The Expectations Game

The U.N. climate summit now under way in Cancún won't rival last year's roller-coaster ride of hopes and disappointment in Copenhagen. Thank goodness.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

One year ago, conservative and industry-backed opponents who shuddered at the prospect of a coordinated international effort to address the causes and impacts of climate change were busy conducting a witch hunt against climate scientists, looking for the bad practices of a few and trying to discredit the whole field. Remember how doggedly Matt Drudge, Rush Limbaugh, FOX News, and others hawked the sorry saga of the emails originating inside the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit revealing instances of some scientists tweaking research methodologies to support published conclusions, or the gleeful, finger-wagging exposes on the steamy semiautobiographical novel and questionable management style of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) head Rajendra Pachauri? The heated media frenzy on the eve of the 2009 U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen didn’t change our understanding of the fundamentals of climate science — which remain as ominously compelling as ever — but might have briefly warmed the planet’s temperature a half-degree or so. Yet for all the attention and expectations, Copenhagen was a disappointment.

Now, as the next meeting of delegates to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change — called the Conference of the Parties (COP) — gets underway in Cancún, Mexico, there is an eerie quiet on the climate front. There are no sequels to "Climategate," no high-profile mudslinging, fewer squealing conservative talk-show hosts, no major revelations of IPCC blunders, no frenzied debates over the pace at which Himalayan glaciers will recede. Alas, that’s not because climate scientists and environmentalists have won the battle so much as because there seems to be so much less at stake at these meetings. In short, climate skeptics have realized they don’t have to work as hard to derail the process.

Many environmentalists once believed Copenhagen could change the world. In the run-up to last December’s meetings in Denmark, both supporters and opponents of a U.N.-backed treaty to set internationally binding carbon-emissions targets were convinced that something momentous was on the horizon; much time and effort was expended trying to educate the public, or quibble with the science. Newspapers dispatched phalanxes of correspondents to cover the minutiae of the conference’s proceedings and, during slow moments, the hijinks of costumed demonstrators marching on the Bella Center. The two-week summit drew several heads of state, including U.S. President Barack Obama. Official country delegations tallied some 8,000 participants; meanwhile several thousand more NGO representatives, clean-tech entrepreneurs, and jet-set protesters came on their own.

In the end, there wasn’t much to write home about. At first it seemed nothing was happening, and newspaper dispatches largely focused on protesters unfurling colorful banners. At last on the final evening, Obama walked into an unannounced meeting of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and South African President Jacob Zuma — together these five leaders assembled a lukewarm, last-minute deal (sidestepping the question of emissions targets). But even that wasn’t officially adopted. When their text was presented on the final morning to the representatives from all 192 countries, a handful — Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, Sudan, Venezuela, the Polynesian island nation of Tuvalu — balked and blocked the consensus process necessary for the United Nations to officially adopt the agreement. Their objections ranged from Tuvalu’s desperation that more should be done (we’re almost underwater!) to Venezuela’s ideological outrage at America’s "imperialist" pushiness (President Hugo Chávez famously accused Obama of acting like an emperor "who comes in during the middle of the night … and cooks up a document that we will not accept, we will never accept"). And so the summit concluded with a non-legally binding document, the Copenhagen Accord being "noted" by participant countries, which then later offered voluntary pledges to curtail carbon emissions, or at least the rate of emissions growth. No one was satisfied, save maybe Rush Limbaugh.

Still, those who had invested great energy before Copenhagen initially tried to cast the outcome as beacon of hope. As Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) President Frances Beinecke put it:  "The world has said enough is enough. We have taken a vital first step toward curbing climate change for the sake of our planet, our country and our children…. This agreement is not all we had hoped for. There’s still more work to be done. But it strikes a credible blow against the single greatest environmental ill of our time."

One year later, however, environmentalists look back with more modest assessments of progress made. What does building on the platform established at Copenhagen mean this year in Cancún? As NRDC’s international climate policy director Jake Schmidt told me: "One of the key things now is countries need to come to Cancún to rebuild some trust, so we can deal with the challenge." Trust-building sounds a lot like starting from square one. The World Resources Institute’s climate and energy program director, Jennifer Morgan, framed her expectations this way: "Our hope is that the parties do make progress on a set of decisions that take elements in the Copenhagen Accord and build those out — for instance launching a green-technology fund. We hope this meeting will set out the details for future negotiations over the next two years." In other words, great expectations have given way to incrementalism.

In some regard, the absence of hype isn’t such a bad thing. It’s clear that part of the disappointment of Copenhagen was simply that expectations had been shot to the moon. In answering a question about the worst idea/experience of the past 12 months for Foreign Policy‘s 2010 Global Thinkers issue, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman told the magazine: "The worst experience [of last year] was the Copenhagen climate conference. The expectations were completely unmatched by the ability to deliver them."

Rather than dwell on what not to hope for in Cancún, this might be a moment to recall when, if ever, any similar treaty process to rein in emissions has worked. Granted, the rules aren’t about to be rewritten in Mexico, but for those scratching their heads and looking outside the COP process, it’s worth considering Montreal — shorthand for the treaty that has successfully curbed emissions of substances that deplete the ozone layer was negotiated in Montreal in 1987. It’s not only because he hails from Canada that David Keith, director of the University of Calgary’s Institute for Sustainable Energy, Environment and Economy and a strong advocate for climate action, told me: "The Montreal Protocol on the ozone remains the best and also most optimistic model we have for what a future climate regime might look like."

You might think, oh sure, it wasn’t so hard to get people to stop using aerosol hair spray, right? Well, certainly, it’s true that carbon is far more essential to our economy today than ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), common in aerosols, ever were. Still, it’ s easy to forget just how many essential household and medical products once used CFCs — from working fluids for refrigeration and air-conditioning, to fire-extinguishing chemicals, to medical inhalants. There were scare stories on the news about how CFC-reduction could lead to world starvation, because we wouldn’t be able to preserve food and medicine without refrigeration. Yet after all that hyperbole, a treaty did come to pass. In 1987, major emitters agreed to reduce emissions 50 percent — even before the technology that would make this possible was available — and by 2000, CFCs had been nearly eliminated in industrialized countries and the rest of the world. How?

For some insights into the history, I rang up the man who has written the definitive history of those negotiations, the University of Michigan’s Edward Parson, author of Protecting the Ozone Layer. He offered some telling insights. For starters, the Montreal treaty talks only included about two-dozen top CFC emitters, and meetings took place with comparatively little external political hype. The United States, major European economies, the USSR, Canada, China, Mexico, and Egypt all took part; gradually, other countries signed on. There was no public theater rivaling Climategate. As Parson puts it: "Despite a couple prior periods of public alarm of ozone depletion, there were only a few hundred people who were actively concerned, mostly government scientists and some environmentalists." In short, he concludes success might largely have been a matter of focus — a focused goal, a focused set of players, a focused conversation.

Today, it’s worth noting that the United States and China are responsible for roughly 40 percent of global carbon emissions, and together the top 20 emitters are responsible for roughly 80 percent of total emissions. Looking at those numbers is why Parsons, Keith, and others are starting to conclude, in Keith’s words: "The only plausible way of reducing emissions through a negotiated international framework is a deal that involves a relatively small number of big states, like China, the U.S. and the E.U. We don’t solve problems by coupling everything together. I think the idea we were ever going to get serious progress on cutting global emissions by a bureaucratic all-inclusive U.N. process, one that operates by consensus with all the countries in the U.N., was never likely to occur. … What’s more, [Copenhagen] provided a way to make it look like we were making progress on climate change for a bunch of years while we just kept pumping carbon into the air."

Among those watching closely the negotiations in Cancún — a fraction of the number who followed Copenhagen — few are terribly optimistic for major progress. On the bright side, though, the absence of delusions might be a useful reality check.

Christina Larson is an award-winning journalist based in Beijing.

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