COPs: The Erratic Evolution of Global Climate Policy

Can This Planet Be Helped?

The latest Conference of the Parties (COP) in Warsaw didn’t make headlines — more like footnotes.  Two things have become clear.  First, the formal UN negotiations are only part of the transnational development of climate policy.  And second, the UN negotiations are moving slowly and fitfully, but they are making progress.  Neither of these things should be surprising.  The UN mechanism is very cumbersome, and it would be crazy to put all our faith in that one channel for making policy.  And it’s also understandable that progress is slow — climate change is a very tough collection action problem, requiring agreement by many nations with diverse interests and perspectives. This is extremely frustrating given the urgency of the issue, but at the same time it’s not surprising.

In terms of energy-related issues, the key players are the developed countries plus India and China.  The two Asian giants find themselves at odds both with the developed countries and with other developing countries, both of whom see the need to restrict emissions from these emerging economies.  India and Asia succeeded in a last-minute wording change that requires that they “contribute” to restricting emissions rather than “committing” to do doing so. The change angered developing countries like Bangladesh, but at least it was better than the language China and India had originally proposed.  It seems clear that the Kyoto division between developed and developing counties has broken down, for the obvious reason that emerging economies like China and India no longer fit either camp and are a major part of the emissions problem.

There seems to have been more tangible progress in terms of forestry emissions (the so-called REDD+ agreement), and it increasingly looks like the model for a new international agreement will be the informal agreement reached at Copenhagen.

Despite arguments by some American scholars that the issue of climate justice is a red herring, it is clear that this issue is not going to go away.  Climate justice was given some recognition through endorsement of the Warsaw Mechanism for Loss and Damage,  although it falls well short of the compensation commitment sought by developing countries. For now, this “mechanism” is placed under the umbrella of the adaptation fund, and it remains to be seen whether it will attain independent standing.  Despite U.S. opposition, there is eventually going to have to be some kind of compromise on this issue.

The bottom line: it’s going to take an enormous effort to forge global cooperation to mitigate climate change, and the results will almost certainly fall short of the carbon reductions that we really need.  But it’s critical to continue the effort.


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Reader Comments

3 Replies to “COPs: The Erratic Evolution of Global Climate Policy”

  1. Dan, CALIFORNIA magazine’s “Global Warning” issue for Sep/Oct 2006 had a cover story “Can we adapt in time?” featuring conclusions by evolutionary biologists who are extremely pessimistic about our ability to prevent global warming catastrophe.

    In his book “What Remains to Be Discovered” the late Nature magazine editor Sir John Maddox agreed with your conclusion “it’s going to take an enormous effort to forge global cooperation to mitigate climate change” in his chapter on “Avoidance of Calamity.”

    If social and neuroscientists cannot come up with quick fixes for the limitations of the human mind, then our civilization is in grave jeopardy.

  2. Dan said;
    “……. it’s going to take an enormous effort to forge global cooperation to mitigate climate change, and the results will almost certainly fall short of the carbon reductions that we really need. But it’s critical to continue the effort……..”

    We have witnessed these thoughts before, over and over again. Futility, futility, vanity and vapors – its all vapors and nothing more, nor can it ever be no matter how much we repeat. Surely it’s going to take an enormous effort to let go and move on, but we must. The past is behind and that is where we must leave it, and move on. Let no one forget that all of us only have a short time left in this world and we cannot save the world, but we can save our Soul.
    May God Bless.

  3. Dan,

    Good synopsis and I agree with the main conclusions.

    I fall into the camp of those who think “loss and damage” is a giant distraction, not because its wrong to think that developed countries don’t have some obligation to compensate the less fortunate but for two other reasons. Because (1) there is no international property rights regime to enforce and (2) even if there was, this is not Trail Smelter or Tenn. Copper where the valuation problem was relatively straightforward. At the same time, I totally agree that one real lesson from this COP is that the Genie is out of the bottle when it comes to L&D so Annex-1 is going to have to deal with it.

    Strategically, I think that the decision to incorporate L&D into the Adaptation work may be a long run error. My guess is that its inclusion may well spell the end of any real hope for international adaptation assistance. But time will tell.

    One major takeaway for me from the latest COP (and the one before that, and the one before the one before…) was that international climate policy begins at home. Only strong US domestic efforts will ultimately unlock a meaningful international deal. So 42 USC 7411(d) is what matters. It’s going to be a fun Spring.


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About Dan

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

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