Last year at this time, the United Nations was coming to grips with the fact that the Copenhagen climate change summit would not produce a legally binding climate pact to succeed the failed Kyoto Protocol. In retrospect, nearly everyone acknowledges that the Copenhagen conference failed utterly to achieve its objectives. A year later, nations are again huddled together at a U.N. conference—this time in sunny Cancun, Mexico, rather than blustery Denmark—to try to get the global warming treaty train back on the rails.
In the lead up to the Copenhagen conference, I wrote an article questioning the central role played by the U.N. in setting the tone and direction for global warming negotiations because that organization had moved from a position of “neutral broker” to that of a clearly biased party. By consenting to negotiate a global warming agreement through the U.N., the U.S. placed its negotiators in a position of weakness. Nations with little direct stake in the outcome of negotiations as well as U.N. officials manipulated the process to focus on an ineffective, costly agreement that unduly burdened the U.S. and other developed countries without any real assurance that such sacrifices would address the issue of global warming.
Although a non-binding “Copenhagen Accord” was brokered by the U.S. as the conference concluded, the Copenhagen conference failed to agree on text for a binding treaty.
Unresolved issues continue to bedevil negotiations and observers are predicting that the Cancun conference will also fail. The entire experience has increasingly led to questions about the usefulness of these types of U.N. conferences. Walter Russell Mead observes:
It is not just that the Cancun meeting isn’t expected to produce much. The whole UN treaty process is increasingly being seen as a colossal and humiliating blunder. …
Universal consent for a treaty of this kind makes no sense: it frankly doesn’t matter to the atmosphere or anyone else whether Vanuatu, Equatorial Guinea, the Democratic People’s Republic of (North) Korea or Cuba signs on or not. And many of the other “negotiators” in this process—I forbear to name any countries—have such feeble and crooked governments that they are incapable of enforcing a climate treaty no matter how many inspiring documents they sign. Yet under the UN rules, any one of these countries can veto the treaty and bring the whole process to a juddering halt. …
[N]egotiations quickly turned into a parody of diplomacy in which political reality disappeared from view. Northern green activists lobbied to get strict carbon targets adopted. Developing country diplomats focused on “appropriate compensation.” Just how green did the North want the South to become, and just how much money was the North willing to pay to make this happen? Negotiators played with rich country aid budgets like kids with Monopoly money, and issued vague and intoxicating pledges that, in an era of austerity, will never be honored. …
Son of Kyoto (like the Kyoto Protocol itself) has never been anything but a huge diversion from the real conversations that need to take place.
At the Council on Foreign Relations, Michael Levi half-heartedly defends U.S. participation in the Cancun conference: “The reality is that even those of us who don’t love the UN talks are stuck with them, and we need to make the best of a bad situation.” But he readily acknowledges that the U.N. process is more likely to divert attention from constructive action than galvanize support and consensus. Indeed, following the Copenhagen conference last year, Levi concluded:
As the dust settles on this year’s talks and observers try to understand exactly what happened here, one thing is for certain: The U.N. process can no longer be the central focus of global efforts to confront climate change.
The structural problem with these talks has long been clear: It’s hard to find anything that 193 countries agree on, and it’s downright impossible to negotiate when all those parties must have their say. But activists, diplomats, and many analysts have long insisted on the participation of every last U.N. member nation. …
[T]he global nature of the talks helped the key players to broker a deal. But our success or failure in actually implementing that deal—and cutting greenhouse-gas emissions more broadly—will depend on the domestic policies of the key players. … These details cannot be worked out in a 193-country group, where the lowest common denominator prevails.
Indeed, the need to placate all of these parties is why negotiations repeatedly turn on income transfers to developing countries. As one news report summarized, “Climate policy has almost nothing to do anymore with environmental protection, says the German economist and IPCC official Ottmar Edenhofer. The next world climate summit in Cancun is actually an economy summit during which the distribution of the world’s resources will be negotiated.”
All of this raises the question of just why the U.S. is in Cancun. Levi fears that “a blowup in Cancun” will “likely to lead to a Kyoto-II-style arrangement where the United States is once again marginalized.” But is that really something to fear? When the U.S. rejected the Kyoto Protocol, it rendered the agreement irrelevant. Without U.S. buy-in, any effort is empty.
The U.S. shouldn’t accept a raw deal just to avoid being marginalized. But a raw deal is the only one that a majority of the U.N. member states are prepared to offer in Cancun. Playing along only encourages the idea that the U.S. will eventually cave.
Efforts to address climate change do not need to be hammered out at a U.N. conference. Indeed, by working with a few key players, the U.S. is far more likely to negotiate a more effective and less costly strategy to address climate change without the tangents that bog down U.N. negotiations.
Instead of letting the U.N. funnel negotiations toward an unrealistic, grossly expensive agreement, the U.S. and other nations expected to shoulder the burden should work outside of the U.N. to hash out a realistic, effective strategy by which they are prepared to abide.