Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The catch

There seem to be some structural issues emerging that threaten the possibility of a formal agreement coming out of the Copenhagen negotiations. First, there is the reticence of the U.S. delegation to agree on anything that cannot be passed in Congress. The Obama administration is in a bind: they clearly would like to move forward with some sort of binding agreement on climate change but their ability to do so is restricted by the fact that they do not ultimately have the authority to approve American involvement in any treaty agreement. That is the responsibility of Congress. While the executive branch negotiates the treaty, they are restricted to what Congress will accept.

While the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated by the Clinton administration in 1997, it was rejected by Congress because there wasn't enough domestic support at the time for the agreement. As a result, U.S. scientists have been in the lead in warning about the dangers of climate change but the U.S. government has been seen as dragging their heels on any sort of binding resolution concerning climate change. From a political perspective, Kyoto was a failure. It is exactly the kind of situation that the Obama administration would like to avoid.

The second major stumbling block comes from developing nations. The Group of 77 (G77), which actually has 130 member nations, has been at the forefront of making the argument here in Copenhagen that developed countries are trying to shift the costs of climate change over to those nations least able to afford it. They have a point. Greenhouse gases have been accumulating in the atmosphere and, according to the IPCC, are responsible for the changes in climate causing all the problems we are here to fix. The countries primarily responsible for emitting these greenhouse gasses since the beginning of the industrial revolution are the major economic powerhouses today: mostly the U.S. and Europe.

While we think of China and India as being major parts of the problem because they are some of the leading emitters of greenhouse gases today, they have only recently joined the ranks of big polluters. From the perspective of the developing countries, asking them to now shoulder an equal part of the burden in fixing climate change is like expecting someone arriving after the party is over to help clean up. It's just not fair. From China's perspective, they are being asked to subsidize two centuries of atmospheric pollution by industrialized nations.

There is also the fear these countries have that a new climate agreement would continue to put them at an economic disadvantage and would prevent them from being able to scratch their way out of poverty. The rationale goes something like this: any treaty which restricts greenhouse gas emissions will necessitate new technologies and the ability of a country to install these new technologies. Industrialized countries are in the best position to develop these new technologies. Developing countries will then have to pay to import and install these technologies or face punishments from the international community for being in non-compliance. After all, the cheapest energy sources such as coal and wood are often the dirtiest.

Which brings us to the third major stumbling block to an agreement here at Copenhagen: developing countries in the midst of a worldwide recession are extremely reluctant, to say the least, about having to pay for upgrading their own economies and those of the developing world at the same time. "Why should we pay to develop all this new green technology and then pay for developing countries to install it?"

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