The Next Steps for Climate Diplomacy in the Wake of Cancun

by John Prandato | December 21st, 2010 | |Subscribe

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…)

The Quest for Water

by Gil Schwartz | November 30th, 2010 | |Subscribe

Another milestone in humanity’s quest for water will soon be conquered! A Canadian entrepreneur, Ron Stamp, is set to sail for a fjord in Greenland and harvest massive chunks of pure iceberg.  His hope is to eventually sell the converted ice as bottled water for up to $10 per unit. Crazy? Maybe, but Mr. Stamp’s actions represent both an increasing trend of resource extraction and the creativity needed to sustain a better future.

Entrepreneurs like Mr. Stamp exhibit a valuable frontier mentality. They expand the boundaries of human activity, helping to open new geographic markets and take advantage of previously untapped resources. For centuries such entrepreneurs have been the drivers of our economic growth and prosperity.

Yet this frontier mentality is a double-edged sword when applied to scarce water resources. The world’s access to a sustainable freshwater supply is already at a tipping point. 800 million people, particularly in politically unstable Middle Eastern and North African countries, currently lack access to safe water. By 2050, two-thirds of the world’s population will live under water-stressed conditions. Unless we act quickly, we could all potentially have to pay $10 for a glass of regular tap water, let alone iceberg water. (more…)

Are We Ready: The Consequences of ‘Bomb Iran’

by Taylor Jo Isenberg | August 26th, 2010 | |Subscribe

Saturday, Iran celebrated their great victory over the “arrogant powers” by opening their first nuclear power plant at Bushehr. The opening coincided with dynamic conversation on Jeff Goldberg’s recent article in The Atlantic painting a picture of military action as a foregone conclusion, and prominent foreign policy leaders such as former UN Ambassador John Bolton fanned the flames by renewing calls for a preemptive attack on Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

Dangerously, the discussion on how to deal with Iran’s nuclear program has moved away from the case for bombing Iran to who and when, ignoring the painful lessons learned from depicting military action as a clean and straightforward solution. We are still reeling from the burdensome commitments of Iraq and Afghanistan: a military response by either the United States or Israel will take much more than just bombs and have major potential consequences beyond Iran, realities noticeably absent from much of the conversation.


Climate Science and the Communication Gap

by John Prandato | August 24th, 2010 | |Subscribe

Days before the Senate dispersed for its August recess, Harry Reid announced that a vote would not be held on a “bare minimum” energy-only bill, just weeks after the Senate gave up on comprehensive climate and energy legislation. The inability of the Senate to gain any traction on even the most modest of energy bills in the wake of one of the most devastating environmental disasters in history is a clear indicator that there is still a long road ahead toward a strong U.S. climate change policy. There is no better time to reexamine the debate, and the debate begins with the science.

The science of climate change is sound but complex. Climate change will affect different parts of the planet in very different ways, and it is impossible to precisely quantify the physical impacts on Earth’s surface, let alone the social, political, and economic implications of those physical impacts. But ‘uncertainty’ in climate models – the expected variability in data – is too often mistaken for uncertainty about the science itself, and the well-funded lobbyists wishing to cast doubt on the science have made an almost effortless practice of manipulating the statistics and skewing the facts. Still, much of the public’s misunderstanding about climate change persists because of serious flaws in messaging by the science community to counter the misinformation. In many ways, the purpose of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is to bridge this communication gap with the public. But with recent polling suggesting that the U.S. public increasingly perceives climate change as a very low-priority issue, the IPCC – and the science community as a whole – needs to overhaul its communication strategy. (more…)

Reconceiving the BP Debacle

by John Eden | June 17th, 2010 | |Subscribe

British Petroleum has finally figured out how to get under the skin of the American Commander in Chief. President Obama, clearly irritated by BP’s lackluster cleanup efforts, has suggested that the British oil giant place in escrow funds sufficient to compensate those American citizens affected by the spill. (BP has just agreed to put 20 billion into an escrow account.) As a political decision, this is both a necessary and shrewd move on Obama’s part. But the underlying geopolitical realities that this oil spill has brought to the surface cannot be understood unless one thinks a bit more carefully – and creatively – about what the BP debacle really is, and what President Obama’s initial failure to take charge really means.

On the surface, the oil spill in the Gulf is an ecological disaster. On this understanding of what the spill is, the main problem is that gigantic plumes of oil – a precious natural resource – are quickly and relentlessly destroying the environment. As BP’s rogue oil eagerly escapes its underwater prison, our wetlands and diverse wildlife expire ahead-of-schedule and unnecessarily. The theory, then, is one of environmental catastrophe, and the dramatis personae are as vanilla as the theory: Barack Obama, beleaguered American President keen to end the crisis; Tony Hayward, the incompetent CEO of BP who makes for an easy target for the world’s politicians, pundits and public intellectuals; the American public, at once enraged and confused; and the shareholders of BP, hiding in the shadows, hoping that the cost of this crisis will not fall on their backs.

A better theory – more powerful and descriptively accurate – is available. This is no mere ecological disaster, but is, correctly understood, an attack on our political, economic, and cultural infrastructure caused by no single individual or institution but enabled by many. It is now well known that a number of indicators pointed toward the possibility of a spill of this magnitude. And yet BP and the relevant U.S. regulators did nothing. (more…)

Drilling Our Way to a Climate Change Solution?

by John Prandato | April 2nd, 2010 | |Subscribe

On Wednesday, President Obama announced a proposal to lift the long-standing ban on offshore oil and natural gas drilling off much of the south Atlantic and north Alaskan coasts, as well as parts of the Gulf of Mexico. The announcement has drawn the ire of critics across the political spectrum. Some on the left are outraged by Obama’s “betrayal” of his environmentalist base, and some on the right have called the extent of new offshore access insufficient. In reality, the policy he outlined will do very little to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and it will have no effect on oil prices in the foreseeable future. And Obama knows it. From the administration’s perspective, this announcement is about one thing: building support in the Senate for comprehensive climate change and energy legislation.

Studies have shown that offshore drilling will have very little impact on domestic oil prices. In fact, not a drop of new oil from this proposal would be seen for at least seven years, and the modest uptick in production and negligible price dip would not even be felt for two decades. Offshore drilling’s impact on real prices pales in comparison to that which could result from sound financial regulatory reform to curb speculation in commodity futures exchanges, or from putting a stop to the supply manipulation routinely practiced by OPEC in response to the artificially rising demand.

Nevertheless, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham – who is expected to introduce a bipartisan bill co-sponsored by John Kerry and Joe Lieberman within the next month – has insisted that offshore drilling be part of the energy equation of the future. Obama’s announcement on Wednesday follows similar concessions in recent months to conservative nuclear and coal interests. The administration’s Fiscal Year 2011 budget request included $36 billion for the nuclear loan guarantee program and the stimulus bill included $3.8 billion for carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) research and development. (more…)

Picking Up the Pieces in Copenhagen

by John Prandato | December 23rd, 2009 | |Subscribe

By almost any standard, the outcome of the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen last week fell well short of its increasingly humble expectations. Copenhagen was considered pivotal because the “Bali Roadmap” laid out in 2007 circled this meeting on the calendar as the conclusion of the negotiating period which was to create a legally-binding post-Kyoto agreement. But by the beginning of the conference, the goal had been reduced to just establishing a politically-binding framework that would set the world on a course toward reaching a comprehensive international agreement in 2010.

Modest yet politically significant emissions reduction pledges by the US, China, and others prior to the conference contributed to a mood of cautious optimism at the outset of the two-week summit. But on just the second day, the massive rift between developed and developing countries was exposed with the leak of the so-called “Danish text” – drawn up by delegates from Denmark, Australia, the UK, and the US – which would allegedly place most of the power in the hands of developed countries at the expense of developing countries. The text was dismissed by the executive secretary of the UNFCCC, Yvo de Boer, as just an “informal” draft. But China quickly fired back with its own draft text, flipping the blame and the burden onto wealthy countries. A day later, delegates from the US and China traded barbs as the US State Department Envoy Todd Stern told reporters that “there’s no way to solve this problem by giving the major developing countries a pass,” to which Chinese Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei responded that Stern either “lacks common sense” or is “extremely irresponsible”.

The controversy stirred up in the first few days served as a precursor for the deep division between rich and poor countries that would plague the remainder of the negotiations. The next week was remarkably unproductive. Countless controversial draft texts fluttered around the Bella Center amid a walkout by African countries and thousands of angry rioters – impatient with the lack of progress – taking to the streets. With the looming arrival of over a hundred heads of state, the symbolic dichotomy of rich vs. poor countries had grown ever clearer and was threatening to derail the negotiations. (more…)

Not time to throw out those fluorescent light bulbs

by Brian Vogt | December 15th, 2009 | |Subscribe

On Friday President Obama will attend the Copenhagen climate change conference.  There will be much anticipation about what commitments the United States and the other participating countries will make.  While the big whigs discuss issues like “carbon caps” and “emission targets”, some folks back on the home front will probably feel relieved that they are doing their part – perhaps by driving less or turning to “green” technologies.

Mike Tidwell, however, tells these people in a column published last week to think again.   It’s time to “stop going green” he says.  No, he’s not a global warming denier.  He’s a climate activist fed up with piecemeal contributions made voluntarily by individuals.

Tidwell writes,

December should be national Green-Free Month. Instead of continuing our faddish and counterproductive emphasis on small, voluntary actions, we should follow the example of Americans during past moral crises and work toward large-scale change…..surveys show that very few people are willing to make significant voluntary changes, and those of us who do create the false impression of mass progress as the media hypes our actions.

Tidwell is right that the sum of the voluntary actions taken by Americans probably make little difference in the overall progress of global warming.  The incentives in our society are set up to promote the exploitation of resources.  A ton of coal not burned has no financial value.  Most polluters pay little of the cost of the environmental damage they create.  All the best intentions by well-meaning people can do little to overcome the power of the marketplace.  Yes, Tidwell is right that broader systemic change is needed.  This recognition, however, should not lead one to dismiss individual efforts. (more…)

Copenhagen Conference Kicks Off

by PSA Staff | December 8th, 2009 | |Subscribe

COP15Yesterday in Copenhagen, 15,000 delegates from 192 countries filled the cavernous meeting room of the Bella Center to commence the much-anticipated UN Climate Change conference. In the months leading up to the conference, hopes were slowly lost that a legally-binding global agreement would be reached in Copenhagen. By the time the conference began, world leaders had lowered expectations – due in no small part to the stall of U.S. legislation in Congress – to merely creating a politically-binding blueprint for concluding a comprehensive international agreement in 2010.

In September, PSA released a statement signed by 33 prominent Republicans and Democrats urging Congress and the Administration to “develop a clear, comprehensive, realistic and broadly bipartisan plan to address our role in the climate change crisis.” The signatories warned that “if we fail to take action now, we will have little hope of influencing other countries to reduce their own harmful contributions to climate change, or of forging a coordinated international response.” The Senate has already failed to deliver legislation prior to the conference, but it is not too late for the U.S. to take the lead in the negotiations, especially since it will be impossible for a global consensus to emerge from Copenhagen without strong U.S. support. (more…)

Adapting Along the Road to Copenhagen

by John Prandato | October 2nd, 2009 | |Subscribe

On Wednesday, Barbara Boxer and John Kerry introduced the Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act, the long-awaited Senate version of the climate change bill that squeaked through the House in June. With the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen just nine weeks away, U.S. legislative action will be a key to successful global negotiations. Particularly, investment in international adaptation – the multilateral assistance to developing countries in order to withstand the impacts of climate change – is widely expected to be one of the central elements of the looming debate in Copenhagen. Whereas climate change mitigation policies aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, adaptation seeks to lessen the vulnerability and enhance the resilience of the most at-risk countries through disaster management and infrastructure capacity-building. Kerry has called international adaptation “part of the glue” holding together hopes of reaching a new global treaty to succeed the Kyoto Protocol. Still, investment in adaptation – at both the domestic and international levels – has been continuously overlooked.

The international security crises associated with climate change are dramatic and self-perpetuating. Drought, rising sea levels, and resource scarcity will lead to disease, mass migration, and political instability, ultimately causing fragile states to collapse into failed states. These cascading effects are intensified with the Earth’s population projected to reach nine billion by 2050. And in a cruel twist of irony, the most devastating effects will be felt in parts of the world that are least responsible for global climate change, specifically Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia.

In North Africa, subsistence farming will suffer a 20-40% reduction in crop yield due to prolonged drought and desertification. Drought will hit the Middle East hard as well, a region that is already home to 6% of the world’s population but just 2% of the Earth’s water supply. And with 60% of the Middle East’s bodies of water lying trans-boundary, the stage is set for conflict. As John Kerry said, “a demographic boom and a shrinking water supply will only tighten the squeeze on a region that doesn’t need another reason to disagree violently.” (more…)

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All blog posts are independently produced by their authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of PSA. Across the Aisle serves as a bipartisan forum for productive discussion of national security and foreign affairs topics.