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Saving the U.N. Climate Change Process from Itself

SOURCE: AP/Alik Keplicz

Participants attend the opening session of the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Poznan, Poland this month. Bilateral and multilateral treaties may prove more successful than future U.N. talks, but keeping parts of the talks, such as the adaptation fund, will help developing countries adapt to climate change's effects.

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As with almost every other U.N. climate change meeting since 1992, this month’s meeting in Poland ended with a lot left on the table. The only problem this time around is that the table is about to disappear.

Rules established by the U.N. convention that produced the Kyoto Protocol dictate that the language for the successor to that treaty, set to take effect in 2012, must be finalized by close of business at the next meeting in Copenhagen—less than a year from now. Without a dramatic reversal in U.S. policy and international diplomacy, the world’s first attempt at a major international agreement addressing climate change may wither on the vine.

Is this a bad thing? Quite possibly. But this deadline may also set a clearer goal than we have had throughout the history of the Kyoto Protocol, and could mean that the only way to save the U.N. process is by exceeding it. This could mean abandoning the part of the treaty which most people associate with it—global caps on carbon dioxide emissions—while holding on to more recent additions to the agreement, especially the adaptation fund that has been developed to help developing countries adapt to the effects of global warming.

With the election of Barack Obama it may seem odd that the Kyoto process could die in Copenhagen. After all, in a video address prior to Poznan, Obama stated that, “the United States will once again engage vigorously in these negotiations and help lead the world toward a new era of global cooperation on climate change.”

But as a number of cautious voices at Poznan argued, the Obama administration will find it difficult, perhaps impossible, to agree on final language for an international treaty requiring cuts in CO2 emissions without having in place a national cap-and-trade program that could achieve such targeted cuts in the United States.

There is certainly some merit to these concerns. However, if Obama was determined enough, he could save the Copenhagen treaty and the Kyoto process. Despite domestic hurdles, he could take a bold stance that the United States will lead the way in forging the language for the next treaty without ensuring its future ratification here. By doing so Obama could fulfill the promise he has already made to the international community. Change is what he promised, not only to the American people, but to the world at large in his July excursion to Europe. Of course, Obama would risk failure if the American people did not embrace the treaty, but he would have multiple chances to make a case for supporting it.

There are, however, other reasons to think that the current U.N. process is the wrong way to produce an agreement that will achieve needed cuts in greenhouse gases and that the Obama administration should seek an alternative.

Although the U.N. process is a model of procedural integrity, it has not produced adequate outcomes. From the beginning, concessions were constantly made to weaken the agreement to bring in countries that dragged their heels. The consensus model embedded in this process appeases the lowest common denominator and is open to abuse. The arcane rules, common to many such agreements, allow countries that sign but fail to ratify the treaty to still have a seat at the table and obstruct any chance of making real progress. We saw this inherent weakness when the United States and several other countries derailed last year’s meeting in Bali. This minority prevented the European Union from inserting language for an aspirational range of cuts for the Copenhagen treaty into the “roadmap” document that came out of that meeting. What’s worse, horror stories abound from diplomats and NGO lobbyists alike of hours wasted in sessions over punctuation and minor changes in language.

For these reasons and others, many experts, such as my CAP colleague Joseph Romm, advocate abandoning the U.N. process altogether and instead focusing on a series of high-level bilateral and multilateral treaties with the world’s major carbon emitters. Romm points to statistics that belie a shorter road to climate stabilization: Two dozen countries account for 85 percent of global emissions, and the United States and China produce nearly half of the global emissions from burning CO2.

Fewer voices around the table means fewer potential spoilers and the freedom to leverage emission reduction with other chits. Pursuing this potentially more fruitful route would in fact be a way of meeting the clearer goal for Copenhagen: securing a better deal before we get there. If the United States, China, perhaps India, and the European Union were to show up next year with a set of agreements in hand, or well on the way to seeming plausible, then the outcome in Denmark in terms of global emissions targets wouldn’t matter.

But even if this scenario is the right way to achieve real reductions, there is still a strong reason to preserve at least some part of the U.N. process. Simply put, it’s a question of justice. Our perspective on the future of the Kyoto process ought to be shaped not only by our understanding of the sources of global warming pollution but also a recognition of who is affected most by warming temperatures. This is what kept delegates at Poznan awake until the wee hours of the last high-level session of the meeting: the pressing voices of climate change refugees, in the poorest countries, who are already bearing the brunt of global warming.

Just after 1:00 a.m. on Saturday, December 13, in the midst of ratification of a long list of largely vacuous side agreements primarily offering advisory language on the future treaty, the delegate from Colombia insisted that the proceedings be stopped for one last discussion of how to finance the adaptation fund. This fund, devised at the Bali meeting last year, devotes a small portion of the money industrialized countries spend on clean-energy projects in developing countries (money spent to offset their required emissions cuts under Kyoto) to help those same countries adapt to the melting glaciers, rising waters, droughts, and other impacts of climate change affecting them right now.

Throughout this year’s meeting poor nations pushed for a deal on boosting the money for the adaptation fund, but they had been blocked from getting anything. After Colombia’s delegate spoke up, a litany of impassioned speeches ensued. Christiana Figueres Olsen, Costa Rica’s special adviser on climate change, proclaimed in a fiery voice, especially for a forum like this one, that “Adaptation is the human tragedy of climate change.” And in more somber, but no less powerful terms, Indian delegate Prodipto Ghosh said that of the 12 of these meetings he had attended, denial of progress on the adaptation fund was “one of the saddest moments . . . in all these years.”

If we walk away completely from all parts of the U.N. climate negotiations, even to pursue a more trouble-free path to international CO2 mitigation, we risk both insulting countries who have pursued this agreement in good faith since 1992, and a moral lapse of significant proportions. If instead we at least choose to preserve and strengthen the adaptation fund, we will salvage one of the most important achievements from the U.N. climate process from the perspective of international justice.

Reducing emissions, inside or outside the Kyoto process, is something we clearly must do in the interests of our own future generations who, after all, will be in a better position to withstand the global changes we have already committed the world to experiencing. But strengthening the adaptation fund is something we do not only for ourselves but out of our responsibility to others. It means admitting we’ve made the lives of people in the parts of the world that did not produce climate change much worse than they would have been otherwise.

There is, finally, a less tangible reason to hold on to parts of this treaty like the adaptation fund while we pursue other strategies outside of the Kyoto process. People in some of the most desperate of circumstances around the world often rely on the flawed yet persistent beacon of the United Nations as the only ray of hope in an otherwise ruthless world. While the full architecture of a unified international agreement on global warming may of necessity fall apart, preserving at least some place for that beacon through a more ambitious U.N. adaptation fund may be one of the most responsible moves we can make.

Andrew Light is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress working with the energy and environmental policy program. Please visit the energy and environment page of our website for more on our policies on these issues.

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