UN treaty melts into climate sideshow
By Muhammad Cohen
HONG KONG - "We are heading toward the abyss," United Nations secretary general
Ban Ki-moon predicted at last week's World Climate Conference in Geneva. With
the deadline for a new global climate change treaty less than three months
away, United Nations officials are banking on a summit on climate change set
for September 22 to convince world leaders that failure is not an option.
But the UN and its non-governmental organization (NGO) sidekicks will be the
ones to blame should a meeting in Copenhagen scheduled for December fail to
produce an effective successor to the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012.
The UN has long promoted the Copenhagen conference as the world's last, best
hope to stop global warming. Those efforts have produced a near-universal
consensus that carbon emissions pose a grave threat to the planet, yet the UN
and green groups continue to insist on provisions that virtually preclude an
agreement and fail to address emissions in crucial areas. More intent on
posturing than meaningfully cutting greenhouse gases, the UN and NGOs have
reduced their prized process to an irrelevant sideshow.
International bureaucrats have set the stage for failure by sticking to a
formula that demands deep emission cuts for developed countries, but places
neither obligations for emissions cuts nor limits on emissions growth for
developing countries. That distinction leaves three of top five carbon
emissions producers, China, India and Indonesia, free to pollute at will.
But exempting developing countries from emissions restrictions doesn't matter,
according to the UN and its NGO allies. Greenpeace International climate change
policy director Martin Kaiser explains, "As soon as the industrialized world
shows it is willing to take on its fair share - of 40% reductions as a group
and at least US$140 billion a year in funding to developing countries - we are
confident that major developing countries will also consider an ambitious
agreement and do their own fair share of the work."
In other words, developed countries need to commit to unprecedented emissions
cuts and pay more than US$1 trillion over the next decade before developing
countries will even consider taking any action of their own. The UN sees things
the same way. That may not seem logical. But the UN and green groups answer to
a higher principle of climate justice: industrialized countries polluted
without restraint, so developing nations deserve the same opportunity. The
Greenpeace statement above actually represents a softening of the radical
position by suggesting that there is some "fair share" of the global burden for
developing countries to bear.
Political analysts cite a number of barriers to securing a binding agreement
the UN and NGOs seek in Copenhagen, particularly the Barack Obama
administration's domestic priority on healthcare reform that's prevented a
similar effort public blitz on global warming. (The US never ratified the Kyoto
Protocol, so it excludes four out of five top emitters.) But the real problem
with getting a new treaty is the UN embrace of the sentiments that have doomed
the environmental cause and frustrated supporters like me for the past 40
Earth Days present
Environmental groups are most skilled at failure. Mother Earth faces the same
issues it did when the first Earth Day was declared in 1970. The biggest
development over these decades is that we've discovered in global warming a
deadly new effect of the unabated pollution and profligacy that these groups so
ineffectually opposed over all these decades.
For most environmental NGOs, "corporation" remains a dirty word, as do
"America" and "wealth". Deeply confident of their own righteousness, they
reject compromise with friends and foes as scornful deception. They simply
expect developed countries to accede to demands, not negotiate.
Their fairy tale purports that developing countries can then be counted on to
act appropriately. The most important of those developing countries are China
and India. From Tiananmen Square in 1989, the SARS epidemic in 2003 to its
pre-Beijing 2008 Olympic Games round-up of dissidents, China has rarely
encountered a broad international agreement it couldn't join and then ignore.
India habitually refused to sign international nuclear agreements, citing its
preference for global nuclear disarmament, but then secretly built nuclear
weapons, abusing developed nations' trust and making the most dangerous part of
the world even more dangerous. That history doesn't build much confidence.
Yet it's the industrialized world that draws the professional greens' scorn.
How dare the US government let its democratic process interfere with the wishes
of unelected scientists and NGO true believers? When the US promises an
across-the-board effort to cut emissions, including focusing the world's
largest, most sophisticated and innovative economy on green technologies, but
rejects mandatory emissions cuts beyond the level Congress will support, Uncle
Sam is a global villain, bent on thwarting efforts to save the planet.
When China, the global emissions leader, makes a similar pledge, without any
promise of lowering its emissions, it's a global hero to be embraced and
emulated and given tens of billions of dollars of US and European taxpayers'
money. With that thinking, it hardly seems the UN and NGOs' top priority is
reaching consensus or reducing emissions.
The UN's bureaucratic mentality undermines its call for immediate action. The
journey to a Copenhagen treaty on this critical issue has been conducted at a
leisurely pace over three years, leading negotiators, experts, NGO executives,
media, and various hangers-on on a carbon-spewing odyssey through New York,
Vienna, Bali, Bangkok, Bonn - the last two on several occasions - Accra,
Poznan, Barcelona, and more.
Those inside the negotiating process highlight the UN's chasm with reality by
now speaking of a mere "15 negotiating days" remaining until the start of the
Copenhagen conference. The statement really means that there are only 15 more
five-star junket days scheduled and, even though life as we know it and the
planet's very survival is at stake, there's no chance they'll do anything about
it unless there's a chocolate on their pillows.
Even when they do get their chocolates, fluffy robes and designer bath
amenities, the UN won't produce a treaty that will stop climate change as long
as it exempts so many big emitters. Fortunately, the US and China aren't
waiting for the UN. The top two carbon emissions sources signed an agreement on
climate change cooperation in late July, ending years of using the other as an
excuse for inaction on the issue. With support from presidents Obama and Hu
Jintao, the two nations have pledged to work together on the government,
academic and business fronts to speed their transition to low carbon futures.
These two giants have the means and motive to lead the global fight against
climate change, and their progress can provide practical, effective leadership
the rest of the world can follow. The union of the US and China to fight
climate change together reduces the UN process and its Copenhagen climax to a
minor, overrated footnote, a role that suits UN bureaucrats and green group
Former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen told America's story to the
world as a US diplomat and is author of
Hong Kong On Air,
a novel set during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal,
financial crisis, and cheap lingerie. Follow
Muhammad Cohen's blog for more on the media and Asia, his adopted home.
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