Climate change is not being effectively addressed through the UNFCCC process, which has instead evolved into a sterile talk shop, unable to overcome the resistance of those who would block meaningful action on climate change. This note looks at some historical dimensions and precursors of this failure.
The Stockholm Conference of 1972, applauded by northern environmentalists and distrusted by the world’s poorer nations –launched a global dialogue about facing environmental challenges while stimulating socio-economic development. Poor countries played a small role at Stockholm. Like so much of the process that followed, it was a remarkably one sided, neo-colonial affair dominated by the agendas of rich industrialised nations of the global north.
For almost two decades after Stockholm global politics were dominated by the final chapters of the Cold War between the US and the USSR. Yet the same 1980s that witnessed the beginning of Afghanistan’s seemingly endless turmoil also saw Norway’s Gro Brundtland head a ‘World Commission on Environment and Development’. Brundtland’s team prepared a remarkable document entitled “Our Common Future” and the expression ‘sustainable development’ symbolised their attempt to reconcile northern appetites for action on ‘shared environmental challenges’ with the ‘global south’s’ desire to improve living standards and life expectancies. Those years also saw a consensus emerge about the dangers of rising greenhouse gas emissions driving temperature increases and other climatic change in the coming century. In 1992 an agreement on climate change emerged from Rio’s ‘Earth Summit’. Many northern delegates believed it was a historic breakthrough yet the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change emerged from a miasma of double dealing and hypocrisy that we have not yet transcended. As Obama said, you can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.
I used to train international bureaucrats about environmental problems and solutions. We summarised Rio as a showdown between poorer nations demanding “Give us $125 billion a year or we shoot the panda” and northern delegates replying “Let them eat conservation”. Only the latter achieved satisfaction, with the UNFCCC and a sister treaty on Biodiversity. The others had hoped for a ‘global deal’ between rich and poor of the sort proposed by the Brundtland Commission. The actual outcome was an eloquent menu of unfulfilled dreams known as “Agenda 21”. Summarising Rio’s results, its Secretary General Maurice Strong paraphrased Churchill: “Never have the rich given so little for so much”.
Developing countries insisted they would not participate in treaties like UNFCCC without assurance that money for such initiatives wouldn’t detract from the funds available to underwrite their development agendas. Wealthy nations reassured them and launched UNFCCC. Funding from a new ‘Global Environment Facility’ (GEF) would ensure its implementation in the poor countries.
Much enthusiasm at Rio stemmed from an appealing myth: a ‘peace dividend’ could be realised after the Cold War. Many believed the mega-billions spent on weapons would now finance schools, hospitals, water supply, sewers and so on throughout the poorer regions. Instead aid budgets were slashed in the 1990s, easy targets for deficit cutters in many of the world’s richest nations (especially North American). A few billions were found though, so the GEF could help poor countries be part of the new ‘global environmental agenda’, fighting against climate change and biodiversity loss.
Renewed geopolitical struggle in the 21st century has played a very similar role to the Cold War in stimulating new commitments of support to the world’s poor. At the same time boundaries between global ‘North’ and ‘South’ and distinctions between ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ countries are also shifting. Large ‘newly industrialised countries’ like China, Brazil and India are growing rapidly in wealth and influence. This latter shift has presented an invaluable argument to those who oppose decisive action on climate change. Cold War diplomats knew how to paralyse UN negotiations; these skills are now applied to climate change talks. Wealthy ‘rogue states’ with powerful hydrocarbon lobbies, led by the US and followed by countries like Canada, are unprepared to support decisive measures on climate change. The most expedient way to pursue their obstructionist agenda is to insist that the large developing countries with rapidly growing economies must make their own significant commitments to cutting their GHG emissions before the world’s richest can agree to do the same. It is a specious argument of a crowd pleasing barroom lawyer: ‘How can our hard pressed citizens be asked to make this kind of sacrifice when China continues to forge ahead, taking our jobs and leaving us an economic backwater with overpriced wind mills, trains and cars that can’t go far?’ China, they point out, now produces almost the same amounts of GHG as the US. Facts that hint at another perspective (pdf) are ignored. We know that most of the current build up of GHG has been generated by rich countries. We know that average North Americans continues to generate far more GHG and enjoy far higher standards of living than average Chinese, Indians or Brazilians. These facts aren’t disputed; they are simply ignored.
Controversy is easier to stir up over the predictions of climate change scientists. Here, the tactics of those who oppose decisive action on climate change are disturbingly similar to those that delayed action on tobacco for decades. Even after they stopped claiming “Nine out of ten doctors recommend Camel” North America`s cigarette makers could still pay ‘reputable scientists’ to confirm that there was no clear link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. Today’s hydrocarbon producers and supporters pay ‘reputable scientists’ to explore uncertainties about the precise future trajectory of climate change. With breathtaking sophistry they cite this uncertainty as a reason for doing little to reduce GHG emissions.
Long after scientific consensus agreed tobacco was a leading cause of cancer, the tobacco industry was able to convince millions of young women to take up smoking, concocting flattering images and assuring them “You’ve come a long ways baby”, (you now have a ‘woman’s cigarette’). Two decades later, while the UNFCCC emerged from Rio, the struggling North American automobile industry was able to convince millions of consumers to throw caution to the wind and enjoy an outdoorsy image in a gas guzzling SUV. The most immediate victims of this latest Madison Avenue coup are not likely to be the SUV owners but poor folk in distant countries increasingly exposed to capricious weather, rising sea levels, growing disease burden and so on.
The current debate within the UNFCCC process, over whether to target temperature increases of 1.5° or 2°C, does more to prevent than to promote effective action. It is so removed from the business as usual, ‘rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic’ North American response to climate change that one might be forgiven for guessing it is more of the bad faith that has characterised global dialogue on environmental issues for decades. On the one hand, most scientists confirm we are heading for dangerous climate change which is likely to most severely affect the world’s poorest citizens. On the other hand, obstructionists determined to extract maximum profits from hydrocarbons remain unchallenged by wealthy populations numbed into complacency by a cacophony of contradictory messages. Those who would delay decisive action on climate change have succeeded in rendering the UNFCCC process as ineffective as UN efforts to prevent the Rwandan genocide. One of the best ways to create an illusion of progress where there is none is to quibble over details, as in: “Shall we try to stop at 1.5 or 2.0 degrees?”
Many now recognise that the only justifiable response to a threat of runaway climate change is prompt, direct action by all concerned citizens and organisations in rich nations. We need to resist the seductive delusion that the UNFCCC process is leading to improvements. Despite the great efforts of many dedicated, well meaning participants, the process has systematically failed to transcend the lies, hypocrisy and systematic inequity from which it emerged. Rather than a solution, the UNFCCC process is part of the problem, impeding rather than facilitating the urgent actions needed to mitigate the dangers of climate change. Effective pressure must be exerted first and foremost by citizens of the rogue states of North America, to ensure dramatic and rapid reductions in their countries’ GHG emissions. Only then might global negotiations proceed in an atmosphere of honesty and equity, contributing to the solution rather than exacerbating the problem.