Progress on Global Warming is not yet in Evidence in Copenhagen

I am writing from Copenhagen, the site of the 15th Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.     If one were to judge by outward appearances, the prospects look dim for a meaningful global agreement by the end of the week.     

First, most conference participants have been put through an experience that seems designed to convince them that global warming may not be such a bad idea after all:  a registration system that requires waiting in long lines in temperatures near freezing.  (Reported wait times vary from one hour for China’s chief negotiator to 8 hours for other participants, such as prominent NGO leaders.  Even 9 hours.) 

Second, there has been little convergence of positions.  The views expressed here cover the same fantastically and unbridgeably wide range as they did at the time of the Kyoto meeting 12 years ago.   At one end of the spectrum, developing countries are still asking for reparations – African delegations boycotted Monday’s meetings;  and demonstrators are still very confused about who they should be trying to persuade and how.   At the other end of the spectrum, the climate change deniers are also represented here, at least outside the meeting hall.  Recent opinion polls show that the percentage of skeptics among the fickle American public has risen very recently, even though the scientific evidence for anthropogenic warming continues to mount.   (For some reason, many find it easier to deny science than to make any of the less indefensible arguments available to critics: that global warming wouldn’t be all bad, or that cutting emissions enough to prevent it would be too expensive, or that the U.N. is not an effective instrument, or that geo-engineering would be a cheaper approach.)

Most importantly, the impasse between the rich countries, notably the United States, and the poor countries, notably China, remains.   That, of course, is why world leaders acknowledged some months ago they would not be able to agree in Copenhagen on a successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol.  

Many here, however, take hope from the idea that President Obama would not have committed to come to Copenhagen at the end of this week if the White House did not have reason to expect to be able to achieve at a higher level an interim understanding that goes beyond the positions that the negotiators until now have been instructed to take.

My own plan for how to break the impasse has been detailed in this blog before. (The paper is now published, in a book co-edited by Joe Aldy and Rob Stavins).   The proposal can be boiled down to a couple of bare essentials:

Stage 1: 

Annex I countries commit to the post-2012 targets that their leaders have already announced.

Others commit immediately not to exceed BAU, thus precluding leakage.

Stage 2: 

When the time comes for developing country cuts, targets are determined by a formula designed so each is asked only to take actions analogous to those already taken by others before them. Developing countries could agree now to the principle, without yet agreeing to specific parameters. 

Originally published at Jeff Frankels Blog and reproduced here with the author’s permission.