‘I am speaking on behalf of the United States of America because my negotiators cannot,” Abigail Borah, a youth delegate to the 2011 Durban climate negotiations, yelled from the conference floor. “I am scared for my future,” she cried, silencing Todd Stern, the Obama administration’s chief climate negotiator. “We need an urgent path to a fair, ambitious, and legally binding treaty.”
Now the Obama administration is signaling that there will be not be a new climate treaty. According to a report in Wednesday’s New York Times, the path to a treaty has come to an end, 14 months before the Paris talks scheduled for next year. Instead, the best deal on offer is a non-binding accord. This is big news.
While the IPCC plays yesterday’s tired hits, it appears that next year’s climate-change negotiations will bring forth a mouse. In retrospect, the Durban climate conference turned out to be the high point for expectations that climate negotiations would produce a binding treaty. It was also the high point for the European Union’s climate-change strategy, knocking the U.S. on its heels. After the acrimonious collapse of attempts to agree to a climate treaty at Copenhagen in 2009, American and European climate negotiators drew diametrically different conclusions about what to do next.
The Obama administration reckoned that climate-change diplomacy had to be based on the recognition that opposition from China and India put a climate-change treaty beyond the realm of the realizable. The Senate was not going to ratify a treaty that did not include all the major emitters, and, as a matter of arithmetic, all the major emitters had to sign the treaty if it were to have any chance of tackling global warming.
By contrast, after Copenhagen, the Europeans clung to the hope of a binding treaty embracing all major emitters. Their strategy was to use the annual cycle of U.N. climate-change negotiations to fragment the coalition of developing nations through promises of billions of dollars of climate aid. Finding themselves isolated, the Indians and the Chinese would buckle under international pressure and sign on to a comprehensive treaty.
At Durban, the Europeans had an apparent trump card that encapsulated the delusory nature of the enterprise. All the other developed nations had decided to join the U.S. and effectively exit the Kyoto Protocol at the end of its first commitment period; Canada went further and formally withdrew. Without “hard, bankable” commitments from large nations on a roadmap to a binding treaty, the EU would pull the plug on Kyoto. So threatened Chris Huhne, the U.K. climate secretary who subsequently had to resign and serve time at Her Majesty’s pleasure, for perjury.
The EU’s hard line appeared to move the needle decisively toward a treaty. China indicated a softening in its position. The conference agreed to launch a process that aimed to deliver, at the very least, an agreed outcome with “legal force” applicable to developed and developing nations alike. Even Todd Stern was impressed, calling the Durban outcome “very significant.” The drive toward a comprehensive climate treaty, culminating at the Paris climate conference in 2015, was on.
Now that plan has collapsed. For the Obama administration, this means reverting to its pre-Durban Plan A: no legally binding commitments but voluntary pledges, notified under the auspices of the 1992 convention and underpinned by a regime of “naming and shaming” those who don’t live up to them. There is a big problem with this. It has already been tried, and it failed.
Out of the ashes of Copenhagen came the Copenhagen Accord, under which nations would notify the U.N. climate-change secretariat of their commitments to cut their greenhouse-gas emissions. In January 2010, Japan notified the convention secretariat of its pledge to cut its 1990-level emissions 25 percent by 2020. Last November, the government of Shinzo Abe tore this up, replacing it with a new target that implied a 3.8 percent increase. It caused hardly a ripple. Clearly, an international regime of emissions cuts enforced by naming and shaming has no credibility.
Worse still are the terrible optics of the Obama administration’s handling of the non-treaty. The partisan spin is that this route enables the climate-change negotiations to bypass recalcitrant Republicans in the Senate. The unanimous vote in favor of the Byrd-Hagel resolution in 1997— the current secretaries of state and defense both voted for it — showed bipartisan opposition to any climate-change treaty that does not cover all the world’s major emitters. Blaming Republicans might be smart electoral politics, but it shifts international attention from the opposition of India and China to any treaty that binds them. Playing into the hands of the blame-America crowd is never good politics for an American president.
— Rupert Darwall is the author of The Age of Global Warming: A History.