December 6, 2013

IN THE Warsaw climate change conference last month, world representatives negotiated an agenda for further negotiations. That they did not manage to mess that up, we are told, is an achievement.

The United Nations climate change proceedings are in their 22nd year. Until participants embrace some realities, they are unlikely to produce useful agreements.

First, every major country must ante up. The industrialized West isn’t doing enough; the United States should put a price on carbon, preferably through a tax, which would have an impact on fossil-fuel use and set a constructive example. But the West has set about reducing its carbon footprint. China, India and other rising nations, meanwhile, are poised to pump massive and increasing amounts of carbon dioxide into the air over the coming decades. Unless they put serious limits on their future emissions, the world could blow very far past the concentrations of atmospheric carbon that negotiators are aiming for.

Next, negotiators need to drop the fantasy that whatever treaty they come up with will be legally binding. The size of each country’s emissions reductions and the enforcement of policies to achieve them will have to come from national governments, not from some international agreement. World negotiators tried to strike a deal with a “top-down” approach; they didn’t get close to pulling in all the major actors.

Developing nations must also get real about the amount and type of climate-related money that they will get from the West. Europe and the United States are not going to fund an expensive system to compensate poor nations for effects they might ascribe to global warming. That’s because putting a price on the particular effects of climate change in one country or another is scientifically dubious. More important, Western nations are cash-strapped and their people won’t pay, anyway. Public and private financing should be mobilized for such things as stopping deforestation. But large-scale reparations are unlikely.

In Warsaw, negotiators made halting progress on the legally binding issue and the reparations issue. That should help them with their new goal of striking an agreement in a major 2015 conference in Paris. Among achievable aims: an international program to fight deforestation; a system to efficiently transfer technological know-how among nations; a time and place for countries to pledge emissions reductions; and a mechanism to verify countries’ success in meeting their pledges.

The future of the climate is not going to be decided at one big meeting, or by an ailing Europe and a weary United States ponying up massive sums of money. Barring some technological revolution that makes green energy extremely economical, it’s going to be decided piece by piece in national legislatures and committee meetings, in off-the-record bilateral meetings and Group of 20 summits, and by politicians pushed at home and abroad to act.