How to Break the International Deadlock on Catastrophic Climate Change
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
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The Bangkok meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) ended this week, with no progress among countries to commit to increasing the level of emission reductions for this decade. Why are the climate talks stalemated and what should be done to break the deadlock?
Over the last year alone, the Greenland ice sheet has virtually vanished. This July was the hottest July ever recorded in the United States. A normally dry Beijing had the worst flooding since 1951. Long-delayed monsoon rains in India resulted in the second drought in four years. The ensuing bad harvest and the worst power outages in the country's history could cause a 5-percent decrease in GDP growth. Last month, a protracted "rainstorm with no name," as many Filipinos termed it, persisted for over a week in the Philippines and plunged Manila into a watery disaster that is probably the worst in recent history. And, of course, Thailand itself was a water world for over a month last year due to floods.
Climate change is triggered by the accumulation of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The developed countries, termed in UNFCCC parlance as “Annex 1” countries, contributed 70 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions from 1890 to 2007. Yet these countries have also been the most difficult to persuade to seriously address global warming by curbing their emissions, limiting consumption, and providing finance and technology for developing countries to deal with climate change.
The U.S. Congress is populated by Republican climate skeptics who continue to believe, against all evidence, that climate change is a figment of the liberal imagination and have prevented the passage of any meaningful legislation on the climate. The European Union's false face in climate diplomacy was clearly seen here in Bangkok too, as it insisted on a pledge of 20-percent emission cuts instead of 25 percent, calling the latter "wishful thinking" and unrealistic. The EU's commitment will be accomplished largely through weak or unrealistic containment measures like carbon trading or techno-fixes like carbon sequestration and storage, not by moderating economic growth or reducing consumption.
The North-South dimension has added a deadly dynamic to this process, as the so-called emerging capitalist economies of the South—notably China, India, Brazil, and South Africa—make claims to their share of ecological space to grow, even as the North continues to refuse to give up any of the vast ecological space it now occupies and exploits. China is now the world's biggest contributor of greenhouse gases, but the basis of its refusal to entertain mandatory limits is that its accumulated emissions have been quite low, about 9 percent of the historical total.
The refusal of the North to curb its high consumption and the intention of big emerging economies to reproduce the Northern consumption model lies at the root of the deadlock in the climate change negotiations —one symbolized by the failure of the talks in Copenhagen in 2009, Cancun in 2010, and Durban in 2011 to agree on the contours of a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol. What was agreed in Durban is a "laissez faire" regime where only "voluntary pledges" for emission reductions will be made until 2020. The tragedy is that these nonbinding pledges are going to represent only a 13-percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels, which will lead to an increase in the global mean temperature of at least 4-6 degrees Celsius in this century. Leading climate scientists have said that any increase must be limited to 2 degrees Celsius at most.