The politics of climate in Cancún

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The American Independent, Cancun, Mexico

At the recent opening ceremony of the United Nations climate talks in Cancún, Mexico’s president, Felipe Calderón Hinojosa spoke of climate change as a challenge that humanity must heed as a call to action. “Putting a stop to climate change is a true challenge,” he said, “and there is only one power to rise to this challenge: The power of humanity itself.”

During a two-week summit, which ends December 10, negotiators and world leaders will once again attempt to hammer out agreements on climate change, carbon emission reductions, adaptation and mitigation. Tagged “COP 16,” the meetings are the 16th annual Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The convention, which encourages countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, was adopted in 1992 and has been signed now by 194 parties, including the United States.

As negotiators and political leaders the world over prepared for two weeks of meetings in this resort city along the so-called Mayan Riveria, Calderón implored them to realize that it is “less expensive to respond to climate change now than to respond to the consequences of not putting a stop to it in time.”

Some perpetuate a dilemma between the environment and the economy — but that is a false dilemma, said Calderón. “It is perfectly possible to sustain economic growth and fight poverty,” he said. “It is perfectly possible to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and not only sustain economic growth, but even find new ways of generating productivity and jobs in green development, green growth and sustainable development.”

Expectations built — and dashed

Leading up to last year’s UN climate conference in Copenhagen, expectations were high — in large part because of President Obama’s election. But after the United States again thwarted agreements by refusing to take action on emissions reductions, many people worldwide lost faith not only in the UN process but in the willingness by the US to ever take action on climate change.

The Copenhagen Accord, as it’s called, was signed by more than 190 countries in December 2009. Within it, leaders agreed that worldwide temperature increases should not exceed 2 degrees Celsius — according to NASA, temperatures have already risen by 1.4 degrees — but did not actually commit to achieving that goal by making cuts to carbon emissions.

Speaking at a press event in Cancún, author and 350.org founder Bill McKibben found this vague focus on two degrees troublesome, and he admitted frustration with the conference negotiations. “We’re already in a world of hurt, and we’re already doing things we can’t sustain or deal with,” he said. “And it shows the institutional — I’m looking for a more polite word —  insanity of talking about a two-degree rise in temperature on the planet as if it were some kind of goal for which we should strive.”

Many regions across the world are already experiencing the impacts of climate change, said McKibben. Against that backdrop, the climate talks themselves are infused with an air of “unreality.” Not only does Arctic sea ice continue to melt, but Russia experienced a tremendous heat wave — one that prompted the Kremlin to cease grain exports and cause a spike of prices on markets worldwide — and this summer, almost a quarter of Pakistan’s lands were submerged beneath flood waters.

“If we’re already melting the Arctic, what should that tell us?” McKibben asked, and added: “We can’t be sitting here having strategies on how to get more carbon in the atmosphere and call it good; we need to be figuring out strategies for figuring out how to get it out of the air.”

Kyoto redux

This year’s meeting in Cancún is also the sixth annual meeting of the members of the Kyoto Protocol. Beyond encouraging countries to cut their emissions, that international agreement set binding targets for 37 industrialized countries and the European Union to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions five percent below 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012.

Although the United States never ratified the Kyoto Protocol, 184 countries worldwide have (PDF), and one of the goals for COP 16 is to negotiate Kyoto’s next commitment phase, which will begin in January 2013. But it now looks as though some countries previously committed to Kyoto are now having second thoughts.

As a legally binding agreement, Kyoto is the tool by which developed countries — that is, the countries whose historic and current emissions are causing climate change — measure and verify their emission reductions. “Those rules have already been adopted, and we’ve spent ten years waiting for governments to elaborate on them,” said Tove Ryding of Greenpeace International. But now, precisely when developing countries want to see developed countries stick to their original commitments, developed countries are trying to change those original requirements. “There are no technical reasons, there are no practical reasons, there are no scientific reasons why you could not continue with the Kyoto Protocol,” she said. “This is all about politics.”

While the European Union has been open to moving forward with Kyoto—having already committed to a 20 percent reductions in its carbon emissions—both Japan and Canada are now backing away from Kyoto. “It could be because the Kyoto Protocol has a compliance mechanism, that if you violate your commitments, there will be consequences,” she said. “But that’s why the Kyoto Protocol is so vital—to keep and build on the future regime.”

Back in the US

At the opening ceremony in Cancún, Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), pointed out that the warming of the climate system is unequivocal. Average air and ocean water temperatures are rising, and due to melting snow and ice, sea levels are rising.

He added that global carbon emissions should peak no later than 2015 and decline thereafter. Such action must occur if abrupt and irreversible climate change is to be avoided.

The IPCC was created in 1988 by the UN General Assembly created so scientists could objectively assess the state of knowledge about climate change. Its scientists draw conclusions from the data and help policymakers assess the state of the science of climate change. So far, the IPCC has produced four assessment reports — in 1990, 1995, 2001 and 2007. Currently, the IPCC is working on its fifth assessment, which it will release in November 2014. The panel is also working on two special reports, one on renewable energy and mitigation and a second about extreme weather events.

But at the same time that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is releasing ever-more certain data about climate change — and other parts of the world are already experiencing the impacts of climate change — political leaders in the United States are moving backwards on the issue of climate change.

This summer, Congress failed to pass comprehensive climate change legislation. And now, the Republican leadership is launching an all-out attack on climate scientists and climate policies.

Earlier this fall, Rep. Fred Upton, R-MI, called for congressional hearings to investigate climate scientists. More recently, Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, announced the disbanding of the US House of Representative’s Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. That committee was created in 2007 by Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-CA, and has held more than 75 hearings in three years on issues ranging from the BP oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico to water scarcity and sea level rises.

On Dec. 1, the committee held a final hearing titled, “Not Going Away: America’s Energy Security, Jobs and Climate Challenges.” And in his closing remarks, chairman Rep. Edward Markey, D-MA, noted that “while some in Congress may question the science of global warming, the rest of the world does not.”

For his part, Rep. Ben Ray Luján is “sincerely disappointed” in the GOP’s decision to disband the committee before its work had been completed. “We must not turn a blind eye to this issue when our leadership is sorely needed,” he said in a statement to the New Mexico Independent. “I remain committed to fighting for clean energy initiatives that reduce our dependence on foreign sources of energy, create jobs in America and protect our land and water.”

But for American activists who have come to Cancún to try and convince the world’s leaders to take action on climate change, the political scene back home is bleak.

“It’s unlikely that emissions are going to peak by 2015 — and the later that peak is, the more dramatic the declines [in emissions] will have to be,” said Kevin Bundy, senior attorney of the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity. “If we wait until 2020, it may be too late: Dramatic action is needed now.”

Laura Paskus is an independent writer and editor who is reporting from Cancún as an Earth Journalism Network Climate Media Fellow.