In a web video interview (transcript) Rob Bradley, Director of International Climate Policy at the World Resources Institute, makes the following observation about the difficulties and challenges around the international climate negotiation process:
Well, some of the problems that occur are down to the sheer complexity of climate change as an issue. It’s too politically charged for the technocrats, but it’s way too technical for the politicians. You know, very often ministers come in and they’re handed, by their subordinates, simply too long and difficult a list of questions to get to grips with. But it’s true that the U.N. as a process offers a lot of challenges of its own and we saw some fairly ugly scenes really towards the end of Copenhagen. It operates by consensus. You’ve got every country in the world in the room and, in principle at least, if one of them disagrees with what’s happening they can block it more or less indefinitely. And so you have groups of countries, in many cases fossil fuel exporters who probably don’t see it in their interest to have a strong deal on climate change, objecting and preventing the process from moving forward. Confusingly, they were sometimes allied with countries like some of the small island states who objected on the grounds that the deal was not nearly ambitious enough and who obviously face an existential threat. But nevertheless, a process in which you’re trying to get all of that group of countries with such an incredibly diverse set of interests to agree on something is a process that is always going to raise problems.
It is worth reflecting on Bradley’s point that odd alliances have developed in the international climate negotiation process between fossil fuel exporting countries (like Saudi Arabia) who are trying to obstruct progress at every point and “small island states who objected on the grounds that the deal was not nearly ambitious enough and who obviously face an existential threat” (like the Maldives, Tuvalu and Kiribati) and to think about the equivalent phenomena here in the United States.
In the United States House of Representatives, when the Waxman-Markey climate legislation came up for a vote there were two distinct groups who voted no – the largest group were members of the Republican party and a handful of Democrats who objected to the bill as either unneeded or too extreme. The vocal leader of this group was Rep. Joe Barton of Texas. Barton’s skepticism about climate science and the proposed mechanisms for reducing greenhouse gas emissions is deeply reminiscent of similar sentiments coming from representatives of nations like Saudi Arabia in the international climate negotiating process (this is not just a Western view, an eloquent Lebanese blog has spoken out about Saudi Arabia’s approach to climate). The other, much smaller, group of members of Congress (about 3 Democrats) who opposed the bill did so because it was not ambitious and aggressive enough. The most vocal of these Members of Congress is Rep. Dennis Kucinich.
The next stop for climate legislation in Washington is the floor of the US Senate. There is little doubt that the science denying opponents of progress will be led there by Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, angry enemy of all climate legislation. It is not clear if there will be a “left wing” in the Senate – objecting to the legislation because it doesn’t go far enough. It is notable that some of the most aggressive supporters of climate legislation in the Senate have publicly supported the Kerry-Boxer legislation that most closely parallels the Waxman-Markey bill. Whether that coalition can support the legislation that may emerge as a result of discussions between Senator Kerry of Massachusetts and Senator Graham of South Carolina remains to be seen.
At the end of the day what really matters is that we take all the action we can to address this most systemic of economic, environmental and public health challenges as quickly as we can. The debate and process needs to be truly and open and those with concerns about the science should be heard but the denial-for-denials-sake we see coming from Saudi Arabia and Messrs. Barton and Inhofe should not derail progress. The desire for maximum action from the island nations is, in contrast, a truly admirable impulse and we must rise towards it as much as possible but not curse ourselves just because we can not do all that is needed immediately.
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