Editorial: Copenhagen is About More Than Climate Change

Whether you believe recent reports that global climate change is on course for worst-case scenarios, or you believe hacked emails from the University of East Anglia prove it’s all a big hoax, one thing is undeniable: international negotiations on climate change have brought us to a critical juncture in world history.

The international community will soon agree to a common path for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, or abandon the idea altogether, return to our respective corners and wait to see what happens.

Following two years of laborious negotiations, world leaders are meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark, Dec. 7-18, in an effort to reach final agreement on emissions targets for the year 2020 and funding for poor nations–two obstacles that have thus far proven insurmountable. These elements would be the core of a protocol to take effect in 2012 when the current Kyoto Protocol comes to an end.

The Kyoto Protocol, which was devised as a test period for global greenhouse gas reduction strategies, is already widely considered a failure. This is largely because the United States chose not to participate, thereby undermining the protocol’s economic and political effectiveness.

President Obama has pledged to the world that the United States will participate in the next round by cutting its emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020–a modest goal, but possibly enough to appease developing nations like India and China, who want to see leadership from industrialized countries. However, because the U.S. political system does not guarantee legislative support to the head of state, Obama cannot guarantee anything to the world. Having already been burned in this exact manner on the Kyoto Protocol, our global neighbors won’t commit to another legally binding protocol unless U.S. climate change legislation is in place. That’s why, despite any announcements of "political" or "aspirational" agreements in Copenhagen, no binding legal commitments will be made this year, if at all.

James Inhofe, the U.S. Senate’s unapologetic Republican climate change denier, says the "Climategate" email scandal–which purportedly reveals a collusive effort to suppress dissenting views on climate change–puts the final nails in the coffin of U.S. climate change legislation, and he may be right. The House passed a bill last summer that matches Obama’s 17 percent pledge. But Senate Democrats this fall struggled to find enough party-line votes to do the same. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he will try to pass legislation in the spring, but his blue-dog colleagues will be even less supportive in a mid-term election year, and now they can blame their reluctance on disingenuous British scientists.

With a split electorate struggling through a deep economic recession, an exhausting media battle over health care, and real battles underway in Afghanistan, it’s likely the United States will return to its isolationist habits and deny cooperation to the world.

If this happens, it will kill the United Nations treaty on climate change (also known as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC). And it may very well mark the beginning of the end for the United Nations itself, which has a spotty 65-year history of preventing war and promoting human rights.

In June of 1992, George H. W. Bush signed the UNFCCC at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janiero. Upon passage by the Senate later that year, the United States became the first developed nation to ratify the landmark treaty, which recognized that greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere were the result of the industrialization through which the United States and its contemporaries came into prominence. The treaty affirms that these rich nations hold the financial responsibility for reducing emissions, while developing nations will need to grow their economies and emissions to bring their standards of living up to par.

This egalitarian ideal did not exist in international relations before the United Nations gave it a forum. And while the United Nations has been roundly criticized by opponents of industrial globalization for indirectly damaging the economies and societies of developing nations, the ideals professed in the UNFCCC, and in the Millennium Development Goals set in 2000, are a laudable step in transcending nationalism for a broader sense of global citizenry. They recognize that the well-being of a random American on the West Coast is no more, or less, connected to the well-being of someone in Athens, Georgia, than it is to that of someone in Malaysia or Peru. This notion is especially important in protecting the environment and its ecosystems, which also do not heed political boundaries.

But this enlightened idea is a tough sell in the best of times, let alone when unemployment and national debt are on the rise. Most U.S. politicians who support climate change legislation will say that it should not be allowed to hurt the economy. But if it is to achieve climate and egalitarian goals, it will have to hurt, at least a little. Because in a world of limited resources and environmental constraints, carbon-based wealth (oil, gas, coal, timber) cannot increase in a linear fashion for all people. For the conditions of the world’s poorest to improve, there must be a degree of sacrifice from the rich. This balancing of the scales is at the heart of United Nations’ stated mission for the new millennium. It is part of the noble pact the United States ratified in 1992, but is afraid to put into practice today.

How much will carbon limits cost American families? Will it be the equivalent of a postage stamp a day, as promised by the Obama administration, or the thousands of dollars a year estimated by Republicans? Ultimately it depends on how rapidly we are able to transform our economy away from a reliance on non-renewable resources.

I believe that climate change is underway and that we have no time to waste in reversing the growth of global emissions. I believe the United States can no longer afford to act as a unilateral player on the global stage and that we must pay the price to recognize the equal rights of our neighbors. And finally, I believe we must seize this opportunity simultaneously to strengthen international cooperation and reduce dependence on non-renewable resources, so that as they run out, we will be less inclined to fight for the last drop of oil, the last lump of coal and the last productive cropland.

What do you believe? What do your U.S. Senators believe? The fate of U.S. legislation-and the course of international relations-will be decided in the next few months, and regardless of our beliefs, it will affect our lives and the lives of those who come after us.


Bart King is News Editor of SustainableBusiness.com. This column first appeared in Flagpole on Wednesday, December 9, 2009. Contact bart@sustainablebusiness.com.

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