Deadlock in Durban

NEW YORK – The 17th conference of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, popularly known as COP-17, is taking place in Durban, South Africa, at a critical moment, as the historic 1997 Kyoto Protocol is set to expire next year. But, like the climate-change conferences in Copenhagen in 2009 and in Cancún in 2010, COP-17 can be expected to spend much and produce little.

Indeed, the extravagance of these conferences seems to grow, rather than shrink, as their dismal results become more apparent. COP-15 in Copenhagen lasted 12 days, and is estimated to have attracted 15,000 delegates and 5,000 journalists. The carbon emissions created by so many people flying to Denmark was real, while the emissions targets that the conference sought remained beyond reach. That will be true in Durban as well – and on an even greater scale.

The real problem is that the expectations concerning meaningful action on climate change, as opposed to gimmicks such as US President Barack Obama’s last-minute arrival and minuscule gestures in Copenhagen, are now lower than ever. There are two problems that cannot be wished away.

First, the United States under Obama’s ineffective leadership has drifted yet further into a “What’s in it for me?” attitude on key issues requiring international action. In place of what the economist Charles Kindleberger once called an “altruistic hegemon,” the America that the world now faces is what I call a “selfish hegemon.”