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December 13, 2012

COP18: Dithering in Doha

Late Saturday evening, a full day after it was scheduled to end, this year’s United Nations climate negotiations finally ground to an anticlimactic and dispiriting conclusion. Despite the near round-the-clock endgame and down-to-the-wire drama, negotiators from more than 194 member countries ultimately had precious little to show for their efforts. Yes, they managed to ensure that the Kyoto Protocol would continue for another term. And they tied up some loose ends from previous meetings and made some incremental progress on emerging issues. But on the core issue affecting the fate of the planet—the need to rapidly reduce emissions to have any hope of keeping climate change to manageable levels—progress was nowhere to be found. They moved the process forward, but the problem rages on.

In one sense, this exceedingly modest outcome was no surprise. From the outset, we were warned that this was just an “implementation” or “transitional” meeting; the big issues were not to be discussed. This is because at last year’s meeting in Durban, the Parties decided on a three year schedule to negotiate an overarching agreement, and nothing in the climate negotiations happens until the last possible moment. The Durban timetable all but assured that incrementalism and procrastination would rule the day in Doha.

But in another sense, this summer vacation approach to the negotiations was utterly incomprehensible. The urgent need for action was there for all to see. Many delegates came with vivid, heart-rendering accounts of how climate change was already impacting their countries in ways their governments could not address. Not least, President Obama’s negotiating team could point to this summer’s searing, unprecedented drought in the Midwest, forest infernos in the Rockies, and of course, the over $70 billion worth of devastation inflicted by superstorm Sandy.

If these calamities weren’t a clear enough call to action, informed delegates arrived in Doha with three new hair-on-fire reports in their briefcases that put these impacts in larger context. In November, the global consultancy PriceWaterhouseCoopers and the International Energy Agency both issued papers showing that nothing short of heroic efforts will be necessary to reduce emissions enough to keep global temperature rise below the 3.6°F that most climate scientists believe is the outer bound of “safe” warming. Without such efforts, we’ll likely see 7.2°F – 10.8°F of warming this century. The World Bank followed these assessments with its blockbuster Turn Down the Heat report, which described in appalling detail what a 7.2°F warmer world would actually be like. It’s truly scary stuff

Just as disappointing as the outcome in Doha was the role of the United States in bringing it about. When President Obama first took office, there were great expectations that he would bring about a new era American climate leadership. Instead, the US negotiating posture too often has been characterized by a reluctance to expend real political capital, a hypersensitivity to Congressional extremism, and an unwillingness to lead by example. Still, there were good reasons to hope that Doha might be the place where the President would begin to fashion a more creative and ambitious negotiating strategy. After all, hadn’t President Obama just handily won reelection over an (opportunistically) denialist opponent, and in the flush of victory, affirmed his intent to address the climate crisis in his Second Administration? Didn’t superstorm Sandy just drive home the intolerable human costs of a significantly warmer planet in the starkest terms possible? With the election safely behind him and the devastation of Sandy laid out before him, was there ever a fiercer urgency than now?

It was not to be. On every critical issue, the Obama team did just enough to avoid being called out for blocking progress, far less than what was needed, and nowhere near what real leadership required. For example, the US negotiators refused to discuss how the US could ramp up its actions at home, despite the fact that the actions countries have agreed to take before 2020 are not nearly enough to limit warming to 3.6°F, and the US has committed to do much less than other developed countries. The US also made sure that developed countries would not provide any clarity on how they would ramp up climate assistance to developing countries to meet their collective pledge to provide $100 billion a year by 2020.  

It has become fashionable to blame the UN process itself for the collective failure to craft an adequate international response to climate change. But the US performance in Doha cannot be attributed to a failure of international politics; it was plainly a failure of politics right here at home. Most of the blame, of course, lies with a Republican opposition that is contemptuous of science, heedless of risk, and beholden to the most regressive fossil fuel interests. But President bears much responsibility as well. Rather than using the power of the Presidency, his high public approval ratings and his peerless rhetorical gifts to change the political dynamics around climate change, he has simply taken the political space as he has found it.

President Obama has two critical opportunities to reframe America’s climate diplomacy in the coming months.  First, he must select a new Secretary of State with a clear sense of the overriding strategic importance of climate change to America’s core interests, and the creativity and vision to lead the world towards more ambitious collective action. Second and more importantly, he must use his State of the Union Address to discuss the stakes and impacts, and explain why an appropriate response is essential for our long-term prosperity and security. He should commit in no uncertain terms that climate change will be a signature priority in his Second Administration. And he should propose a suite of policy initiatives that can swiftly reduce our emissions, and give other nations confidence that we will not shirk our responsibilities.  Together, these actions would go a long way towards ensuring that our climate diplomacy is much more successful in the second Obama Administration than it was in the first. 

-- Steve Herz, Sierra Club International Climate Policy

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