Don’t Expect A Climate Treaty Tomorrow, Or Anytime Real Soon

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After the bubbling furor of yesterday’s 310,000 People’s Climate March, some may expect tomorrow’s UN summit to result in ringing declarations, money pouring in to fight climate change, and a unanimous world climate treaty on how to vanquish the threat. Or, perhaps more realistically, to make sure humans are still functioning on earth by the end of the century.

Not a climate treaty yet, but a summit, at the UN headquarters, New York (p.d.)

They’d be wrong. Tomorrow’s summit is not a decisionmaking affair. “Climate treaty” is not in the cards. Rather, the summit reflects the determination of one man—UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon—and those who agree with him, to put the issue front and center before the movers and shakers of the world’s economy. Yesterday’s old-fashioned march broadcast instantly on modern media was for the people, both those few who showed up and much larger numbers who cheered from the sidelines. To be sure, Mr. Ban was there to give his support, as were luminaries like Al Gore and Leonardo di Caprio.

The Climate Summit is another sort of beast. It has no legally binding status for either setting up or enforcing international action. In fact, no one is even whispering such a goal for the agenda. Voluntary commitments will be made, for sure. However, the summit aims first and foremost to bring public and business decisionmakers of the world together in an unprecedented push for quick education and inspiration for concerted action.

In fact, it has already achieved most of its goal. High-level leaders—most of them heads of state, including US President Obama—will represent all of the world’s major countries. Don’t worry about China: while not the supreme leader, the person who is coming is the guy who’s responsible for the nation’s energy and environmental nuts and bolts. Australia, Canada, and other divided or selfish nations will also attend. We’ll also hear more wrenching and increasingly factual stories than ever from leaders of the developing world and the islands and coasts facing impersonal genocide.

But as Suzanne Goldenberg pointed out in an apparent bombshell story in The Guardian yesterday, the governments aren’t going to come bearing gifts. The most visible leader of the most culpable state, President Obama, has already confided this to a UN special envoy. They aren’t even all showing up. Obama and nonparticipants President Xi of China and Narendra Modi of India, the most influential nations, will reportedly meet privately next week, and Xi and Obama in November at the APEC Summit. We’ll all be better off from those head-to-head conversations. Though Germany has already announced a substantial tithe, the first real deadline for the ante-up is December, when the Lima runup to the Paris summit lays out the issues and prepares governments for drafting detailed efforts by March 2015.

Instead of negotiators—policymakers, business leaders, the international banks, and nongovernmental organizations from all over the world will attend the Climate Summit tomorrow. Some will undoubtedly come bearing pledges, some will come out of curiosity, none will expect to forge a climate treaty, but all will feel first-hand the swell of urgency from scientists and the people and—at last, one hopes—from the almighty bottom line.

The oil and gas companies will be well represented. Neither blind to the implications of continuing carbonization nor motivated entirely by greed, their leaders seem to have already begun to listen to reason and apply some sense to their own corporate direction. Six of the world’s largest oil and gas companies are partnering with the Climate and Clean Air Coalition to reduce fossil fuel-related leakage of methane, a far more immediate threat to us than carbon dioxide. Consider also that Shell directly discussed with stockholders earlier this year the possibility of assets being “stranded” when the bottom falls out for fossils fuels. The Rockefeller heirs—whose predecessors were pioneers in petroleum—have just announced their decision to divest.

Consider the increasing corporate ventures into alternative energy, not just the window dressing of small donations here and there—a newsletter, some solar panels on the corporate HQ—but the beginnings of megabucks. Last week, investors with $24 trillion in assets firmly backed the establishment of carbon pricing.

That’s the main thrust of the climate summit—getting private and historically opposed interests together to interact and arrive at some mutual awareness and acceptable conclusions. It should be much harder for anyone to play ostrich in the face of such a gathering.

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4 thoughts on “Don’t Expect A Climate Treaty Tomorrow, Or Anytime Real Soon

  • The free rider problem that made the old deal impossibly complicated has gone. Net, the transition costs nothing – but that 20,000-foot view conceals some very big and powerful losers. The challenge has shifted to simply getting worthwhile commitments for reduction from the dozen major players; the smaller fry can be dragged on board later. In fact the smaller, go-ahead countries should club together and announce their own ambitious reduction targets first.

    Sandy left out the G20 summit in Brisbane in November as a climate diplomacy watering hole. Formally, that’s correct, as denialist Tony Abbott has pulled climate from the agenda. But (a) climate is the most interesting thing going on, for everybody else (b) nobody cares a rat’s whatsit what Abbott thinks. So they will be talking climate in the side-rooms, and the press conferences will be fun.

  • The fossil fools are at the wheel while we all are heading over the cliff.
    Most people are in willing denial and the rest of us are becoming resigned to the impending catastrophe.

    • I’m not. I trust that my actions and decisions have consequences, and will continue to do what I can to leave the least messed-up world possible to my kids.

      If others act similarly, great, we limit the damage. If not, then at least I won’t feel guilty not having tried.

      • But apparently you have not given up as a consumer (and thus emitter) of carbon. My understanding is that you believe this to be a crisis?

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