A "more constructive role"? Not on climate.

by: Nick Berning

Fri Oct 09, 2009 at 17:33


In his address to the United Nations on September 22, President Obama emphatically declared, “This is a new day. It is a new era” of U.S. action on climate change.

Today, President Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in part for his willingness to engage with the world to address climate change. Here’s how the Norwegian Nobel Committee announcement put it:

Obama has as President created a new climate in international politics. Multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position, with emphasis on the role that the United Nations and other international institutions can play. … Thanks to Obama's initiative, the USA is now playing a more constructive role in meeting the great climatic challenges the world is confronting.

But how has this new “role in meeting the great climatic challenges” actually transpired thus far in UN climate negotiations? Sadly, in a manner that’s anything but constructive; one could even venture to call it destructive.

Today also marks the end of a 10-day UN climate negotiating session in Bangkok, Thailand.  The Bangkok summit was one of the last major chances for countries to lay the groundwork for success at the UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen this December.  In Bangkok, the U.S. engaged in the UN process with great vigor, but the proposals it laid on the table only served to undermine cooperation towards the type of fair and effective global agreement that we urgently need in order to avert catastrophic climate destabilization.

Nick Berning :: A "more constructive role"? Not on climate.

(Two members of Friends of the Earth’s staff were in Bangkok for the negotiations and share their perspective on the talks in this video blog.)

Here’s how the story unfolded:

UN negotiations are consensus-based. In December 2007, international negotiators forged a hard-won consensus on a roadmap to move action forward on the implementation of the UN climate agreement (the UNFCCC, or UN Framework Convention on Climate Change)--and the U.S. signed on. The Bali Action Plan was predicated on the Kyoto Protocol’s recognition of “common but differentiated responsibilities” between developed and developing countries. It involved three basic premises:

  • Rich countries, like the United States, would take on deep emissions reductions targets to account for their historical responsibility for causing global warming and get the world on the right track to avert climate destabilization.
  • Rich countries would provide critical financial support to help developing countries reduce their greenhouse gas emissions (known as mitigation), deal with climate change impacts (known as adaptation), and develop along a clean, sustainable path.
  • Developing countries would take action to begin reducing their own emissions based on the finance provided by rich countries, and without binding targets.

From Day 1 in Bangkok, the U.S. negotiating team’s actions undermined this consensus framework in an attempt to pull rich countries away from the Kyoto approach of negotiating binding emissions reductions commitments at a global level.

(For a spot-on satire of this wavering among developed countries check out this post by a youth climate activist from India on “Why Shouldn’t I Date an Annex 1 Guy?”. Annex 1 meaning developed countries in UN parlance.)

The U.S. team entered with a bang. In the first Monday afternoon negotiating session, Jonathan Pershing, the lead U.S. negotiator at the talks, instigated a procedural fight. He insisted that the U.S. could not move forward in the talks unless a discussion over binding reduction commitments by developing countries took place. Representing a country that is one of the highest per capita emitters, the U.S. negotiators ironically made this demand before coming forward with any U.S. emissions reduction commitments.

As described by a U.S. negotiator “tracker” who was in the room:

[Lead U.S. negotiator] Pershing didn’t exactly go about it gently, insisting that this was a core priority for the U.S. and that if it wasn’t addressed (and a new sub-group wasn’t created), then all discussion would come to a screeching halt. We dig into this or we don’t go forward. As heads snapped and shoulders sank, you could practically hear the air suck out of the room. … Support fell pretty directly along that old rich-poor divide. So much for American leadership, the Global South grumbled.

So much for a new spirit of multilateral engagement.  While this particular fracas was resolved in closed-door “informal consultations,” the following Tuesday morning, the U.S. continued to show “leadership” in driving negotiations towards the lowest common denominator. 

The U.S. unveiled its own proposed framework for sweeping away the Kyoto Protocol in favor of a new system of its own design (i.e. one more politically convenient on the domestic end). As the details of the U.S. proposal emerged, it became clear that the U.S. approach was to gut the Kyoto Protocol. U.S. negotiator Pershing declared categorically this Wednesday, "We are not going to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. That is out."

The Kyoto Protocol provides a system of accountability to ensure that the short-term emission reduction targets that individual countries propose actually get us to the global level of reductions that science demands. Abandoning the concept of formal negotiations to determine fair and adequate emissions reductions commitments among developed countries, the U.S. proposed a “bottom-up” scheme in which countries would volunteer their own domestic targets and submit them to a “formal,” but non-binding registry. Whether a country’s reductions were in line with science -- or with its historical responsibility and capacity to act -- would be irrelevant.

The European Union, which had previously supported binding, quantified targets for rich countries under the Kyoto Protocol, shifted its position to align with the U.S., seizing, as an Indian negotiator lamented, "higher economic advantage in taking a lower moral ground."

This approach is more amenable to the backwards tenor of the climate debate occurring in our own country. The climate bill passed by the U.S. House was full of loopholes and giveaways to polluting industries and lacked serious emissions reduction targets.  The only major improvement in the Senate bill introduced last week is that it doesn’t (yet) gut EPA authority to enforce the Clean Air Act.

However, this type of “bottom-up” approach simply doesn’t cut it on a global scale, where the reality is that certain countries are literally sinking into the ocean. The small island nations at risk of disappearing are calling on the U.S. and other industrialized countries to reduce emissions to at least 45 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. The combined greenhouse gas reductions from national pledges made by rich countries so far only reach 16 to 23 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 without the United States, according to the UNFCCC secretariat. Small island nations have estimated that, including the United States, pledges thus far would only reach 11 to 18 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, and these figures include billions of tons of dubious offsets. We need negotiations to drive this figure up, not gut it.

The U.S. proposal elicited a strong coordinated reaction from 131 developing countries that called the U.S. and other wealthy countries out for abandoning their historical responsibility for causing the impending climate crisis.

As China’s special representative on climate talks, Yu Qingtai decried

The reason why we are not making progress is the lack of political will by Annex 1 [industrialised] countries. There is a concerted effort to fundamentally sabotage the Kyoto protocol. …They are introducing new rules, new formats. That's not the way to conduct negotiations.

Lumumba D’Aping of Sudan, chair of the Group of 77 plus China developing country negotiating group, echoed

It is clear now that the rich countries want a deal outside the Kyoto agreement. It would be based on a total rejection of their historical responsibilities. This is an alarming development. The intention of developed countries is clearly to kill the protocol. 

Using its muscle as a world superpower and leading greenhouse gas emitter to change the rules of the game at the 11th hour of negotiations is not a constructive way for the U.S. administration to renew its engagement with the rest of the world.

Meanwhile, the Group of 77 developing countries and China attempted to put some constructive proposals for climate finance, technology cooperation and capacity building on the table.

Developing countries want to reduce their own emissions and urgently need to adapt to the effects of climate change they already face, but they simply don’t have sufficient resources and capacity to do so. They’re becoming increasingly frustrated as they wait on firm financing and technology commitments from wealthy countries like the U.S. Costs of these efforts have recently been estimated at $500 to $600 billion a year –- but they will rapidly increase if no action is taken now. Despite their many proposals designed to move negotiations forward on financing, developing countries are still waiting for constructive engagement by developed countries as we reach the end of the Bangkok summit.

An Indian climate envoy summed up the frustrations of developing country negotiators:

Of course we have [responsibility], but that's because we are the ones that will be most affected by climate change. So we are quite clear about our responsibility to pursue sustainable development. China is doing that; India is doing that. We are already spending a very large part of our national resources for adapting to climate change, for which we are not responsible.

Agus Purnomo, head of the Indonesian delegation at climate talks in Bangkok, described the hypocrisy of industrialized countries like the U.S. demanding new emissions commitments from developing countries before putting up the money to help those countries finance clean development paths: 

We will do our measurement, reporting and verification. But it's our initiative. It's none of their business. If they put money, if they supported us, yes, part of what we're doing becomes their business.

Clearly, there is a long way to go to in the international climate debate.  Unfortunately, time is running out, and our future lies precariously in the balance. Because of our ignoble distinction of being one of the largest historical and current contributors to global warming, a fair and effective treaty is simply not possible without the U.S. We have the power to derail the process, or, on the other hand, to bolster it.  We’ve heard some inspiring rhetoric from President Obama on meeting our “great climatic challenges” but, as Bangkok illustrated, the U.S. action has so far been very far from constructive.

As Friends of the Earth stated in our press release on President Obama’s Nobel Prize this morning:

President Obama will receive his award in Oslo, Norway, on December 10—the same time that climate negotiations will be taking place in Copenhagen. We urge him to travel to Europe at this time not just to accept an award, but also to ensure that a strong and fair climate agreement is achieved.

In the meantime, we can urge President Obama to live up to the honor he received today and support climate justice in Copenhagen. 

The onus is on us in the progressive community as well. We must work harder than ever on the domestic side, so that our negotiators actually have a reason to work towards an agreement strong enough to solve the problem, not simply weak enough to pass through Congress. It’s not that I think Obama doesn’t get the need for meaningful action. The progressive community and President Obama together face the bleak reality that 67 Senators have to vote "yes" for the U.S. to ratify a global climate treaty. He can’t get these votes unless we get to work challenging industry-beholden Democrats and Republicans who stand in the way of effective action.


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thanks for this post (0.00 / 0)
I haven't been following these negotiations closely, so I appreciate the background info.

Join the Iowa progressive community at Bleeding Heartland.

Thanks for reading. (0.00 / 0)
Glad you find the info useful.

[ Parent ]
Why did the committee of 5 (0.00 / 0)
expect that their votes would sway Obama re climate, welfare, and Empire when millions of Americans who voted for Obama in November had exactly ZERO impact?

Shorter Obama: I don't deserve this award, but I'll take it anyway.

What other like reasoning is flowing through his beautiful little mind right now?

One shudders.


To be fair (0.00 / 0)
The politics aren't easy. It's hard to get 67 senators to agree to anything. That said, the U.S. negotiators could be playing a much more constructive role if Obama wanted them to.

[ Parent ]
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