3 november 2010

Let's Get Serious About Climate Talks


The New York Times November 3, 2010

I spent the entire month of August in Moscow. Those who were in the
Russian capital then will never forget the heavy smog from wildfires in
nearby regions that choked the city for weeks. The city seemed immersed
in an alternate reality. People, plants, animals — all bore the imprint
of suffering, frustration and fear.

Until quite recently, many in Russia, including members of the ruling
elite, spoke skeptically about global warming, with a disdain for
scientific data. Today their numbers have shrunk.

Of course, this weather-related anomaly was just one among many this
year. Mudslides in China, unprecedented droughts in Australia and
India, floods in Pakistan and Central Europe; the list goes on. The
year 2010 is well on its way to becoming the warmest on record. News of
a huge chunk of ice, about twice the size of Paris, breaking away from
a Greenland glacier in August came as a menacing symbol of global

Yet, paradoxically, despite the increasingly clear and growing danger
of climate change, the pace of negotiations and actions to counteract
it has slowed. The public, meanwhile, is frustrated about the ability
of governments to effectively address the problem. This could bring us
perilously close to public disengagement and apathy.

What has happened? Why all this backsliding in the year that followed
the much anticipated United Nations Climate Change Conference in

The reasons lie in the failure of political leadership and lack of will
among those who have bowed to vested interests, as well as in
governments’ inability to strike compromises that meet the often
diverging interests of economic and political players.

The Copenhagen conference did not live up to expectations. The
considerable divide between developed and developing nations stood in
the way of the main, ambitious goal of a global climate deal.

Instead of analyzing the reasons behind this disappointment in all
their complexity, and encouraging a search for realistic, constructive
solutions, the media rushed to label the conference an abject failure.

“Climategate,” a carefully engineered scandal that took quotations from
climate scientists’ e-mails out of context, and a campaign to discredit
the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change also did much to
mislead people.

The corporate lobbies that organize climate-change-denial campaigns are
lavishly financed, outspending those supporting urgent action by 7 to
1. One result is the $550 billion a year in subsidies that the
International Energy Agency estimates go to the fossil fuel sector of
the energy industry. True, the Group of 20 economic powers recently
announced a phasing out of such subsidies — but “in the medium term.”

Everyone seems to understand that the climate problem cannot be wished
away. Negotiations on how to fight climate change continue. After the
latest round of talks in China, the U.N. process will resume in Cancún,
Mexico, in a few weeks. Participants, however, seem more anxious about
“lowering expectations” than about achieving the first tangible
results. Diplomats and experts are stuck on technical issues, and
voices are already being heard in favor of settling for the lowest
common denominator or even reformatting the process, with the hope that
the business community might come up with purely technocratic solutions
to climate change.

This is not the way to go forward. Although business — with its ability
to adapt new technologies and make a profit by doing so — could of
course play a major role in the transition to a low carbon economy, it
would be naïve to expect it to be the primary driver of this process.

The business community will always look out for its own interests and
short-term profits. As for the theory that “the free market” will solve
every problem, few find that idea convincing after its proponents
brought the world economy to the brink of disaster.

Equally unacceptable are suggestions that the fight against climate
chaos should be left largely to the most “advanced” nations. This would
not only infringe on the role of the U.N., but it risks widening the
gap between developed and developing countries.

Clearly, as countries like China increase their economic power they
must assume greater responsibility for the environment. We need to
persuade them that it is in their own best interests to do so.
Furthermore, we need a strong and meaningful effort to create
incentives for them to adopt energy-efficient and alternative fuel
technologies, as well as to stimulate those who are ready to transfer
such technologies to emerging countries. Agreements on all these issues
can only be hammered out within the framework of a multilateral process
under U.N. auspices. Cancún offers another chance to re-energize the

So, despite the fact that 2010 has been a mostly disappointing year for
those who advocate urgent action to save our planet, we cannot afford
presumptions of failure or pessimism. There are enough people in civil
society who have not succumbed to defeatism and are ready to act to
make governments listen. The global self-preservation instinct must
finally force world leaders to resume serious negotiations with
ambitious goals.

Mikhail Gorbachev, leader of the Soviet Union from 1985 until its
dissolution in 1991, is a founder and board member of Green Cross

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