Since the conclusion of last year’s UN climate change conference in Copenhagen, doubt surrounding the efficacy of the multilateral negotiating process had been steadily gaining momentum, and the criticism was set to explode in the event of failure in Cancun. Last December, after two years of unrealistically ambitious expectations, the Copenhagen Accord was cobbled together in the eleventh hour by President Obama and a handful of other heads of state, putting an end to a disappointing two weeks of controversy, chaos, and finger-pointing. The New York Times’ Andrew Revkin described watching events play out in Copenhagen to be “like witnessing the derailment of a slow freight train on a curve that could be seen to be too sharp well ahead of time.” By all accounts, the mood at this year’s conference at Cancun’s Moon Palace resort was much more cooperative, and the resulting set of decisions, the Cancun Agreements, is being lauded as a sensible and balanced compromise, albeit an imperfect one. Nevertheless, support for a move away from the UN process in favor of a bottom-up approach based on national policies and bilateral engagement will surely continue, and deservedly so. The Cancun Agreements can serve as the blueprint for an eventual legally-binding successor to the Kyoto Protocol. But there is still much progress to be made – and a wide gap to be bridged between stated commitments and scientifically-recommended action – that will require simultaneous action on several diplomatic tracks.
Even if the Cancun conference had not produced such an unexpectedly favorable result, the UN process deserves to be preserved. The all-inclusive forum is likely the best means of addressing certain issues affecting many of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable countries, particularly adaptation, clean energy technology transfer, and deforestation. Furthermore, the perception that success hinges on the adoption of a legally-binding treaty is false. It is important not to downplay the ability of “soft law” political agreements to produce tangible results. Besides, without the political will in the U.S. Senate, any internationally-binding treaty would be irrelevant, and the woes of New START should shed any lingering hope that a climate change treaty stands a chance of Senate ratification in the foreseeable future. And even in the absence of legislation, the U.S. has the capacity, through federal regulation and aggressive state and local initiatives, to come very close to meeting its short-term emissions reduction commitments (17% reduction below 2005 levels by 2020). At that point, it is not unreasonable to envision the emergence of the political will for strong legislative action, especially if successful state or regional efforts present a sound model for a national initiative. (more…)