From Dec. 7 – 18, MinnPost will publish an illustrated essay by David Gillette every weekday from the U.N. summit on climate change.
As nations around the world struggle with economic hard times, it’s unlikely that anything approaching an international accord to effectively reduce greenhouse emissions will come from the two-week U.N. summit on climate change that begins today in Copenhagen.
But the fact that countries big and small are gathering to seek ways to address what earth scientists say are calamitous consequences of the rapid global-temperature rise — and the fact that major-emitters like the United States are taking some action — is enough for optimistic observers to be hopeful.
President Obama has committed the United States to broad carbon-reduction efforts and said he’d join scores of other world leaders and attend the final day of the summit. Even though critics say the Obama targets are not nearly enough, it marked an attitudinal sea-change from the initial climate-change denials by George W. Bush’s administration followed by hostility toward policies to reduce harmful carbon emissions.
Obama’s announced commitment, however small, is seen as helping push similar announcements from China, India, and even Brazil and Indonesia. For its part, Europe has been a world leader in carbon-reduction following the Kyoto Protocol of 12 years ago.
So what does the Copenhagen summit mean, what’s the likely outcome, what should we watch for and who are the major players? Also, what does the U.S. Senate have to do with the summit? And should anyone even care about the gathering in Copenhagen? Here are answers to those questions, starting with why we should care:
Should anyone care?
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has bluntly warned that the consequences of doing nothing in the face of global warming could spell calamity and, for many, doom. While a dwindling band of deniers still doubt, the consensus view of world scientists is that shrinking ice caps, rising seas, forest fires, drought, increased storm severity and changing ecosystems are accelerating at rates that may make adaptation next to impossible for billions of people on every continent.
And while most Americans continue to support a national cap on greenhouse gas emissions, a new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that those who believe global warming is happening has fallen from 80 to 72 percent in the past year.
But, as pollsters have indicated, it’s difficult for Americans to be worried about polars bear when they’re looking for a job or about to lose one. Indeed, with the angst over the national jobs picture, a squeamish recovery, a wrenching health-care debate, a soaring deficit and an escalating war, climate change has become a second-tier concern.
What is the Copenhagen summit?
It’s a continuation of an effort that started in 1992 with the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro that led to the Koyoto Protocol of 1997 and spawned the exhaustive IPCC studies.
But the issues are vexing, as noted last fall [PDF] by economist Ross Garnaut of the University Melbourne. Garnaut argues that effectively addressing climate change requires the cooperation of the entire world — but that level of cooperation only happens regionally with relatively simple tasks like trade and arms-reduction agreements.
But having the United States, China and India, along with other nations such as Brazil and Indonesia, join together with Europe to talk things through is seen as a hopeful sign — even if little more is accomplished than cordiality and fun parties.
What’s the likely outcome?
First, everyone agrees that barring a diplomatic miracle, there will be no accord on an international treaty. The most that might happen is agreement on the architecture for agreements could be advanced next year.
Who are the major players and what should we watch for?
The players are the big polluters and rich nations, led by the United States, those in Europe and China and India. Australia, Brazil and Indonesia will be there as well.
But everyone will be watching the United States, and this is where it gets dicey, as reported by the Associated Press. Obama will address the summit on its final day, Dec. 18. (He had intended to be in Denmark on Wednesday, but changed plans when it was later learned that many other world leaders would be there on the final day.)
Obama will commit the United States to a 17 percent reduction from 1990 levels of carbon emissions by 2020, and even that modest — climate change advocated James Hansen calls it “half-assed” — plan is seen as costly and politically challenging in the United States (see section below on the U.S. Senate).
Overall, watch for commitments by major polluters to reduce emissions and, importantly, whether any agree to a credible and transparent way to measure reductions and verify them.
Also watch for commitments by rich nations to help poorer countries deal with the effects of climate change. Hundreds of millions of poor people all across Africa and Asia have had little to do with the build-up of greenhouse gas emissions, but because of they live in areas near shorelines,they stand to be most directly affected — and are least able to pay for whatever adaptation is required.
What does the U.S. Senate have to do with the summit?
A lot, which is why international observers closely watch how the United States deals with climate change. (European representatives, for example, attended most meetings of the Midwest group, which Minnesota helped form, that was working on a regional emissions accord.)
The United States is second only to China in carbon emissions produced, China having overtaken the U.S. in 2006. And as recent years have demonstrated, few nations will move to reduce emissions if the biggest polluters won’t lead.
But for the United States to act on, say, an international emission-reduction treaty, U.S. Senate approval is needed. And given the constant threat of the filibuster, that body, in effect, requires a 60-vote majority on major issues. When the treaty from the Kyoto Accords came to Washington, all but one senator — the late Paul Wellstone of Minnesota — opposed it on grounds that the economic costs for ratification were too high.
Despite the strong support for climate-change legislation by candidate Obama in last year’s election and the consistent support for the issue in national polls, Obama’s attempts to step out front on the issue have been usurped by other pressing national issues and often stymied by a reluctant Senate. Given the all-star cast of administration heavyweights — including Energy Secretary Steven Chu, John Holdren at the Office of Science and Technology, Carol Browner of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy and a supporting cast of hundreds more — who could work on the issue, there is ample brainpower to put to the task. For the most part, however, the bright lights are dimmed by the weight of other national issues.
Earlier support for a national cap on emissions and a carbon-trading systems to provide incentives to reduce emissions has withered, and even a tame climate-change bill has struggled in the Senate.
Last August, the “brown dog” senators (those from manufacturing states, and including our own Al Franken) sent a letter to Obama expressing their concerns over the economic costs of any climate-change legislation.
Ron Way covers the environment and energy issues. He can be reached at rway [at] minnpost [dot] com.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the U.S. ranking in carbon emissions. Since 2006 China has produced the most.