The Cancun Setup

Tom Athanasiou Nov 30, 2010

This article was originally published on from Foreign Policy in Focus (FPIF).

The first thing to say about the climate negotiations – meeting soon in sunny Mexico – is that they’re teetering at the edge of what, back in the day, we used to call a “legitimation crisis.” On every side, folks are eager to suggest the negotiations have become a waste of time. It’s gotten to the point where people are apologizing for going to Cancun, as if it were bad for their image to be seen at the climate talks.

Which is an odd turn of events. Because if ever there were a moment, it’s this one, midway through the cycle of negotiations (Copenhagen 2009, Cancun 2010, South Africa 2011) that will determine the shape and direction of the post-Kyoto climate regime. What happens now matters, particularly because, all else being equal, the eventual end of the economic crisis will be accompanied by another rapid rise in global emissions. The only way to avoid that rise, and many others, is to escape the logic of the business-as-usual world. Despite the coming low-carbon energy revolution, we can’t expect to make that escape without systems — of global cooperation, burden sharing and accountability — that can only be rooted in a fair multilateral accord. Which is to say that the climate talks may not be fun, and may not even be the main event, but there’s no real hope without them.

Copenhagen, unfortunately, was a grave disappointment and was quickly followed by a cascade of others: the “Climategate” fiasco; the beltway realists’ failure to deliver a U.S. climate bill; the explosion of denialist populism on the American right; and, of course, the midterm American elections. Even worse, from the point of view of the climate talks – the success of which depends on international cost-sharing – is the emergence of an Austerity Panic Party in Europe, as well as the United States, that pretends that the North is bankrupt amid unprecedented inequality and unprecedented wealth. Why the pretense? To project a story of the future in which declining “foreign aid” is as inevitable as the decimation of domestic social services.

The discouraging pace of the international talks is anything but unique. Right now, nothing is working particularly well. The United States, in particular, is a model of dysfunction, eagerly playing the international “blame game” that is now in full swing. Nor is this a simple “climate problem.” The truth is the climate challenge is tightly bound to a larger political crisis. Neither is likely to be resolved without the other. So, to be clear – there is no “deadlock” in the global negotiations. Nor is there a “North / South impasse.” What we’re seeing, rather, is a political and governance disaster of the first order. Despite its many critical international dimensions, this disaster is centered in the wealthy world.

And the Winner Is…

In the United States, China-bashing is much in vogue. Lately, China has developed a taste for bashing back. After a recent climate meeting in Tianjin, one of its senior negotiators compared the United States to a pig preening itself in a mirror. It was perhaps an undiplomatic comment, but it’s hard to deny that the United States makes a tempting target. If there were a climate-spoiler sweepstakes, it would have to be the presumptive winner. It’s the United States that knocked the Kyoto Protocol down to near irrelevance and led the Copenhagen charge to abandon top-down emissions targets in favor of a bottom-up process of voluntary “pledge and review.” It’s the United States, in the person of Obama’s climate chief Todd Stern, that insisted on a “new paradigm for climate diplomacy,” one that rejects a “Berlin Wall between developed and developing countries” and asserts instead a world in which the developed countries are no longer presumed to bear the overarching, if inconvenient, obligations of the rich and the responsible. And it’s the United States that avoids even the limited pragmatic obligations of flexibility, in the face of the “innovative finance” proposals (ranging from the auctioning of emissions entitlements to an “aviation levy” to the “Robin Hood Tax”) that look to be our best way forward at this point.

Is this too harsh? Perhaps. There are extenuating circumstances in today’s America, where the “tea party” – a corporate-funded creature of self-satisfied, self-destructive, flat-earth libertarianism – has emerged to oppose even climate science, let alone international solidarity. It’s a heartily unwelcome development, and it almost makes a good excuse.

However, there’s plenty of competition for the role of the world’s leading climate spoiler. The Saudis (and, really, the entire global carbon cartel), the Russians (who haven’t yet fully digested the world-historic heat wave that just ravaged their country), and the World Bank (you want coal with that?) are still around, and largely unreformed. There’s the usual symbiotic crew of denialists and disoriented reporters (with their usual convenient failure to understand, let alone explain, the South’s position). There are the Chinese, who, it must be said, are playing more than one set of cards. There are the endless ranked phalanxes of corporate opportunists. And, as always, there are the subtle Europeans, who until recently proposed to strengthen their emission-reduction target from 20 percent to 30 percent below 1990 levels in 2020. At the same time, they were defending emissions-accounting loopholes designed to render such strengthening almost meaningless.

They’ve since given up on the 30 percent, but the loopholes remain.

Issues abound, and it’s hard to know who to forgive for what. The global climate wish list is, after all, long and extremely daunting. Just for starters, it includes: science-based targets; a democratically governed global climate fund; a fair-shares global effort-sharing system; an honestly scaled and funded adaptation framework; technology and investment cooperation on a grand and global scale; a strategy for finessing intellectual property and trade disputes; a forestry and land-use agreement that’s both pro-poor and effective; the closing of the accounting loopholes; and national low- and zero-carbon development plans all around.

This isn’t even a comprehensive list. So it’s probably fortunate that coming up to Cancun, the focus is on a small set of key issues, which must be at least provisionally resolved before the bigger problems can move onto the stage. Which is to say that what we really need – an open and creative debate about the architecture of global climate justice – is not on the Cancun agenda. What is on the agenda is “fast-start finance,” finance in general, and the linked issue of transparency. And the Kyoto Protocol. Most obviously, the climate talks can only advance if the North’s negotiators rise, somehow, to the occasion.

The North’s Move

Recall that Copenhagen ended with a shaky, acrimonious, and altogether unsatisfying political deal – the Copenhagen Accord – wherein most (but not all!) countries, industrialized and developing, agreed to openly publish their emission-reduction pledges and actions. This in itself wasn’t a bad idea. The problem was rather that, in Copenhagen, the move toward transparency came packaged with the repudiation of legally binding targets and timetables, particularly by the United States. The Accord was immediately (and predictably) used to take the spotlight off the North’s long recognized obligation (enshrined in 1992’s Framework Convention, 1997’s Kyoto Protocol, and 2007’s Bali Action Plan) to “take the lead.” It’s a long story, but worth recalling, especially to get beyond the China-bashing and posed pessimism that have come to dominate international climate coverage.

The bottom line here, one rarely explained, is that the so-called North / South impasse will not be broken until the North begins to meet its obligations, or at the very least, to keep its promises. Which is why talk of a North / South impasse implies a false, non-existent symmetry. The Southern elites, to be sure, are hardly above criticism – they have badly mixed loyalties. Like elites everywhere, they are often short-sighted and self-interested. With the financial crisis fading into a crisis of trade and development that neither the United States nor China cares to honestly face, there’s plenty of criticism to go around. Still, it remains the North’s move, particularly when it comes to climate. No amount of “balance” is going to change this fundamental reality.

An Interim Deal?

The hope in Cancun is an interim deal that would change the tone, encourage statesmanship, and just maybe, set us up for a more meaningful breakthrough in December 2011 in South Africa, when the next milestone climate meeting is scheduled to take place. Whose fault will it be if such an interim deal fails to materialize? That is the question that all good climate watchers must now prepare to answer.

What’s on the table, basically, is “finance for transparency.” For the North, this means delivering on its Copenhagen promise to provide $30 billion in “new and additional” fast-start finance, designed to support mitigation and adaptation in the South and establish a working modicum of trust. The South, in turn, would agree to a significant measure of transparency. India has already signaled that it’s willing to accept a “facilitative process for transparency and accountability.” Brazil and China, not surprisingly, have expressed “cautious support” for such an approach. Transparency is a natural tradeoff for the developing world, which is already doing a great deal, particularly when its efforts are measured against its relatively limited wealth and capability.

Leaving aside the details, this transparency entails that both wealthy and developing countries would publish low-carbon transition plans and package those plans into manageable strategies. They’d also provide clear visibility for their efforts to shift to new kinds of development paths. These are the keywords — measurement, reporting, and verification. This “MRV” would not be restricted to actions that are “supported” by international finance and technology. It would also apply to the support itself – the wealthy world’s often obscure and corrupt channels and devices – and as quickly as possible it would apply to “unsupported” actions. The goal – essential to any cooperative strategy for rapid global transformation – would be to make it possible for everyone to tell what everyone else is doing. Or not doing.

The transparency problem is not a small one. Verification is a charged and intrusive process in which industrial secrecy and state sovereignty are both at risk. But the deeper issue, now as always, is the South’s fear that the climate transition will mean the end of its dreams of development. A fear that even as the ice melts and the storms rage, endless negotiations will unfold into a trap with an ever-narrowing series of gambits and tradeoffs. And, in which the powerful North shifts the burdens of transition to the weaker, and far less culpable, South. In this context, transparency means lost flexibility and thus risk. Nor is this a paranoid view of the situation. The recent positions of the United States – which seems to have taken its domestic travails as license for bluster and aggressiveness – have done much to make it credible, and to exacerbate distrust.

Finance proves the point. It’s now clear that the finance pledge made in the Copenhagen Accord – “to provide new and additional resources, including forestry and investments through international institutions, approaching USD 30 billion for the period 2010 – 2012 with balanced allocation between adaptation and mitigation” – is not going to be met any time soon. There are many key words in this passage, but attend for the moment to “new and additional,” because the bulk of the pledges are, in the scrupulous words of the World Resource Institute, “restated or renamed commitments already made in the past.” Most, moreover, are intended for mitigation projects, with a mere $3 billion earmarked for adaptation. And they are slated to be delivered, if indeed they ever are, though bilateral channels and multilateral agencies (like the World Bank) that the North controls in ways that are anything but transparent and straightforward.

In the longer term, the forecast is more of the same. This, at least, is the easiest conclusion to draw from the just-released final report of the Secretary General’s High-Level Advisory Group on Climate Change Financing, which explores options for raising $100 billion annually, starting in 2020. Here, too, is a story that fails to inspire confidence. For one thing, the $100 billion figure is entirely arbitrary, with absolutely no relationship to the likely costs of a rapid global climate transition. For another, Northern functionaries still stonewall the most promising ideas for innovative global finance. With deadly consistency, they remain enthralled by the habits of neoliberalism. Realism-as-usual is still the order of the day. Despite the severity of the climate crisis, the wealthy world continues to limit funding options by offering instead small amounts of public finance padded out with loans, repurposed and non-additional assistance already in the pipeline, and, of course, a great deal of private (profit-seeking) money.

Will the South eventually accept such an offer? Or, even, should it? After all, by accepting the offer, the South might be agreeing to a future in which the high-minded aspirations that launched the climate talks back in 1992, aspirations that echo in the UN Framework Convention’s invocation of “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities,” are set aside in the interests of short-term northern realpolitic. Many people will say that the South has no choice. But what if the consequence is a muddle of inadequate policies that, while better than nothing, still fall tragically short of both moral and scientific necessity?

Placing New Bets

Consider finally the Kyoto Protocol, the fate of which remains strangely, and strongly, explosive. Why do so many of our dearest comrades – delegates and activists alike – continue to aggressively defend Kyoto, despite its manifest, even absurd, inadequacy? The answer, perhaps, is that the Kyoto Protocol, almost alone on the negotiating table, represents the obligations of the wealthy world. For many, this trumps even its rude, unscalable, architecture. Nor is this difficult to understand. These negotiations, from Copenhagen on, mark a time of decision. It’s one we simply can’t afford to get stupidly wrong. We can’t, in particular, follow Todd Stern, casting aside Kyoto’s blunt recognition of the North / South division with rough talk of an obsolete “Berlin Wall.” To do so would be to cast aside reality. It would not be statesmanship, or even realism, but rather abdication.

It’s time to place new bets. Here’s mine: at Cancun, the lines will be starkly drawn. The logic of pledge and review will come to be widely recognized as collective suicide. The negotiating halls will seethe with better ideas, straining for traction. And, despite all, there will be a drive towards compromise and face saving. Whether it will succeed, I do not know.

I have hopes, too. I hope we’ll manage a recovery, in which emissions do not immediately accelerate. I hope the finance problem (which could, actually, be solved) will at least be faced, coldly and dead on. I hope the rules of a new game will become increasingly discernible, a game of building blocks and momentum in which the obligations of the rich and the responsible can be openly and productively debated. And I hope that we’ll wake soon to a world where calls for extremely rapid global emission reductions are no longer invitations to despair.

It’s still possible. And by the way, Cancun will not be boring.

Tom Athanasiou directs EcoEquity (, an Earth Island Institute-sponsored project, and is a member of the Greenhouse Development Rights authors’ group.  His books include, Slow Reckoning: The Ecology of a Divided Planet and Dead Heat: Global Justice and Global Warming.

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