Cancun looms, ready or not

Climate talks in Tianjin, China have ended. That’s it now until Cancun, Mexico on 29 November-10 December, where the optimists hope than a binding post-Kyoto treaty on climate change might be concluded.

That can’t happen without China and the US patching up their differences. The chances of that approach zero, according to Bloomberg.

The BBC report goes further:

On Saturday, one of the Chinese climate negotiators reportedly accused the US of behaving like a preening pig, complaining about Beijing when Washington had done so little itself.

Reuters explains this reference to Chinese classical literature:

Su likened the U.S. criticism to Zhubajie, a pig in a classic Chinese novel, which in a traditional saying preens itself in a mirror.

“It has no measures or actions to show for itself, and instead it criticizes China, which is actively taking measures and actions,” Su said of the United States.

The BBC article reports that progress is being made in establishing the $100 billion fund to help poor countries with climate change adaptation, but warns:

If even this part of the package falls, diplomats in Tianjin are warning it will threaten the future of multilateral action between nations of the world on anything.

I assume ‘anything’ means anything, not just matters pertaining to climate change.

It is said that progress is being made on the text, but what that means is not clear to me. The Guardian article says that there has been backsliding on forests because of Saudi Arabia and Papua New Guinea, one area where there was some hope after Copenhagen.

In that article the Wilderness Society describe the week at Tianjin as “shatteringly awful” whereas the Climate Action Network must have attended a different meeting:

“We haven’t seen such a positive spirit of negotiation for many years,” said Julie-Anne Richards of Climate Action Network. “This might not sound like interesting news. But compared to where we were before it is a real step forward.”

Some are willing to take heart from the notion that the talks actually lasted the week.

has written the process off and reckons we have to come to terms with the fact that we’ve been up a dry gully:

I don’t know. These failures have exposed not only familiar political problems, but deep-rooted human weakness. All I know is that we must stop dreaming about an institutional response that will never materialise and start facing a political reality we’ve sought to avoid. The conversation starts here.

Flannery has a contrasting view, as illustrated by his conversation with Richard Fidler. Flannery takes the broadest possible view of our develpoment as a species, our relationship with the planet, each other and other species. He thinks this coming century is going to be tricky but thinks we’ll come through to find a sustainable way of living in the environment.

On Copenhagen, he points to the actual accord, which over 120 countries have signed up to. He also points out that there has been a significant shift in the attitude of China and other major developing countries. Three years earlier they were simply saying to the developed countries, “You caused the problem, you fix it”.

I think it was Bush who first pushed the line of “common but differentiated responsibility”. It looks as though it is going to be the guiding principle.

The Europeans typically want binding agreements, but if experience in trade matters is any guide, the small print is likely to favour their own interests to the disadvantage of the developing countries specifically. This is why many of the developing countries won’t sign up to binding agreements.

The Europeans now appear willing to pick up the ball and run, whatever happens at Cancun. In the early days it was places like California. Now if the Europeans are willing to join the Chinese, the Brazilians and perhaps some others it may be the best we can do. Flannery thinks that some fractious muddling is quite normal for this stage of developing co-operation.

Whatever comes out of Cancun, there is every reason that we in Oz should proceed with urgency.

21 thoughts on “Cancun looms, ready or not”

  1. The US is a hopeless case. It just doesn’t care. It was content to sit and watch one of its historic cities, New Orleans, destroyed by the environment (not necessarily climate change) and cannot even be bothered to rebuild it.

    If terrorists had done that, they would have spent billions, trillions to prevent it happening again. But the environment? Who cares? Nothing should stand in the way of a fast buck.


  2. I can’t find it by googling, but recently I read about a Pew Survey in January that asked Americans about the importance of, from memory, 21 or so issues. Climate change rated last.

    I did find this article, which doesn’t fill me with joy.

  3. Is there any reason to care what Tim Flannery thinks about global politics, individual psychology and organisational behaviour? Serious question.

  4. It’s symptomatic of the sad state of world governance when gradiose attempts at global policy making by nation states leave most obervers disappointed in the outcomes. Direct action often follows, with mixed results.

    At the global level, the same old blame game, no-committment national politics that suffocated an effective action plan in Copenhagen was again in evidence from delegates in Tianjin, China.

    Is there any doubt that decision-making will be any more effective in Cancun, Mexico as delegates face yet more dangerous facts that point to the dire consequences of run-away climate change?

    Will Rudd’s recent speech on the urgent need to reform the UN bear fruit? Sadly when it comes to complex and profound policy change or the issue of transferring power to the world body, political leaders seem only to learn the hard way. That will occur when the diabolical threat has been realised and an incensed public scream for reform.

  5. Flannery is in climatology only because paleontology didn’t pay enough. Thats probably why he’s now moving into “global politics” etc. He is smart enough to see his current gravy train running out.

  6. Bill, I don’t think you need to assume other than Flannery is doing what interests him. He had a good job at the SA Museum. You can’t just make stuff up about people.

    Mike C @ 9, the problem with the UN decisionmaking in these forums is that complete consensus is required. So a single nation that sees its interests threatened can blow the deal.

  7. Shhh, Mike! Don’t mention the war.

    All we cognescenti know about and support the goal of national governments transferring power to the UN, but it is important not to say it publicly and frighten the horses.

    In all seriousness, that is the sort of remark that gives oxygen to the wilder bits of the theses of the likes of Monckton and Bolt, and it doesn’t belong in a serious discussion of what Cancun might or might not produce.

  8. “Binding agreements” may run easily off the tongue but the post got close to the truth when it said

    The Europeans typically want binding agreements, but if experience in trade matters is any guide, the small print is likely to favour their own interests to the disadvantage of the developing countries specifically. This is why many of the developing countries won’t sign up to binding agreements.

    There is no fair way of deciding which countries should do what. Per capita emissions? Total emissions? Achievable reductions? so why waste time chasing the binding agreement?
    The long term targets debate also consumed an enormous amount of energy even though no-one at Copenhagen had the authority to commit to what their country was going to be doing in ten years time, let alone 40 years time.
    The other problem was that we got sucked in by the second part of the skeptics lie – That climate action had to be economy destroying.
    Perhaps Cancun should:
    1. Concentrate on encouraging countries to identify actions that are not going to destroy their economy and to proceed with these actions.
    2. Identify joint actions that could help bring down world emissions. For example, shared efficiency standards.

  9. Without trying to do a Strocchi, Monbiot’s column says, at greater length, something I first wrote about four years ago. There has never been any reason to believe that human institutions could cope with climate change, and plenty of sound reasons to believe the opposite. They can’t even cope with a comparatively straightforward problem like the illegal drug trade, FFS.

    Brian @ 8 I don’t really have an hour to spend listening to it unless there’s a reason to believe it makes a substantial, innovative contribution to the discussion or alternatively, introduces evidence that most people have overlooked. Thus my question @ 5.

    BTW absent the non-negligible risk of total environmental catastrophe occurring, I’m quite optimistic that the human race will adapt to climate change. Lots of death and suffering in the process of course, immiserating untold millions, but that’s what history would lead one to expect anyway every century or two. I know it would be nice if we were over all that but I don’t see any evidence to support it.

  10. The New Yorker is carrying a lengthy (10 pages)on the death of the US Senate bill on climate change. In the Robert Woodward style of political reporting it is a very depressing read, telling more of the egos of it sponsors than of any committment to a need for change. Equally depressing was Obama’s preoccupation with a health bill, even though, like Rudd, he’d rated AGW as equal to passing health reform when all that ‘yes we can’ was big.
    I think our only hope on climate change is the test run that peak oil will put us through. And that will be a doozy along the lines that KL summarises.

  11. Ken @ 14 my impression is that Flannery attempts a synthesis that is more than interesting. I didn’t hear it all and don’t have time to listen to it either. I’d appreciate a serious review by a qualified person.

    If you google the book this is what you get.

    He has an interesting view on the evolutionary implications of women controlling their own fertility at the end of this article.

    In short, men will rapidly become less aggressive, but I don’t want to derail the thread.

  12. Ian Lowe’s review of Flannery’s book includes this passage:

    Flannery attributes our irresponsible behavior to ‘discounting the future’, not formally as practiced by financial analysts but informally in the sense of being obsessed with short-term gratification. Apart from discussing the psychological problems that beset the economics profession, he doesn’t discuss the root cause of our problems, the mindless pursuit of economic growth. His perceptive analysis of governance issues is strangely silent about the role of transnational companies.

    Which would seem to be fatal omissions, no matter how thoughtful the rest of the argument (and of course it is very misleading to describe the pursuit of economic growth as ‘mindless’ when in truth, there are numerous respectable arguments in its favour, even if I don’t personally accept them).

    Flannery is part of a long tradition of rationalist environmentalism: one that places its faith in the ability of human beings to act in their own long-term best interests once they have been properly educated. Unfortunately this approach is incompatible with the dynamics of a capitalist market economy. Attempts to marry the two, with clumsy devices like cap and trade, are incapable of achieving their objectives because they can’t accommodate the influence of power, politics and culture (in the sense of the values, beliefs and assumptions that underpin human behaviour). A little study of uncertainty theory and the obstacles that confront anyone trying to manage change processes in complex dynamic systems will demonstrate the futility of trying to devise an effective institutional strategy for managing AGW.

  13. Thanks for the link, Ken and for your critique. Ian Lowe’s bottom line:

    But these are minor criticisms. This is a very good book. It should be required reading for politicians and corporate leaders.

    Everyone’s perspectives have limitations. It shouldn’t mean that there aren’t useful insights.

  14. Brian I suppose it’s ‘required reading’ in the sense that ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ is required viewing: it’s informative and it stimulates interesting discussion but it’s ultimately useless as a set of practical instructions for accomplishing effective change.

  15. 1. “Common but differentiated responsiblities’ (CBDR) was not a line pushed by Bush at all Brian. It is a principle of international environmental law first clearly articulated in the 92 Rio declaration and included as a principle of the UNFCCC (and also Kyoto).

    The US (under Bush but also now under Obama) is actually trying to undermine CBDR by making all countries bear the same responsibilities (ie no binding cuts for anybody not even developed countries, who did after all cause climate change and do have the capacity to respond immediately). You can see that in the speeches from Todd Stern (UW Climate Envoy) when he says that ‘we cannot treat china like chad.’ the real problem is that the he wants the world to treat the US like China – which is clearly unfair and the greatest impediment to movement in the talks since Obama has been president, which i argued earlier this year –

    you can find a pretty good summary of the situation in finance negotiations here (the link is directly to a recently released summary of the EU and the negotiations which is quite interesting)

    2. the talks are not about finding a ‘post-Kyoto’ treaty Brian. there are two tracks of the talks. in 2007 all countries agreed to negotiate for a second commitment period of the KP and to negotiate for ‘longterm cooperative action. (LCA)’ it has been a strategy of the US and other countries (esp. Canada and Japan) who do not want any internationally binding treaties to try to publicly discuss the negotiations as if the LCA is the only game in town. this represents bad faith from those countries that agreed to negotiate both – and it’s no wonder that developing countries have no trust, which is proving fatal to the process.

    from an Australian perspective what is most distressing is our Government’s failure to disassociate ourselves from the US strategy in any noticeable way. ‘Ratifying Kyoto’ would have been one of the few policies on climate change that Australians understood that Labor promised in 2007 – yet the Labor Government actively works to undermine the continuation of that protocol in negotiations and mainstream environment ngos don’t seem to call them on it!

  16. UK now has 900,000 Green jobs.

    And as we learned on Q& A last night: electricity price rises are largely due to under-investment – a direct result of uncertainty and failing to set a carbon price.

    Get the dinosaurs out of the way! Incidentally, when the scientists are split 98 – 2%; how is having a denialist commentator “balance”, ABC?

    1 in 50 times should cover it! 🙂

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