Wednesday, September 17, 2014
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Playing Russian Roulette with Climate Change

GENEVA – Mounting skepticism and deadlocked negotiations have culminated in an announcement that the Copenhagen Climate Conference will not result in a comprehensive global climate deal. Disappointing? Certainly. But the Copenhagen climate summit was always meant to be a transitional step. The most important thing to consider is where we will go from here. 

The phrase “the day after” is most commonly associated with the word “hangover.” The absence of a binding agreement could mean a global hangover, and not just for a day. Fed up with apocalyptic predictions, people wanted a miracle in Copenhagen. So a perceived failure may cause a massive, perhaps irreversible, loss of confidence in our politicians. No surprise, then, that governments have sought to manage our expectations carefully.

Decision-makers have not faced up to just how close the world may be to the climate “tipping point.” But, while a runaway climate remains a risk, runaway politics are already a fact. Official negotiations are removed from reality. According to the latest science, the current proposals under negotiation will result in warming of more than 4°C during this century – double the 2°C maximum endorsed by the G-8 and other leaders. That leaves a higher than 50% probability of the world’s climate moving past its tipping point.

An agreement based on the parameters that are now on the negotiating table would thus put us in a position more dangerous than a game of Russian roulette. To avoid both the global hangover of no deal and the self-deception of a weak deal, a breakthrough is needed – and can still be achieved in Copenhagen.

A two-step process is now our best bet. States should make a political commitment to a framework that includes overall objectives, an institutional framework, and specific pledges of early action and financing. The declaration must stipulate that a legally binding agreement must be finalized by COP15-bis in 2010. That would allow the United States and other countries to enact the necessary legislation, and provide United Nations negotiators time to translate the COP15 Declaration into an appropriate, workable legal structure. If this means a total reworking of the current document, so be it.

In addition, it might be necessary to have a review conference in 2015 to adjust our targets and plans to the new realities. Therefore, it is more important than ever that heads of state attend the Copenhagen conference, as this two-step solution will only work with strong, direct intervention by leaders.

In 1985 during the height of the Cold War, when negotiations were bogged down at the US – Soviet Union Geneva Summit, the negotiators were instructed by their leaders annoyed by lack of progress, “we do not want your explanations why this can’t be done. Just do it!" And it was done by the morning.  Today’s leaders must come to Copenhagen and say, "We want this done!"

To move forward, the Copenhagen meeting must break the political deadlock between industrialized and developing states. Climate injustice must be redressed, as developing countries bear the brunt of the impact and face massive adaptation costs. Rich countries need to put serious money on the table. Claims that they lack the needed resources ring hollow, as trillions of dollars were found to bail out banks in the financial crisis. 

Poor countries are aware of their power to block progress. Veto power is effectively shifting from the UN Security Council to G-77 plus China. Who would have imagined in the West ten years ago that the future and their children’s well-being would depend upon decisions taken in Beijing or Delhi or Addis Ababa?

So the industrialized countries need to put a real financing offer on the table as soon as possible to allow time for a positive reaction and announcements of commitments from developing countries. In particular, commitment to an early-start fund – at least $20 billion to immediately assist the least developed countries – is critical. This would help establish the trust that is now sorely lacking, and create conditions to restart productive negotiations.

Leaders must be honest about the scale of the challenge and recognize that a systemic and transformational change, not incremental gestures, is required. The official response to climate change must be recalibrated to the level and urgency of the threat. A new global agreement must be science-based, not a lowest-common-denominator compromise watered down by vested interests.

Sensible risk management today dictates that atmospheric carbon should be stabilized at 350 parts per million of CO2 equivalent, not the current pathway of 450-500ppm CO2e. This requires emission reductions of 45-50% in industrialized countries by 2020, and almost complete de-carbonization by 2050, not the levels of 15-25% by 2020 and 60-80% by 2050 that are now on the table. Major developing countries must also commit to nationally appropriate mitigation actions. But the rich must move first. Their inaction over the last 20 years does not give them the right to point fingers.

Governments should not withhold the truth from their citizens. Everyone will have to make sacrifices. But do you want your home to be cheap, dirty, and dangerous or clean, decent, and safe? Are you ready to say, “Okay, kids, I inherited this house, but I neglected to maintain it, so you will have to worry that the roof might collapse at any time”? That is not the type of legacy that any of us would want to leave our children.

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