Was the world doing better on climate change under President Bush?
The focus on international climate change negotiations has receded since Copenhagen last year. Copenhagen was seen as a disappointment, with its much touted outcome, the ‘Copenhagen Accord’ looking like it could lead to an almost 4C in temperature rises, causing massive devastation – and solidifying the opposition to the Accord among many vulnerable countries such as Tuvalu and the Cook Islands.
So with less fanfare than last year, the countries of the world have returned to the table to negotiate further agreement on international climate action. The second official meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) for 2010 will begin Monday in Bonn, Germany, with countries hoping to begin work on a pathway toward new legally binding agreements on emission reductions, funding for adaptation to climate impacts, and international institutions/governance.
There are plenty of new things to get your head around in the climate negotiations this year. There is a new executive secretary (starting in July); a new draft-negotiation text that has just been released; and a new infusion of ideas, courtesy of the People’s Summit held in April in Cochabamba, Bolivia. There is also, of course, new science, which shows that the situation for the planet is getting worse and that climate impacts could be more severe than previously projected.
Unfortunately, what’s old is the approach of the United States. Just six months after President Obama received his Nobel Prize for “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples” and his “constructive role in meeting the great climatic challenges the world is confronting”, people across the world are beginning to question whether he has lived up to that inscription in his actions.
Under President Bush the approach of the United States was easy to understand and easy to vilify. Bush denied climate change existed. He withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol. And he obstructed international negotiations. In a famous exchange at the Bali negotiations in 2007 a delegate from Papua New Guinea, asked the United states: ‘If you’re not willing to lead, then get out of the way.’
The approach under President Obama has been much more confusing – until now. It has been confusing because the US has actively engaged in the negotiations, not blocking with procedural issues, and actively taking leadership on issues, but often doing so in a way that hasn’t pleased campaigners. Now, however, President Obama has followed up on his bald-faced blackmail of small developing countries to change their position in negotiations with a submission that clearly shows that the United States is not blocking negotiations but trying to take them backwards.
As the rules now stand developed countries have a collective target for emission reductions (an aggregate target) and then they negotiate their individual country targets underneath that aggregate. The negotiations focus on how comparable each countries’ individual target is, for example that the UK is doing the same amount of heavy lifting as Germany, and they work to make sure that the total sum of countries’ commitments will meet the agreed aggregate target. They then negotiate on the rules for meeting these targets and the penalties for failing to meet them.
The United States’ recent submission refuses to negotiate on any of these issues. President Obama rejects an aggregate target for the developed countries, which means we can’t be sure of how effective their contribution will be. He rejects that targets should be comparable, so different countries do their fair share of the heavy lifting. Now poor countries like India and Bangladesh will have to do a lot more than the US to keep temperature rises from wrecking havoc on their communities. Obama also proposes that there should be no rules about how targets are met or what penalties for not meeting them should be. In effect what President Obama has announced is that the US will not negotiate on emission targets – on their size, on how they are determined, or how they are achieved. In this context when the US says it’s for a ‘legally binding outcome’ I’m with outgoing UNFCCC Executive Security Yvo De Beor when he asks what does that mean in substance?
It’s also got the world asking the broader question: what’s the point of negotiating with the US at all? If the US will do whatever it decides (a 4% cut on 1990 levels by 2020 with unlimited offsets), no matter what the world decides, then what value is there for the world letting Obama save face by pretending to be a part of the solution? Increasingly the answer seems to be: very little. Perhaps someone at Bonn will say: ‘We want to go forwards. If the US wants to go backwards, please go by yourself. We’re going forwards and you can join us later.”
To see what is actually said at Bonn check back here as I (and others) provide updates – I’ll also be tweeting @climatedebtorg
 See p. 48 of this report for an example of the US bracketing the entire text on developed country emission targets at Copenhagen