Down and Out in Bali: U.N. Climate Change Negotiations So Far Lack Urgency

December 10, 2007
I'm in one of the world's most beautiful places, and I am seriously bummed. Few people had much in the way of expectations for the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Bali -- its purpose is to simply set the terms for negotiations over the next two years -- but I had retained a modicum of hope. I was especially hopeful that, in light of the IPCC's synthesis report and mountains of observational evidence of rapidly changing climate, we would see a new sense of urgency in the talks. Perhaps not tangible results, but at least some exigency in the ether. Now we have some sense of the document that is likely to emerge from the conference, however, I don't see much reason to be hopeful and a lot of reasons to be seriously concerned. The draft statement will undergo revision this week, but that process will likely result in a document with three general points: 1) Rich countries, but not poor countries, should commit to legally-binding greenhouse gas reductions. 2) Rich countries should put up more money to help poor countries adapt to coming climate change. 3) Let's agree now to tentatively agree to a (tentative) post-Kyoto treaty sometime (tentatively) in 2009. What's a good antonym for urgency? I vote for negligence, because that's effectively what the U.N. process is generating. Don't get me wrong. Adaptation is needed under any scenario, and the North should finance much of it (about $50 billion annually, according to Oxfam). But the fact that adaptation is flying off the lips of every developing world delegate -- as if it were a substitute for the emission cut targets they collectively refuse -- tells us something about the inadequate sense of urgency and limited appreciation for the risks posed by climate change. Let's face the facts: We have already ensured that human societies will be playing the climate adaptation game for centuries to come. Whether that adaptation is slow and manageable or swift and chaotic depends upon our one opportunity to get emission cuts reasonably right in the short-term, and that simply cannot happen without real and binding limits for every major economy. Even modest growth in per capita emissions in populous countries like China and India will negate significant cuts in the rich world. The Bush administration is wrong to use this fact as an excuse for American inaction and delay, but the arithmetic stands. For those in the development community -- many of whom are here in Bali and, perhaps, inclined to sympathize with the developing world position -- it may help to ask a similar question in a different context. What would we give to go back to the Congo's jungles and snuff out HIV before it spread around the world? How many of us, if given the choice, would choose adaptation -- millions dead and mountains of medicine to simply keep people alive -- over prevention? The human costs of rapid climate change will dwarf anything HIV could ever generate, and yet, when given the opportunity to take preventive action, some act as if the decision is a nuanced one. If developing societies believe climate adaptation can substitute for emission cuts, they will soon find themselves in a pitched battle against the laws of chemistry and physics. I think we know who will bend first. I do not mean to present a false choice. The truth is that both short-term adaptation and serious, binding, and global emissions reductions can and should happen, but that arrangement (the "Grand Bargain" between North and South that must eventually come) is nowhere to be seen. Indeed, by refusing to accept the premise of legally binding emissions cuts, developing country governments are preventing the needed discussion from even beginning. No doubt, the complete lack of leadership on the part of the Bush administration deserves much of the blame for the impasse. But equally disconcerting is the paradoxical fervor with which the developing countries -- especially India and China -- continue to push for a global South of more or less uncontrolled greenhouse gases. It is clear that they will suffer first and worst in such a world and face only greater challenges with time. The sad truth is, emission cuts in the North alone are not enough to avert a climate crisis, as David Wheeler and I showed in our recent CGD working paper: Another Inconvenient Truth. Even the emission targets that are bandied about in passing are woefully inadequate given the state of the atmosphere. For example, the most recent UNDP Human Development Report, which plainly states that climate change "may be the gravest threat ever to have faced humanity," recommended that developing countries commit to emission reductions of 20% from 1990 levels by 2050 as part of a global effort to reduce emissions by 50% over the same period. That recommendation was roundly dismissed by China and India as unacceptable. And yet, the reductions advocated in the report are incredibly modest in terms of their climatic benefit. A 50% reduction in global emissions by 2050 is expected to reduce the risk of "dangerous climate change" (more than 2 degrees Celsius warming over pre-industrial times) to merely a 50/50 proposition -- just the flip of a coin. And the definition of "dangerous" used here doesn't include the possibility of tipping points and temperature thresholds that, if triggered, could produce run-away climatic changes regardless of human efforts to stem the tide. All of this makes me wonder: Are we, as a species, even close to appreciating the probabilities we're playing with? The state of the discussion here in Bali suggests we are not. Perhaps the arrival of some big names (Nobel Laureate Al Gore, for example) will serve to shake things up a bit and force some concessions. But, until I see a consensus document that suggests otherwise, I remain seriously bummed. [Note: I am not a complete downer. More to come later this week on some of the new and encouraging research that has emerged at the conference.]


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.