Cancun: Great for spring break, not for climate negotiating

By Conor Williams
Friday, December 10, 2010;

Over the years, Cancun has made its name as a freewheeling spring break hotspot where American college students take their reputations to die. So perhaps it is no surprise that the 2010 United Nations Climate Change Conference currently convened there has been so unproductive. Cancun is not a place to stop binging - on alcohol or on fossil fuels. Indeed, those assembled in Mexico can't even get agreement on inadequate, face-saving carbon-cutting measures.

Negotiators at Cancun ostensibly aim to keep the world from warming no more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. The consequences of even this limited warming would still be serious, but probably not catastrophic. So how's it going? Reporters at Cancun have praised the "compromise spirit" of negotiators "intent on progress" toward constructing a new institutional architecture for future talks. In other words, the talks have largely degenerated into negotiations over the structure of future negotiations.

Here's the trouble: As climate experts Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows recently noted, data suggest "there is little to no chance of maintaining the global mean surface temperature at or below" a rise of 3.6 degrees. Most experts agree that any further warming will have devastating effects on human survival. All this means that the Cancun negotiations are failing to make progress on even the most modest objectives, let alone significant ones.

Developed nations are still talking about raising $10 billion each year until 2020 - rising to $100 billion per year at that point - to help developing nations grow their economies without expanding their carbon emissions. But even this falls well short of the $140 billion to $175 billion a year that the World Bank estimates would be necessary to keep carbon emissions low in these countries. And the Bank figures that long-term adaptation to the effects of climate change will cost an additional $30 billion to $100 billion each year.

America's not the only one to blame for the conference's inadequacy, but it bears much of the responsibility. A little more than a week before the summit began, lead U.S. negotiator Todd Stern acknowledged that progress on climate change would be difficult, and, among other things, he noted that a new crop of climate-deniers in Congress makes his job much more challenging.

And the job was already challenging. Consider this recent history: At last year's climate summit in Copenhagen, President Obama pledged to "boldly" and "decisively" address the "grave and growing danger to our people." He committed the United States to reducing carbon emissions by 17 percent over the next 10 years. Impressive? No. This still falls far short of the recommendations of experts at the National Academy of Sciences and other respected climate research institutions. Even so, back in Washington the president found a heavily Democratic Congress unwilling to back his proposal. After climate legislation died in the Senate, the Environmental Protection Agency prepared to regulate greenhouse emissions. This predictably sparked outrage from leading congressional Republicans such as Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), who will be much more powerful in next year's Congress.

Worse still, we are hardly alone in our inactivity. Even if every country actually kept the (voluntary) emissions pledge it made at the Copenhagen conference, we'd be only 60 percent of the way to keeping global warming below 3.6 degrees. As long as the United States, which emits more carbon per person than any other country, delays serious climate action, the rest of the world will, too.

Political constraints matter, as does building trust in international processes. Even the most necessary political changes usually come slowly. The trouble is that we've done too much damage to the climate to continue putting politics first. At this point, political survival is no longer relevant. The science is clear, and the window of opportunity for solutions is rapidly closing. This is a matter of actual survival for future generations of humans across the globe.

The conference in Cancun ends today, but our climate-change crisis does not. We have waited too long to stop climate change, but we may yet hope to control the extent of the damage. When American politicians finally come to take the crisis seriously, it may well be too late.

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