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Climate Policy's Tower of Babel

Environmentalists have long clung to the belief that science would drive government action on climate change and other global environmental challenges. This flows from an assumption that the picture that emerges is so self-evident and compelling that no one could seriously dispute the need for action. Yet, as Monty Hempel points out in Chapter 4 of this book, knowledge alone is not enough, and indeed things have turned out differently.

For one, climate science is so complex that it is far from easily communicated to the general public. Scientific consensus-building naturally tends to err on the side of caution and understatement. In a 2012 commentary, Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows argue that climate change scenarios all too often are subjugated to orthodox economic views that regard unimpeded growth as the inviolable goal: “When it comes to avoiding a 2°C rise [in average

An empty coal train heads back to the mines, Maitland, NSW, Australia.

global temperatures], 'impossible' is translated into 'difficult but doable', whereas 'urgent and radical' emerge as 'challenging'—all to appease the god of economics (or, more precisely, finance).” With the exception of outspoken individuals like James Hansen—who served as head of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies until 2013— most scientists have been reluctant to engage in the fierce, polarized political debates of how society should respond to distressing scientific findings.

Meanwhile, a well-oiled machinery of climate denialists has managed to sow doubt (or worse) about the ever-strengthening climate science consensus, helping to reassure those whose inclination is to disbelieve the science. At a time of global economic crisis, denialists have been able to stoke fears among the general public that sustainability policies are at odds with concerns about jobs and incomes. Such efforts have been amplified by a media that often perpetuates a false equivalency between climate scientists and “skeptics.”

If the science of climate change is hard to comprehend, so is the human process that has emerged over the last two decades around efforts to address it. The structures and processes under the UN's climate regime are largely indecipherable to the majority of the people on this planet. A veritable climate-speak Tower of Babel has arisen, replete with a proliferating number of acronyms that range from AAUs, AWG-LCA and AWG-KP to CDM, CERs, and GCF; from LULUCF, NAMAs and NAPAs to QELROs, REDD and REDD+; and on to RMUs, SBSTA, and SD-PAMs—to name only a few. The UNFCCC's own glossary of acronyms comprises more than 180 entries.

Clearly, negotiations among the world's 189 member states that are party to the UN climate convention, as well as the various regional or interest groups with which they align, are by their nature a complex undertaking. Although not as large as the environmental mega-summits such as the 1992 Rio Earth Summit and 2012's Rio+20, the annual high-level climate conferences have become massive gatherings. The first COP, held in Berlin in 1995, drew 1,925 participants (not counting media representatives). By 2013, the number of participants registered to attend COP 19 in Warsaw had expanded almost ninefold, to 9,135. Media interest, however, shrank dramatically, falling from 2,044 journalists attending in 1995 to 971 in 2013.

A more fundamental problem than the sheer numbers is the politics that is driving—or more often, blocking—the climate talks. Relative to the massive carbon reductions needed, two decades of international climate negotiations have yielded precious little in the way of tangible progress, but plenty of frustration. In 2009, the high expectations for COP 15 in Copenhagen, Denmark, led climate activists to speak of “Hopenhagen.” But following the sobering failure that ensued, “Nopenhagen” became the more apt moniker, leading to searching questions about whether the following year's meeting in Cancún, Mexico, would be a “Can-cún” or “Can't-cún.” Word play aside, the deadlock on key issues has persisted. In effect, the negotiators keep kicking the problem farther down the road, always in the hope that the success that eludes them one year might come within reach the next year.

Various forces have prevented greater success. A recent analysis indicates that the top fossil fuel-producing countries hold 25–30 percent of the high-level (officer) posts in the bodies of the UN climate convention, a disproportionate share given that these countries account for only 16 percent of UNFCCC members. Since 2009, coal exporters have been particularly well represented.

Although individual country positions vary, industrialized countries on the whole have been unwilling to abandon their materials-intensive and wasteful lifestyles, whereas emerging economies are intent on avoiding any mandatory commitments that could block their chance of emulating the West's consumerist model. There is much inertia, and outright resistance, from various sides to a meaningful and binding carbon reduction agreement, and it comes foremost at the expense of the most vulnerable and poorest countries.

The United States, historically the largest carbon polluter, insists on the kind of “flexibility” that is poison for a binding global climate treaty. Speaking at London's Chatham House in October 2013, U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern said that “rather than negotiated targets and timetables, we support a structure of nationally determined mitigation commitments, which allow countries to 'self-differentiate' by determining the right kind and level of commitment, consistent with their own circumstances and capabilities.” (See Chapter 11 by Petra Bartosiewicz and Marissa Miley for an account of the failure to establish a more aggressive U.S. policy.)

China's leaders stake their legitimacy on providing a steady and growing flow of goods and services for a population that has no real say in political decision making. They are opposed to any international agreement that would impede the country's economic growth. Yet China's unprecedented pace of economic expansion has translated not only into skyrocketing CO2 emissions, but also into an environmental devastation and threat to public health that increasingly is becoming the main rallying cry of domestic popular activism. (See Chapter 12 by Sam Geall and Isabel Hilton.)

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