Is the World Making Progress on Fighting Global Warming?


The international climate negotiations that took place in Bali, Indonesia, in December brought us to a new and more difficult level in the climate game that we'll be playing for the rest of our lives. We knew going into Bali that if the old routine continued we'd be in trouble. The skeptics had been discredited; the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had delivered clear and unequivocal warnings; Al Gore and the IPCC had won the Nobel Prize.

So it's with great relief that I can say that although Bali wasn't the breakthrough that we need, the game has indeed changed. The critical next two years of negotiations have begun in earnest.The most important change was the new stance taken by the countries of the global South, the Group of 77, or G77. Their earlier focus had been on unity. But unity has allowed the G77's most retrograde members (the Saudis come to mind) to override the interests of weaker parties (like the Alliance of Small Island States). That's why it's so important that China, South Africa, and Brazil stepped forward from self-defeating unity to signal a new willingness to make binding commitments to limit emissions.

This was a real breakthrough, not least because the attached condition -- measurable, reportable, and verifiable assistance from the industrialized to the developing countries -- was widely understood as being both just and inevitable.

And that takes us to the second major development at Bali. The once radical idea that rich countries have responsibilities to the poor has now emerged as a near-consensus position. Today, to be serious, you have to admit that wealthy countries became wealthy by following a fossil-fuel intensive development path that led directly to today's climate crisis. And if we truly expect today's developing countries to take a different path, we'll have to provide the means by which those countries can leapfrog over fossil-fuel dependence and directly into an efficiency- and renewables-based economy.

There's a huge challenge here. Just as rich-world politics are finally acknowledging the need for sharp domestic emissions reductions, the international community is moving ahead to an even more difficult truth. The rich cannot simply act within their own borders. They are also responsible for financing parallel reductions and the large-scale efforts to adapt to now inevitable climate change impacts in the developing world. What does this mean in practice?

Technology transfer, for one thing, and this time it has to mean the best of the new technologies, not the worst of the old. And large-scale funding for adaptation and poverty alleviation, because without it there's little chance of finding the global solidarity that we'll need to manage the transition. And a whole lot more.

Fortunately, Bali saw the long-overdue encounter between the climate movement and the global justice movement finally take place in earnest, and neither movement will ever be the same. Even mainline climate activists talk often now about equity, even though they fear its implications, which, frankly, they're right to do: Climate justice has the potential to raise the stakes dangerously high, so high that both our politicians and our populations could easily balk. Which is all the more reason to marvel, for today few people within the climate movement can imagine a future without justice.Nor will the greens be the only ones transformed by this encounter.

The global justice movement, which has largely built its climate politics around opposition to carbon offsets and market mechanisms, is now coming to see that such opposition is not enough. If false solutions are a terrible danger, so too is the illusion that by exposing that danger we have done all we need to do.

To be sure, there are serious shortcomings in the final Bali Action Plan. It did not lay out national obligations for emissions reductions, nor even a global target. But the truth is that Bali was never going to lay out the details, or even a comprehensive framework. And it did manage to open the way forward.When we get down to cases, we'll have no choice but to face the details of an extremely daunting reality. The climate threat demands emergency action.

The truth here is more than inconvenient: it's shocking and even terrifying. We're going to have to get this right, and soon. There'll be no way to do this without both trust and technology, globally and on a grand scale. Which means we'll need breakthroughs in international financing to provide the means by which poor countries can continue to develop without pushing us all over the edge into catastrophe. And such breakthroughs will depend upon negotiating "burden sharing" agreements that take proper account of not only the North/South divide, but also the rich/poor divide within both northern and southern countries. And, as if this wasn't enough, we'll also need to bring the rules and priorities of the WTO, World Bank, IMF, and others quickly into line with the imperatives of the climate regime.All of which is to say that we'll need to put justice at the center of the climate agenda, right along with environmental adequacy in the face of an astonishingly severe threat. For without justice there will not be cooperation or solidarity. And without global solidarity, we will fail.

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