U.N. Global Warming Summit: Heading Over the Climate Cliff

The U.N. climate summit is beginning in Middle Eastern city of Doha—but expectations are as low as they can be. Why can't the world take the climate crisis seriously?

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Mat Jacob / Tendance Floue

Paul Krugman got me thinking about climate change this morning.

Not that the bearded oracle was writing about global warming. Krugman’s newest New York Times column was about that other scary and impenetrable subject: the fiscal crisis. But while politicians in the U.S. especially seem helpless to do anything about climate change—or really even talk about it all that much—it seems to be impossible for anyone in Washington to allow more than five minutes to pass without panicking about the impending fiscal cliff. (Just in case you don’t know what the fiscal cliff is, check out this brief primer on the topic by my colleague Michael Grunwald.)

To Krugman, though, the panic over the fiscal crisis has a lot more to do with branding than it does with economic reality:

So let’s step back for a minute, and consider what’s going on here. For years, deficit scolds have held Washington in thrall with warnings of an imminent debt crisis, even though investors, who continue to buy U.S. bonds, clearly believe that such a crisis won’t happen; economic analysis says that such a crisis can’t happen; and the historical record shows no examples bearing any resemblance to our current situation in which such a crisis actually did happen.

If you ask me, it’s time for Washington to stop worrying about this phantom menace — and to stop listening to the people who have been peddling this scare story in an attempt to get their way.

What’s the climate connection? The fiscal crisis and global warming are both, to put it bluntly, problems for tomorrow. Even if Congress can’t come to an agreement to avert the fiscal cliff, the economy won’t collapse immediately and the U.S. will still be able to borrow money, just as climate change won’t render the world uninhabitable next year the world can’t reduce carbon emissions overnight anyway. As a society—and as a species—we tend not to be very good at addressing problems of tomorrow, but in one very important respect, the climate cliff and the fiscal cliff are very different. The Washington establishment—including large chunks of both parties—is convinced that something must be done now about the U.S.’s long-term fiscal problems, and a lot of Americans agree with them. They disagree on what to do, but no serious politician would simply dismiss the threat of the fiscal crisis. Yet Washington remains largely unmotivated on global warming, despite growing evidence that we could be facing a truly frightening future. Why does one long-term problem scare us, and the other remain ignored?

(MORE: Will U.S. Role at Climate Talks Change After Storm?)

That’s a question worth pondering at the annual U.N. climate talks, which begin this week in the Doha. The fact that the summit is being held in oil and gas-rich Middle Eastern country of Qatar—which seems to have the world’s largest per-capita carbon footprint—is perhaps indicative of just how little is expected to be accomplished. The main point of contention is the status of a treaty that is now more than 15 years old—the Kyoto Protocol, which was signed in 1997 and which bound developed nations (with the exception of the U.S., which never ratified the treaty, and in fact rejected it by a stunning 95-0 vote in the Senate) to reduce their carbon emissions by 2012. That year, of course, is almost over, and it still isn’t clear what—if anything—will succeed Kyoto. Last year, delegates at the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change talks gave themselves a 2015 deadline to come up with a new, broader global deal—but deadlines are made to be broken, especially by governments. European nations and developing countries would like to see the Kyoto Protocol extended in the meantime, but with the U.S. already out and Japan and Russia against extension, it’s hard to see that happening.

Rich countries have supplied nearly $30 billion in climate grants and loans to poor countries since 2009, but those commitments will expire this year as well. A $100 billion Green Climate Fund for poor countries that was proposed at the Cancun summit in 2010—where the tropical weather seemed to make the delegates unusually agreeable—has yet to materialize. That could mean, as Tim Gore of the British charity Oxfam put it, that we’re about to head over a “climate fiscal cliff” that could see the world actually scaling back on climate action even as humanity continues slouching towards a hotter and more dangerous future.

(MORE: After Sandy: An Environmentalist Goes Home)

It should be clear by now that the U.N. process is almost certainly never going to deliver the kind of breakthrough treaty that environmentalists have longed for. That’s partially because climate change itself is such an intractable problem, wedded as greenhouse gases are to the global energy system. Nor does it help that the countries that will emit the bulk of the world’s greenhouse gases over the coming decades are  developing nations like India and China—which means that virtually the only way to achieve rapid carbon reductions would involve slowing economic growth in the nations that need it most. (India alone has more people in poverty than all of sub-Saharan Africa.) And even beyond climate change, governments are struggling to come up with multi-lateral solutions for multi-lateral problems. Witness the European Union’s continuing inability to agree on a plan of attack for its own wide-ranging fiscal problems—or for that matter, at the push for secession within countries like Spain (Catalonia), Great Britain (Scotland) and to a much lesser extent, even the U.S. (Texas, and just about every state that went for Mitt Romney). If a relatively united supra-national group like the E.U. can’t figure out to save itself, how can the 191 vastly different nations represented at the U.N. summit in Doha agree on anything?

Climate action may work better on a smaller scale, through the actions of individual governments or groups of like-minded nations. But those local actions have to be coordinated to make a real difference, and diplomacy as usual just can’t seem up to the job—as is starkly illustrated by  the new U.N. Environment Programme report on the growing “emissions gap” between current environmental practices  and the cuts that need to be made to avert some of the worst-case climate scenarios. The climate crisis is as real as the fiscal one—perhaps even more so. But we seem set on ignoring it, even as we go headfirst over the cliff.

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