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Reviving climate hope

Christiana FigueresThe failure of the participants in the 2009 climate change summit in Copenhagen to agree on principles for an international emissions trading or taxation system was distressing. Much international idealism and expertise had been invested in this goal, which we can see now is probably unachievable in the medium-term future. But is this the best or only policy goal for international cooperation in climate change mitigation? 

A mid-term round of senior UNFCCC officials' talks took place this month in Bonn. It offered modest hopes for ways forward in global climate action, addressing the task of emissions mitigation in ways less tied to particular market mechanisms for global cooperation.

We need to understand why Copenhagen failed if we are to learn from that failure.

First, Western governments underestimated the strength of developing countries' entrenched grievances that the imperialist West had industrialised and grown wealthy at their expense, even today through its continued dominance of global trade and financial systems.

Such ideological stereotypes in the South have been the leitmotif of multilateral diplomacy since the 1950s, dominating every major international treaty-making process. Why should climate change be different, particularly when the science validates the idea of a massive Western debt to the South, in the form of dangerous quantities of carbon dioxide accumulated in the atmosphere during the West's 300 years of successful industrialisation?

Leading developing country governments (China, India, South Africa, Brazil — the BASIC group) are determined to hold to the Kyoto principle of differentiated responsibilities for developing and developed countries.

The most shocking thing about Copenhagen was that for the first time, the world's environmental movement found itself ranged with the West against the South. There were intense feelings of mutual betrayal between Western-based environmental NGOs whose world view is dominated by the imminent climate crisis, and Southern governments whose world view is coloured by historical resentments and suspicions.

The latter were angry at Western NGOs and media attempts to exploit the fears of low-lying island states as emotional blackmail of the South as a whole.

Add to this inflammatory mix these factors:

First, Southern suspicions that the West might want to use its wealth to subsidise keeping them in a permanent state of underdevelopment, by using aid flows to purchase developing country wilderness areas as offsets to unimpeded coal-based economic growth at home. Second, Southern suspicion of shonky Western emissions accountancy, that could see Western governments claim dubious green offsets from better domestic forestry management against unimpeded coal-based economic growth.

Third, Obama's insistence (under pressure from Republicans in Congress) on intrusive emissions verification procedures more appropriate to Cold War arms limitation than to cooperative climate change mitigation. And fourth, efforts by resource-exporting countries (Australia, Canada, Russia, Saudi Arabia) to protect their freedom to go on expanding their export industries.

The Bonn officials' talks offer modest hope of changing such dysfunctional atmospherics over the longer term.

Expectations for forthcoming UNFCCC annual summits in Mexico and South Africa (in December 2010 and 2011) have been markedly lowered. There are still two rival negotiating texts for a post-2012 successor to the Kyoto Protocol, expressing opposing Western and BASIC viewpoints. However, officials at Bonn were at pains to avoid public acrimony, and the media had almost nothing to report.

UN officials sought to dampen unrealistic expectations. Outgoing UNFCCC Executive Secretary Yvo de Boer cautioned that a full climate agreement is at least a decade away; but over the longer term, he believed humanity would get the issue under control.

De Boer's successor is a promising choice. Christiana Figueres is a US-educated climate diplomat from Costa Rica, a small Latin American developing nation (and a democracy). She helped to negotiate the Kyoto Protocol.

Judging by Figueres' early public statements, she seems well qualified to help heal the wounds of Copenhagen. Her message at Bonn was that the G20 countries (responsible for 80 per cent of the world's current emissions, and including major Western and BASIC governments) must have more ambitious emission reduction targets if a 2 degree global warming limit is to be achieved; but that quick global agreement should not be expected.

She added that it is now necessary to be more transparent and the process more inclusive.

Climate change denialism as a political force has peaked internationally. From now on, science-based warnings of growing risks to humanity from anthropogenic global climate change will become increasingly unanswerable. If the West, learning the lessons of Copenhagen, can move to a more modest, flexible and sensitive climate diplomacy during future summits, while proceeding independently and at speed towards genuine national emissions reduction targets, we may hope for steady progress.

Unfortunately, I see no sign that anyone in the Australian climate policy debate (except the Greens) has absorbed such lessons. Both major parties seem locked into outmoded assumptions that international emissions trading is the only possible road, and that for as long as this road remains blocked, Australia has no alternative but to go on opening more coal mines, railways and ports. It is hard to imagine a more self-destructive policy.

Tony KevinTony Kevin is the author of Crunch Time, a book exploring Australia's inadequate policy responses to the climate change crisis. 

Topic tags: tony kevin, crunch time, UNFCC, bonn, Christiana Figueres, Costa Rica, Kyoto Protocol



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Existing comments

Should this nation's leaders abandon their bloody-mindedness, Australia can start decreasing its emissions at the drop of a hat. All that we need from our leaders is a big swag of tax cuts, funded by a broad-based tax on fossil fuels (a "carbon tax").

As the above statement of a simple truth shows, my focus is on Australia. Tony reminds us that there is a world out there that shares Australia's interest in the world's environmental health.

Tony's description of China's role at the failed Copenhagen talks is somewhat diplomatic. My understanding is that China kyboshed those talks because they share my view that cap-and-trade schemes are sub-optimal responses to the need to reduce emissions.

Furthermore, China wants Australia to keep the coal coming, as cheaply and easily as possible ... for the moment, while the Chinese renewable energy equipment export sector gears up.

Here's my prediction: in 10 years time, China will tell Australian coal miners to go home: "thanks for all the coal, we don't want any more.

"By the way, you Australians really need to start exploiting renewable power, the climate's changing. We can sell you all the wind turbines and solar panels you need. "

David Arthur | 21 June 2010  

There is no such thing as man made global warming. Co2 is not the danger that alarmists would have you believe. Climate comes from so many variables, a lot to do with the sun, and is impossible to harness.

Any good Catholic knows that God is the final arbiter when it comes to the end times. The economic cost that the alarmists would advocate will only make the poor much poorer.

Trent | 21 June 2010  

Sorry 'Trent'. God has nothing to do with the worsening of our climate. It is the indescribable "bloody mindedness" of humankind that will determine "the end of times". I'm glad to know that your faith will comfort you as the sea rises and the global temperature increases by a mere 2 degrees and dehydrate all of us. In the meantime, I suggest you should tell people to stop burning fossil fuels and destroy our environment, perhaps by then God will listen and do something about it.

Alex Njoo | 21 June 2010  

There is no such thing as man made global warming. Co2 is not the danger tha alarmists would have you believe. Climate comes from so many varaiables, a lot to do with the sun, and is impossible to harness.

Any good Catholic knows that God is the final arbiter when it comes to the end times. The economic cost that the alarmists would advocate will only make the poor much poorer.

Trent | 21 June 2010  

I could say, Tony, that I find too many unproven assumptions in your article for my liking, but can I instead just ask you to sort out for me one apparent anomaly.
As I understand the figures, the globe has NOT been warming for roughly the past ten years while, again as far as I am aware, man-made CO2 emissions have continued more or less on their merry way.
So why must G20 countries "have more ambitious emission reduction targets if a 2 degree global warming limit is to be achieved" when it seems that such a "limit" - or indeed much less - is likely to be reached anyway? What do the current modelers say?

John R. Sabine | 21 June 2010  

David Arthur's comment is right on the money. With relatively little infrastructure per head underdeveloped nations will achieve low emissions by leap-frogging developed nations reluctant to discard old-technology capital infrastructure. Hence, "Keep your coal and raw materials - we don't need it".

Peter Horan | 22 June 2010  

I would like to express my concern about one aspect of this very interesting and valuable article : the use of the phrase 'emotional blackmail'. Human Rights NGOs like ours (the Edmund Rice Centre and Pacific Calling Partnership) that have a long term relationship with low-lying Pacific Island states took great pains to support them as they put forward their case for 'action now'.

These states and the NGOs that agreed with them were trying to make rational points in a rational argument. To call this emotional blackmail risks damaging the enterprise of rational argument.

Jill Finnane | 22 June 2010  

Trent and John,

As a climatologist who measures temperature each day and I have been doing for so for over four decades, I can assure you that climate change is real. The temperature as a mean trend with the variables smoothed out, is rising not falling, sadly too - thanks to pressure/wind pattern changes with subsequent alterations in moisture flows, rainfall is also declining over South East Australia. I wonder how much more evidence we need that man-made CO2 pollution is a strong contributor. A bit like "the boiling frog syndrome" me thinks!

Gavin O'Brien | 23 June 2010  

China and India will change their minds when their agriculture collapses, which is starting to happen. The US will "only" suffer higher grocery prices at the same time.

2 degrees short term is 4 degrees long term. The politicians don't know this and the scientists aren't sure when the natural feedbacks will kick in.
So we are left with hoping that Nature will put on some kind of a "demonstration" of her power while we still have time to act. Make no mistake; Nature is in charge, not humans. I expect the demonstration will come in the form of a famine that will kill several billion people.

Asteroid Miner | 25 June 2010