New climate realism

On Monday, Nov. 11, representatives of 195 nations will convene in Warsaw as the United Nations climate change negotiations begin their 19th annual meeting.  Many climate experts in the U.S. have written off the UN process after years of dysfunction and limited results. But there is now a glimmer of hope that for the first time an agreement can be reached by 2015 in which all major economies reduce or slow their greenhouse emissions. 

The irony is that progress will be made precisely to the extent that hard-nosed US negotiators successfully challenge counterproductive expectations and initiatives dreamed up by European Union and UN officials.  In fact, the US must impose new realism about the limits of international climate change policy if a deal to curb global emissions is to occur.  Fortunately, the Obama administration’s ambitious domestic measures to cut greenhouse gas emissions now provide the U.S. the moral and policy authority to lead.

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UN officials and developing countries have concocted the notion, for example, that the U.S. and other developed countries should finance a Green Climate Fund to help developing nations adapt to climate change and invest in low-emissions growth.  While developed nations assented in principle to such a Fund in Copenhagen in 2009, they did not commit to specific dollar amounts.  Nonetheless, UN leaders and climate activists have spent years establishing the expectation that this fund will total $100 billion annually by 2020. 

To his credit, top U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern made clear in a speech last month in London that such expectations for the fund are fanciful.

“The fiscal reality of the United States and other developed countries is not going to allow it," Stern said, noting that the U.S. already provides $2.5 billion in climate assistance each year to developing countries.  Some developing country ministers continue to insist massive payments must be a precondition to an agreement on emissions levels, but budget realities in the EU and US have become impossible to ignore.  Aid, both public and private, for the poorest countries can indeed increase modestly, but clearing the deck of the annual $100 billion fallacy is necessary to achieve progress on other fronts.

Stern has also made clear that the U.S. has no intention of negotiating a climate agreement that is legally binding under international law, as UN and EU bureaucrats are unrealistically insisting. “An agreement that is animated by the progressive development of norms and expectations rather than the hard edge of law, compliance and penalty has a much better chance of working," he said in London, describing a process of national pledges and international reviews.  

This is progress.  It shows that the U.S. has learned the lesson of Kyoto Accord, in which Al Gore negotiated a treaty the U.S. could not ratify and which domestic politics did not support.  In point of fact, the EU and UN bureaucratic obsession with a ‘legally binding’ deal has become the major obstacle to a hugely importantly international climate agreement of the type Stern describes which the US, EU, China, India and other major emitters should be able to reach.

UN climate negotiations are also no longer the only game in town.  The U.S., China and other major emitters are beginning to take action domestically for their own sakes, not as a UN byproduct, and are using other venues like the G-8 and G-20 to make progress.  This summer, the U.S. gained agreement from China and the G-20 to pursue a phase out of HFCs, man-made chemicals used in refrigeration that are super greenhouse gases. Phasing out HFCs could reduce warming by .5 degrees Celsius, if hold out India can be brought around.  Such multilateral and bilateral efforts should continue.

And the administration is using other international institutions, like the World Bank, to help cut emissions.  Last week, the Treasury Department issued a determination that the US would oppose virtually all funding of coal plants in the developing world through the Bank.  While proposing limits on coal emissions at home, America will finally stop subsidizing them globally.

Still, each new scientific study underscores the fact that an agreement among major nations to curb emissions will be needed if global temperature increases are to be kept below levels that could prove disastrous.   Earlier this month draft versions of the major Intergovernmental  Panel on Climate Change study found that rising global temperatures may reduce agricultural yields by as much as 2 percent a decade for the remainder of the century.  This is a chilling forecast given burgeoning populations in the developing world, and helps explain the increasing seriousness with which climate change is being viewed in Beijing, New Delhi, and other capitals.

It is the very urgency of climate action which makes the bickering and gamesmanship that have long characterized the UN talks so tragic.   American, UN, EU and developing country officials must finally wake up and forge a realistic climate agreement--before it’s too late. 

Bledsoe is a senior fellow on energy and climate at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, and was communications director of the White House Climate Change Task Force under President Clinton.