants to make all foreign airlines subject to its strict carbon trading system; U.S. airlines are fiercely rejecting those restrictions, and are pressuring the administration to file a protest, through the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), to challenge the EU’s authority to regulate non-European airlines.
The natural gas boom in the United States has fundamentally shifted the ground underneath President Obama’s halting energy initiatives, giving the U.S. a domestic source of cheap fossil fuel even as U.S. emissions have actually flattened (largely due to the global recession). But this unforeseen bounty could easily become an excuse for doing nothing on the larger questions of energy strategy and climate change.
“America’s good fortune has come despite the unqualified failure of Mr Obama’s most cherished policies on energy,” commented The Economist, in a column noting that both Obama and Mitt Romney, his Republican opponent, lack the vision to craft a realistic energy policy to transform today’s carbon-based economy. “The lesson of the shale gas boom, after all, is not that government should forswear any part in shaping the energy mix, but rather that innovation and entrepreneurship can yield dramatic results in a short time if the right incentives are in place.”
Moving away from toothless, top-down United Nations mandates in favor of pragmatic progress at the national level may well be the most intelligent way forward for limiting climate change. But tap-dancing is not going to get us there.