This December, climate negotiators will meet in Paris to finalize a United Nations agreement intended to create a new framework for addressing global warming. Government officials from France and Germany have already voiced their intention to push for binding emissions cuts in the accord, a goal that other European Union officials have publicly supported. Many environmental NGOs and businesses have also pressed for the incorporation of targets to keep global temperature increases below 2°C to avoid the worst environmental impact of climate change.
Despite the strong statements, however, expectations that the Paris talks could end with a legally binding treaty have waned since the Bonn preparatory meeting in June, which dispersed without making much headway toward a viable draft. And even if an agreement is reached, it’s unclear whether U.S. President Barack Obama could get it ratified in Congress. All in all, such failures could call the entire UN negotiating system into question.
And yet, a puzzle hangs over the proceedings: Why, after all this time, is the international community still unable to reach an agreement on how to address climate change? More than two decades have passed since the United Nations formed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, with little political progress made since then. Some point to the divergent goals of industrialized countries and the emerging economies. Others blame continued resistance from U.S. energy companies or the free market ideologies of conservative officials in the U.S. government. Another reason, some argue, is the sheer magnitude of the task ahead, which will likely require a considerable alteration in the world’s energy infrastructure. There’s also the deeper issue of whether societies can find the political willpower to act on a threat that will come to pass decades into the future.
Each of these factors has undoubtedly played a role. But they are not unique to climate change. Similar challenges faced Cold War diplomats seeking to address another largely forgotten international pollution issue of the twentieth