The United Nations Conference on Climate Change that ended on Dec. 14 in Lima, Peru, is a classic case of seeing a glass as half full or half empty. In the half-full view, Lima is a stepping stone to the kind of agreement the world needs to halt the devastating effects that scientists anticipate if global warming breaks the 2-degree-Celsius increase ceiling. In the half-empty view, Lima is a diversionary maneuver to hide the failure to even seek an enforceable agreement that is necessary if climate change catastrophe is to be averted. From this perspective, what was agreed on at Lima is hardly worth dignifying by the formal label Lima Call for Climate Action. It consists of a public promise by the more than 190 participating states to submit a design for reducing climate emissions with a plan to go into effect in 2020. The whole undertaking is voluntary and dependent on untrustworthy mechanisms of self-enforcement.
Lima was no different from the 20 earlier annual U.N. conferences devoted to climate change: two weeks of pompous speechifying and interminable negotiations to reach agreement on a text, with at least five alternatives for every paragraph in the document. There were not only sharp disagreements among various groups of states but also an atmosphere of distrust and hostility on the part of developing countries toward the more developed world. Much of the tension was due to sharply divergent interests as to who will get payments from the Green Fund set aside for those countries facing immediate dangers from global warming. There were a number of maneuvers by emerging economies seeking to avoid commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while the wealthy countries were doing their best to avoid taking financial responsibility for helping poorer countries adapt.
At the end of these drawn-out proceedings, extended (as always) for a last-ditch effort of 24 hours, the host country proposed (as always) a set of compromises that the delegates on the brink of exhaustion miraculously accepted (as always), and something emerged that is less than an agreement but more than nothing (as always). The modesty of the outcome was signaled (as always) to the world by a self-denigrating label — this time, Lima Call. With fatigue overcome, there was much applause, even celebration, perhaps because the unwieldy process did not end in total failure, which might well have discredited any further reliance on the U.N. as the principal problem-solving venue for climate change. The stage was set for another U.N. gathering a year hence, this time in Paris.
The positive take on the Lima Call is that at least an agreement of some sort emerged that can be improved on in Paris — which has long been put forward as the make-or-break test of whether the governments of the world when acting together can finally come to an agreement to confront climate change. From this perspective, the future seems likely to be a test of political will of governments in the face of clashing pressures. From one direction is the intense pressure to maximize economic growth and to avoid confrontations with the all-powerful fossil-fuel industries. From the opposite direction is the scientific consensus, as reinforced by a growing civil society movement, that unless drastic steps are taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, there will be terrible consequences as several tipping points are triggered that will make climate change irreversible and severe.
The Lima Call, at the very least, has made us think hard about what the future will be like if climate-change complacency retains the upper hand in negotiations.
Part of the puzzle is this tradeoff between the immediacy of economic policy and the more elusive effects of global warming. Politicians are normally judged by short-term performance and are rarely sufficiently public spirited enough to think beyond the horizons of their time in government. Another part of the puzzle is structural. The world is organized to deal with the interactions of sovereign states, with a few states in leadership roles. All these governments are oriented toward promoting national interests and give scant attention to the human or global interest except in their formal speeches designed to get media attention back home. At Lima it was evident during the two weeks of debate and negotiation that each government was preoccupied with issues of global scope but behaving selfishly to uphold its own interests, regardless of harmful consequences for the world as a whole. This stress on what is good for each country is especially evident in relation to climate change because of the gross unevenness of national societies with respect to wealth, development, technical capabilities and information.
Cynics are saying the Lima Call is another kicking of the climate-change can down the road. Part of this dark view arises from the realization that the United States can no longer play the role it played in the decades after the Cold War of combining the pursuit of its own interests with a credible commitment to advance the well-being of the whole world. It did this impressively during the long negotiations that finally established the Law of the Sea Treaty, providing a viable public order for the oceans that has stabilized maritime activities in an increasing complex world. In the end, domestic politics in the United States prevented formal ratification of the treaty, but this did not interfere with the indispensable contribution made to obtain the agreement. The anti-environmental atmosphere in American domestic politics, especially evident in the U.S. Congress and among the private sector interests that hire lobbyists and fund election campaigns, deprives the United States of the ability to play the kind of leadership role that in the past was so important in building up a legal framework for addressing common global interests. There are currently no other countries able to fill this leadership vacuum.
In this regard it should be recalled that the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, the initial serious attempt to reach a worldwide climate-change agreement, was not even submitted to the Senate for ratification, since it was almost unanimously opposed at the time by both political parties. Because of U.S. nonparticipation and some other limitations, the protocol had only a minimal effect on slowing the rate of increasing carbon emissions and must be viewed, at best, as a kind of instructive failure. The U.S. Congress voted in by the 2014 elections is so hostile to any kind of climate change treaty that the prospects of ratification are nil. President Barack Obama, despite his evident acceptance of the climate scientists’ warnings, opted in August for a nonbinding agreement in Paris. Even a best-case scenario for that session will, according to climate experts, fall far short of what is needed to avoid global warming beyond the 2-degree upper limit. Many climate scientists contend that the ceiling should be set lower — no higher than 1.5 degrees — to avoid serious harm to many parts of the planet.
Those who refuse to be discouraged argue that the outcome in Paris is still up in the air and that a further mass mobilization in this country and elsewhere could turn the political tide even in Washington. Recalling the climate justice demonstrations of September that brought 400,000 onto the streets of New York, activists believe that there is a global movement afoot that can change expectations and behavior. Such public pressure would enable the United States and China to build on their bilateral agreement to cut carbon emissions. Remembering that these two dominant states account for almost 50 percent of all emissions, it is hoped that they continue to work together and lead the Paris conference toward approving a framework of agreed restraint that will surprise the world of doubters by its ambition and effectiveness.
The Lima Call, at the very least, has made us think hard about what the future will be like if climate-change complacency retains the upper hand in negotiations. Much depends upon whether the U.S.-China agreement can serve as the foundation of a global partnership on climate change that persuades most other governments that only by doing what is best for all peoples can individual states hope for a sustainable future for themselves. And this may hinge in the end on whether politics in Washington can be managed in such a way as to allow the United States to become again a benevolent force in world affairs on an issue as vital for human well-being as any prior challenge.