President Barack Obama's Administration has signaled that making progress in dealing with climate change is a relatively high priority (after obviously more urgent matters such as dealing with critical economic issues). The Administration has reiterated that it is serious about addressing global climate change, married it to the issue of clean energy, and indicated that the U.S. will engage in vigorous diplomacy. President Obama has said that if the international community does not act to deal with climate change that "we risk consigning future generations to an irreversible catastrophe...." Yet, overall as a nation and historically, we have been unable to agree what should be its actual priority. A Pentagon study identifies climate change as a looming national security issue.
And internationally, UN discussions get muddied if not derailed by nations' anxieties, aspirations, and differences.
Climate change is an economic and political issue as much it is an environmental one. Dealing effectively to ameliorate climate change impacts requires concerted and cooperative global agreement of all nations - such efforts to date being insufficient to be effective.
Dealing with the impacts will affect virtually every aspect of a nation's economy. But, binding agreements to slow the emission of CO2, a "greenhouse gas" primary cause of global warming, makes some countries, particularly those with substantial growth aspirations such as China or India, nervous about how such actions may affect their nation's development.
The United Nations has constructed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change - a multilateral body to deal with climate change and burdened with the acronym UNFCCC. It was the 18th session of the Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC that concluded in Doha on Dec. 8, 2012. To date, this has proven to be an inefficient system for achieving international action, but we do not have better.
It includes over 190 countries. Because negotiations are governed by consensus rule, small groups of countries can block movement. All major countries are expected to commit to take real and effective steps toward a goal of limiting global average temperature increase to 2 degrees; we've already warmed 70% of that mark. But, these same countries are also faced with what they see as national constraints on their actions - making it difficult for them to see their way forward to implement global goals that compete with national interests. Issues pitting poorer countries against richer countries over responsibilities and financial matters further complicate the discussions. The U.S. has not always been fully behind the international efforts to deal with climate change. The U.S. signed but did not ratify the so-called Kyoto Protocol, adopted in 1997 in Kyoto, Japan, which set obligations on industrialized countries to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases. During George W. Bush's presidency, both that Administration and the Senate made clear that they did not want to be bound by the Kyoto protocol and thought it unbalanced - they were not alone in that assessment.
Climate change is a political issue domestically for a different spectrum of reasons. Despite evidence supporting global warming, it is still regarded by many in the U.S. as either not real or not a pressing issue for national and international attention. (See Climate Change Clarity, Manchester Journal, Dec. 14, 2012.)
Extreme critics deem it a hoax positing an international conspiracy of unparalleled scope perpetrated for unbelievable reasons.
Other aspects complicate domestic support for action. "Issue fatigue" and the perception of short-term costs for seemingly only projected long-term benefits make it difficult for possible action to get traction. While strong international scientific evidence (see, for example, USG NOAA National Climatic Data Center site, www.ncdc.noaa.gov/indicators) leads to the conclusion that climate change is real and manmade, polls show that many politically conservative individuals in this country tend to distrust science as well as international organizations and therefore not accept that conclusion. Some Senate Republicans and a number of conservative groups oppose any legislation or treaty that would mitigate global warming. The GOP platform warned against "statistical tricks to distort (global warming) findings and intentionally mislead the public on (the seriousness of) the issue of climate change." If a fair, balanced, and effective treaty somehow was achieved, would a U.S. Senate ratify it?
The Doha Conference, like others before it, considered possible social and financial adaptive changes to climate change impacts and needed technologies to help mitigate global warming impacts. It reached an agreement to extend the life of the Kyoto Protocol, due to expire at the end of last year, until 2020, and proscribed that a successor to that outdated protocol be developed by 2015 and implemented by 2020. Doha adopted an agreement in principle that recognizes suffering, along with mitigation and adaptation, as subjects for future discussion. As originally proposed, richer nations could be financially responsible to other nations for their failure to reduce carbon emissions - an arrangement that for obvious reasons wealthier countries resisted. The U.S. initially opposed this formulation of the "loss and damage" proposal. Understandably, it insisted that in the final wording neither "compensation" nor any other term connoting legal liability be included - any money would be as aid.
Negotiations on a successor treaty will be hard. Sixteen years later, the world is very different than it was when the Kyoto Protocol was adopted. That otherwise timid protocol established an operational dichotomy: Developed countries were required to cut CO2 emissions and developing countries were not. Today, as the Economist (Climate Change: Theater of the Absurd, December 1, 2012) observed, "The Kyoto Protocol has been reduced to a shadow of its former self. Russia, Japan, and Canada have either pulled out or said they will not make any new promises." China was classified as a developing country in Kyoto. Today it is the world's biggest CO2 emitter and may soon become the biggest economy. China would like to keep its developing country status in any climate treaty negotiations preferring that other countries, classified as developed in 1997, continue to bear most of the burden for emissions cuts and provide funds to poorer countries to help them cope with the impacts of climate change.
Solving the matter of constructive, timely, and effective action on climate change is a complicated multidimensional environmental, economic, political, and diplomatic problem. Achieving the UN goal of keeping global warming below 2°C by cutting carbon dioxide would require such emissions to fall steeply for decades, starting soon.
Few countries will accept this. PricewaterhouseCoopers, largest of the multinational professional services accountancy firms, asked and answered the question, "Is it too late for two degrees?" Since international agreements depend on national action, a successor agreement is unlikely to deliver. It is a negotiator's nightmare.
It is unclear how much longer the nations of the world will or can delay committing to act to ameliorate climate change impacts. No doubt some people hope they never do. A generation from now, we might see that we had the luxury of this time to act or we may see that we didn't start early enough to tackle the problem. If it's the latter, our children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren dealing with "catastrophe" may be quite unhappy with what they may view as our inexplicable procrastination.
Richard Scribner, a resident of Manchester, has held appointments at Georgetown University and the U.S. State Department, and followed global warming issues for more than 20 years.