Four years ago, the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change called evidence for the warming of the climate system "unequivocal." More recently, scientists at MIT calculated that business-as-usual emissions portend a 50 percent chance that the earth's average surface temperature will increase at least 9.2 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. Yet negotiations to find a global solution to this problem, primarily under the umbrella of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process, have yielded little. The last two annual sessions (called Conferences of the Parties, or COPs) agreed on vague generalities but essentially postponed resolving disputed details. Even the biggest boosters of the process hold out little hope for concrete achievements at the next COP in Durban, South Africa, which will begin late November.
UNFCCC negotiations involve a bigger basket of issues than most multinational talks -- including weaning whole economies off coal and oil, protecting disappearing forests, saving the small island states that are likely to be underwater within a few decades, and managing all the related costs. They are also an inclusive process, involving 194 countries -- polluters, victims and everyone in-between -- all of which officially have equal weight in the proceedings. Given the urgency of the issue and the glacial pace of progress, there may be reason to consider alternatives."
The UNFCCC was created at the Earth Summit in 1992 in Rio, and entered into force in 1994. Developed countries were to "take the lead" in reducing their greenhouse gas emissions and provide support to help developing countries meet their economic development goals sustainably.
The 1997 Kyoto Protocol, rejected by the United States, put flesh on the UNFCCC's bones. Annex I countries -- industrialized countries that were OECD members in 1992, plus former Soviet bloc economies in transition -- agreed to emissions reduction targets. Developing countries (non-Annex I nations) -- China and India, for example -- were held to more limited obligations. And all were allowed to meet their targets in any way they wanted.
Neither the Kyoto commitments nor Kyoto's market-based pollution trading tools halted total global emission growth. China and India became leading contributors to the problem. The recent economic recession put a dent in emissions growth in the United States and Europe, but this will likely reverse as fortunes rise. And, some of the progress that Europeans claimed toward meeting the Kyoto goals came from shuttering inefficient industries in the former Soviet bloc, which was a one-time gain. For its part, the United States continued to increase its emissions and has been unable to resolve the internal political differences that have prevented tougher climate regulation.
The 2009 COP might have been a chance to start anew. For the first time, a climate conference attracted world leaders, who were able to conclude an accord to hold global temperature within two degrees Celsius and create a system of voluntary reduction pledges. This angered many NGOs and countries that had wanted a binding resolution. A year later, negotiators at the Cancun COP agreed to undertake activities that would build upon many of the Copenhagen elements, but the agreements were so vague that they essentially remain agendas for further discussions later.
The COP in Durban this fall will have to consider the future of the Kyoto Protocol, which by its own terms ends its "first commitment period" in 2012. It is also tasked with filling in the missing details from the previous rounds of negotiations and reconsidering the differentiation between Annex I and non-Annex I countries. And it must do all of this -- as in any negotiation under UN auspices -- under ground rules where any single nation might block the will of all the others.
This may sound nearly impossible, but climate negotiations are hardly the first time the world has tackled complex, multi-issue multinational challenges. The effort to control and reduce nuclear proliferation at first faced the same seemingly crippling dynamics, but, in the end, incremental progress in multiple negotiating arenas has stabilized the number of states possessing nuclear weapons, reduced the arsenals of the two nuclear superpowers, and greatly diminished the risk of accidental or inadvertent nuclear war. The lessons from these negotiations could be applied to managing the climate challenge.
Giving talks top-level attention, segmenting issues, and diversifying negotiating arenas all seem promising. In the 1950s, when governments were more concerned with the political and ideological struggle of the Cold War than the possibility of a nuclear catastrophe, "general and complete disarmament" was the stated goal, and negotiations took place strictly in the UN General Assembly, without any success at curbing the nuclear arms race, much less eliminating nuclear armaments.
Following the Cuban Missile Crisis, however, the seriousness and danger of the arms race became more concrete. Government officials began to discuss discrete nuclear issues and identified aspects on which they might find common ground. The first result was the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty, which prohibited nuclear testing in the atmosphere, in space, and under the seas. This ban did not spell the end of the nuclear problem, of course, but it at least mitigated the danger of radiation from nuclear tests and gave momentum to other negotiations.
After those early days, negotiations proceeded in multiple fora, involving varying groupings of nations and differing approaches to limiting the dangers posed by nuclear weapons. The Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) -- the keystone effort to limit the spread of nuclear weapons -- was negotiated in a special UN body, now known as the Committee on Disarmament, which included fewer participants and focused directly on armaments. The talks started in earnest when the United States and the Soviet Union became seriously motivated following China's first nuclear test in 1964. The NPT was broadly successful in limiting nuclear proliferation. Before the treaty, experts generally believed that there would likely be 25 nuclear powers by the end of the century; in fact, there were eight. It seems unlikely that the number could surpass even ten in the near future.
Meanwhile, there has also been considerable progress in smaller regional groupings. For example, because of the 1968 Treaty of Tlatelolco, Latin America and the Caribbean are now a nuclear-free zone, as is Antarctica, thanks to a 1959 treaty. Similar nuclear-weapon-free zones have been negotiated for Africa, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific, and are slowly taking effect.
The United States and Russia, as owners of 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons, have special obligations for dealing with weapons of mass destruction. Over the past 40 years, they have negotiated more than a dozen bilateral agreements intended to reduce the risk of nuclear war. These talks established communications channels and protocols to avoid accidental nuclear war, and reduced U.S. and Russian stocks of operational nuclear weapons from 25,000 to 30,000 each at the height of the Cold War to roughly 5,000 and 8,000, respectively, today.
Of course, these efforts have not eliminated all nuclear weapons -- but they have made undeniable progress, which has created political momentum for further talks. There are now constituencies for the elimination of nuclear weapons and vested interests in the process. There are also mechanisms that force governments to pay attention to the problem and robust, independent institutions for monitoring and verification.
Supporters of the current UNFCCC pathway might argue that none of this history is relevant to the climate threat. They might reason that the urgency of climate science leaves no time to experiment, or that segmenting the issues will facilitate the big powers running roughshod over those most likely to suffer from climate change. But the big powers do that now in the UNFCCC. Moreover, it is precisely because climate disaster is impending that the world should get creative about addressing the problem.
Todd Stern, the U.S. Climate Envoy, seems ready to move beyond the UNFCCC. (He called a fight over the agenda for one meeting "not as bad as bickering over the shape of the negotiating table, but not a lot better.") Nevertheless, many in the developing world resist any questioning of the UNFCCC. It will be hard to get them to consider approaches that might challenge the rule of consensus, which they equate with equity. They insist that the Western industrialized countries publicly acknowledge their historic responsibilities and also assure that development in the emerging economies not be held back by restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions.
In the end, however, the overriding goal is to reduce emissions in a timely fashion -- not to make everyone happy. Moving to a variety of nimbler negotiating vehicles supplementing the UNFCCC is worth a try, as is disentangling goals for emissions reductions from debates about legal structures and venues. The large docket of issues could be broken up, narrowing specific negotiations by issue or region, by greenhouse gas emissions contribution, or by tools and methods to achieve greenhouse gas reductions.
Climate negotiators might also worry too much when major powers stall or sit on the sidelines, as the United States currently does. The history of arms negotiations shows that even if major powers remain aloof, they will often follow the rules set in agreements they once shunned, even as they avoid the formalities. Although the 1998 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty has yet to enter into force legally, for example, only the three new nuclear weapon states have conducted nuclear tests since the treaty was signed; the six older nuclear powers have not tested a nuclear weapon for more than fifteen years. Finally, climate change talks, which involve a problem with the potential to disrupt the life of every human on earth, must graduate into the elite arena. They should be directly guided by powerful ministries, which can make commitments and sell them at home in ways most environmental authorities cannot.
As with nuclear arms reductions, controlling greenhouse gas emissions is a messy real-world challenge that will probably require an evolving progression of messy real-world solutions. But if the climate establishment can acknowledge more variation of approaches and entry points, it increases its chances of realizing its most important goals, even if it does not tie a nice, neat bow on them.