Nov 12 2009
Fog of War
By Tom Burke
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A verbal fog of war has now enveloped the Copenhagen negotiations. This is inevitable. As well as the normal noise of negotiation there is now a fury of manoeuvring to manage expectations. Spin machines are working overtime to ensure that those seeking to evade the obligations of a strong and effective treaty are concealed by a protective smokescreen of ambiguous words.
Penetrating this fog is difficult. It requires a reliable linguistic radar to pick out the truth from the false echoes of ambiguity. Considerable caution is needed to avoid falling into the dangerous quagmires of marginal detail. Above all it is important to remember where you came from and where you are trying to get to.
The tortuous progression from the Earth Summit in 1992 via the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 to the Bali Roadmap in 2007 constructed today’s global regime for tackling climate change. This regime is based on a political bargain. At its heart is the agreement by the industrialised nations to reduce their carbon emissions first and to help the developing countries financially both to adapt to a changing climate and to reduce their carbon emissions.
In return, the developing countries undertook to take actions that would lower their emissions below where they otherwise might have been. This asymmetric bargain reflected the recognition by the industrialised nations that they were responsible for most of the cumulative carbon burden in the atmosphere. It is embodied in the key principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’.
This regime, cumbersome though it is, has been more successful than its critics recognise. Carbon emissions in many industrialised nations are below where they were in 1990 and considerably below where they might otherwise have been. Money has flowed, albeit too little and too slowly, to the developing countries. There has been a massive increase in our knowledge of the causes and consequences of climate change. The issue has moved from the political margins to become one of the top three issues on the global agenda.
The term ‘politically binding’ has no meaning at all in diplomacy. It is simply a promise by a politician worth as much as any other such promise.
Driven, as was always intended, by the successive reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), governments everywhere are now much more aware of the systemic risk posed by a changing climate. Institutional capacity has been strengthened: more ambitious national policies adopted.
In ratifying the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) all nations, including the United States, undertook an obligation to work to avoid ‘dangerous’ change to the climate. However, the Convention did not specify how much climate change would be dangerous.
In 2007, the IPCC’s fourth report warned that greenhouse gases were causing more and faster change than had been previously thought. There is now clear advice from climate scientists that governments should aim to keep the eventual rise in global temperature below 2 degrees. In July this year, the leaders of those countries responsible for most of the world’s current emissions, including the US, China and India, formally accepted this advice.