Glenn Prickett is chief external affairs officer with The Nature Conservancy.
Delegates from 195 countries are meeting in Durban, South Africa to negotiate a global agreement on climate change. On everyone’s mind is whether the Kyoto Protocol, the first international accord to limit greenhouse gases, will be extended or allowed to lapse, leaving the world without a regime to slow global warming.
It’s an important question… but the wrong one.
Kyoto is valuable and should be extended. It spurred industrial nations (notably not the United States) to cut emissions. It fostered cooperation between developed and developing countries on clean development. It created a fund to help developing countries adapt to climate change. Without it, we would be worse off.
But the United States and China, the largest emitters, didn’t agree to be bound by Kyoto and won’t now. In the U.S., Congress hasn’t mustered the political will to adopt emissions limits. China, while it has taken steps to slow its emissions, argues that as a developing country it shouldn’t be bound by mandatory limits.
Kyoto enshrined the principle that developed countries must reduce emissions while developing countries may not. This made sense in the 1990s, but not today, when fast-growing developing countries contribute over half of global emissions and slow-growing industrial nations question why they should bear the greater burden. Negotiators haven’t agreed on a new formula. No one expects great progress in Durban.
We don’t have the luxury of waiting for this diplomatic standoff to work itself out.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change just released a report on climate change and extreme weather. While there is uncertainty in the data, temperature extremes, intense precipitation, droughts, and floods appear to be on the rise and linked to rising greenhouse gas concentrations. Economic losses and human fatalities from weather-related disasters are rising too.
Time is running out to prevent more dangerous warming. The International Energy Agency, in its latest World Energy Outlook, concluded that after 2017, the world will lock in too much fossil energy infrastructure to limit warming to 2 degrees C—the target of Durban’s negotiators.
Climate change is too important to leave to negotiations. What should we do?
Individual countries must act now. They should make their economies more energy efficient, less dependent on fossil fuels, less destructive of nature, and more resilient to climate extremes.
These are smart things to do. They make a society more prosperous, healthier, and more secure. That’s where hope lies—doing things to make our individual societies better, which will get us moving toward a global solution.
The Obama Administration just proposed new fuel economy standards for light vehicles to reach an average of 54.5 miles per gallon in 2025. Soon, the Administration will propose new limits on mercury and other toxic pollution from power plants. These measures will save hundreds of millions of tons of CO2. But they are politically viable because they boost Americans’ health, prosperity, and security.
The Government of China released a report this month on steps it is taking on climate change. It described a wide range of commitments in energy efficiency, industrial pollution control, clean energy, green cities, forest conservation, sustainable agriculture, and emissions trading. It’s clear that these policies are motivated primarily by the economic, health, and security benefits they provide to the Chinese people.
In March, Indonesia’s President Yudhoyono declared a moratorium on logging in primary forests and peatlands. This is the centerpiece of Indonesia’s commitment to reduce emissions 26 percent on their own or 41 percent with international help. Implicit is a recognition that Indonesia’s rainforests are of tremendous economic and ecological value to Indonesia itself.
Measures like these bring climate change out of the atmosphere and back down to Earth. Climate advocates should remember that political leaders focus on the question that matters most to constituents: “What have you done for me lately?”
Image: Sunset in Monument Valley, Arizona. Image credit: © J. R. Schnelzer