The Time has Come to Reform the International Climate Change Negotiation Model

By Glenn Ashton · 12 Dec 2012

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Picture: Asleep at COP18 courtesy Arend Kuester/Flickr
Picture: Asleep at COP18 courtesy Arend Kuester/Flickr

With the conclusion of COP 18 in Doha, another set of climate change negotiations have come and gone with little real progress toward solving the urgent consequences of increased levels of atmospheric CO2. We clearly need to transform our approach to the problem.

A year ago Durban was under virtual siege by government delegations from around the world, at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) COP 17 meeting. The conference centre was enclosed in a tight police and UN cordon, effectively separating state representatives and negotiators from the citizenry they were meant to represent.

This year the circus moved to Doha, where real public protest is curtailed by a repressive regime. Yes, the first legal protest in the history of Doha was held but it was a strictly curtailed affair. There should have been angry and ugly protest about the record loss of Arctic sea ice this year, of permafrost melt, of the evident acceleration of the impacts of climate change beyond earlier predictions. Instead the Emir of Doha accommodated tame protestors in five star hotels, with a coffee call to protest at 7am. And of course a list of what was permitted.

The reason that climate change negotiators remain so rigorously segregated from the public is because of increasing public anger and frustration at the real failure to ambitiously pursue solutions to this urgent problem. Negotiations remain captive to the interests of fossil fuelled capital, fixated on maintaining the economic status quo.

The science that we are well past the point of no return on the road to climate hell has been diplomatically deflected for two decades now. The failure of Copenhagen was reprised in Durban, which itself was misrepresented as a success in order to fool the uninformed. Now the Doha distraction too has passed, with no real solutions on the table.

It was decided that compromise responses remain postponed, in order that those profiting from emissions can continue business as usual. Expedient dissimulation has replaced substance. If the people really understood what the hell is going on they wouldn’t only be protesting, there would be open revolt. As wicked as the challenge may be, solutions must be found.

Hosting COP 18 in Doha was saturated in a quagmire of irony. Not only is Qatar an oppressive fiefdom, it is the world’s biggest per capita emitter of CO2, double that of Kuwait, the next highest. COP 18 will, despite pathetic cosmetic attempts to temper the impacts, be the most carbon intensive climate conference to date. All available water comes from energy intensive desalination; locals use an average of 400 litres per day, in a desert with less than 80mm of annual rainfall. All food is imported and eaten in climate controlled conditions. Qatar may be the harbinger of our future dystopia.

Yet the faux reality of Doha also underlines the insanity of the impasse that has relegated the urgency of the climate crisis to the fringes of political expediency. While rogue banks are swiftly bailed out, ailing global ecosystem crises are ignored.

Instead of providing finance to deal with the increasing risks of climate change, fossil fuels remain perversely subsidised. For example the UNFCCC requested “fast start” climate mitigation pledges of $100 billion per year by 2020. Less than 20% of this has been pledged, less still committed; only 11% is ‘new’ finance. Yet developed nations provide direct annual subsidies of over $58 billion to the fossil fuel industry – the very source of the problem, while the promises made in Copenhagen, Durban and Doha remain vague and non-binding.

Clearly, the entire existing structure of the global environmental governance regime is profoundly biased against any real commitment or agreement to deal with climate change. One central reason is because the long term planning and commitment required is incompatible with short-term national and regional political cycles.

Furthermore, political cycles are far more susceptible to commercial than public influence. Cosy corporate-media collusion further deceives and confuses the public. The entire “debate” around climate change is founded on false premises; it is a misplaced attempt to provide “balance” where none is required. This cornerstone of reporting is cunningly manipulated by corporate led climate denialists to serve their narrow ends.

More sinister is how vested interests cynically undermine public opinion while lobbying political interests. Exxon, the world’s largest oil company was warned by the Royal Society of London to stop funding climate change misinformation campaigns. The richest men in the world, the Koch brothers, have spent hundreds of millions of dollars lobbying, funding and undermining democratic institutions to weaken emission regulations. They and others are linked to dozens of front groups around the world subverting scientific consensus on climate change.

The consequence is that despite several useful interventions such as China’s pledge to take “due responsibility” for its emissions, and some agreement on peripheral issues, little real movement was made at COP 18 on the big question of managing CO2 emissions and the consequences.

As the Venezuelan lead delegate, Claudia Salerno – famous for slashing her hand during the Copenhagen debacle to demonstrate how developing nations bled – stated, rich countries "may as well make their own convention without the developing countries". Given that the UNFCCC circus has rolled on for 20 years now with no real progress, she may well have a point. Fact is that fossil fuel barons like the Saud’s, Koch’s and others remain far more influential than the global citizenry.

Yet even in the USA, the capital of climate change denialism (although there remain plenty of other whack job denialists around the world; misinformed, stupid, conservative, bloody minded, or all of the above) the majority of people believe climate change is a real threat and that action must be taken, even if it does have costs. This is a bit late, given that 2012 is set to be the hottest year in US history.

The reality is that we have all had enough of being strung along by the rule of kleptocratic oligarchs, governing the world through the diktats of a rapacious corporate-political nexus. This cabal is no less than a criminal conspiracy and should be treated as such. As Bill McKibben says, it is time to hit dirty energy where it hurts. And more.

But Doha is where treaties go to die – the World Trade Organisation met its Waterloo there in 2001 and has never recovered, sputtering from failure to collapse. The UNFCCC fared little better. There was scant urgency to reshape global responses to the increasingly urgent threats of climate change. Why?

For a start, the environment receives far less attention than the economy. When financial crises arise, the problem is dealt with, post haste. Climate change is at least as serious as global economic meltdown, yet is not taken as seriously because of its deferred and more nebulous impacts.

From an economic perspective, most of the opposition to climate change solutions emanates from a cabal of fossilised thinkers who remain convinced the costs of action are too high. The reality is that the cost of inaction is far, far higher.

Even a compromise, along the lines that Richard Heydarian and Walden Bello suggest - where the largest emitters like China and the US arrive at an emissions accord structured along the lines of the SALT treaty - would be preferable to the dismal Doha decisions. However, bilateral agreements may prove counterproductive by their exclusionary nature.

If we do not treat the threat to our climate and the consequent impacts on the global environment – ocean acidity, sea level, atmospheric temperature, Arctic ice cover, melting of glaciers and ice sheets, increased extreme weather events, decline in biodiversity and so on – with the same urgency as we deal with economic perturbations, then we are certainly condemning future generations to a profoundly gloomy future.

Climate change may well be a super wicked problem. Nevertheless we have some potent tools to address the challenges. Inaction no longer remains an option. In the light of the failure and prevarication (yet again dressed up as success) at COP 18 there is an urgent need to revitalise the call to arms, to implement far more focussed collective action than is presently the case. The nations of the world must arrive at final, ambitious and binding agreements which address the problem.

To start with, the UNFCCC should meet continuously in order to break the impasse. International attendance, not just that of the secretariat, must be compulsory and continue until the problem is fully and permanently addressed. This is the only logical way forward. Anything less is a collective capitulation to the gradual death of our planet, accelerating us toward the culmination of the Anthropocene.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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