Dithering In Doha: We Need To Re-Frame The Politics Of Climate

by Steve Herz

Last week, a full day after it was scheduled to end, this year’s United Nations climate negotiations finally ground to an anticlimactic and dispiriting conclusion.

Despite the near round-the-clock endgame and down-to-the-wire drama, negotiators from more than 194 member countries ultimately had precious little to show for their efforts. Yes, they managed to ensure that the Kyoto Protocol would continue for another term. And they tied up some loose ends from previous meetings and made some incremental progress on emerging issues. But on the core issue affecting the fate of the planet — the need to rapidly reduce emissions to have any hope of keeping climate change to manageable levels — progress was nowhere to be found. They moved the process forward, but the problem rages on.

In one sense, this exceedingly modest outcome was no surprise. From the outset, we were warned that this was just an “implementation” or “transitional” meeting; the big issues were not to be discussed. This is because at last year’s meeting in Durban, the Parties decided on a three year schedule to negotiate an overarching agreement, and nothing in the climate negotiations happens until the last possible moment. The Durban timetable all but assured that incrementalism and procrastination would rule the day in Doha.

But in another sense, this summer vacation approach to the negotiations was utterly incomprehensible. The urgent need for action was there for all to see. Many delegates came with vivid, heart-rendering accounts of how climate change was already impacting their countries in ways their governments could not address. Not least, President Obama’s negotiating team could point to this summer’s searing, unprecedented drought in the Midwest, forest infernos in the Rockies, and of course, the over $70 billion worth of devastation inflicted by Superstorm Sandy.

If these calamities weren’t a clear enough call to action, informed delegates arrived in Doha with three new hair-on-fire reports in their briefcases that put these impacts in larger context. In November, the global consultancy PriceWaterhouseCoopers and the International Energy Agency both issued papers showing that nothing short of heroic efforts will be necessary to reduce emissions enough to keep global temperature rise below the 3.6°F that most climate scientists believe is the outer bound of “safe” warming. Without such efforts, we’ll likely see 7.2°F – 10.8°F of warming by the end of this century. The World Bank followed these assessments with its blockbuster Turn Down the Heat report, which described in appalling detail what a 7.2°F warmer world would actually be like. It’s truly scary stuff.

Just as disappointing as the outcome in Doha was the role of the United States in bringing it about. When President Obama first took office, there were great expectations that he would bring about a new era American climate leadership. Instead, the US negotiating posture too often has been characterized by a reluctance to expend real political capital, a hypersensitivity to Congressional extremism, and an unwillingness to lead by example.

Still, there were good reasons to hope that Doha might be the place where the President would begin to fashion a more creative and ambitious negotiating strategy. After all, hadn’t President Obama just handily won reelection over an (opportunistically) denialist opponent, and in the flush of victory, affirmed his intent to address the climate crisis in his Second Administration? Didn’t superstorm Sandy just drive home the intolerable human costs of a significantly warmer planet in the starkest terms possible? With the election safely behind him and the devastation of Sandy laid out before him, was there ever a fiercer urgency than now?

It was not to be. On every critical issue, the Obama team did just enough to avoid being called out for blocking progress, far less than what was needed, and nowhere near what real leadership required. For example, the US negotiators refused to discuss how the US could ramp up its actions at home, despite the fact that the actions countries have agreed to take before 2020 are not nearly enough to limit warming to 3.6°F, and the US has committed to do much less than other developed countries. The US also made sure that developed countries would not provide any clarity on how they would ramp up climate assistance to developing countries to meet their collective pledge to provide $100 billion a year by 2020.

It has become fashionable to blame the UN process itself for the collective failure to craft an adequate international response to climate change. But the US performance in Doha cannot be attributed to a failure of international politics; it was plainly a failure of politics right here at home. Most of the blame, of course, lies with a Republican opposition that is contemptuous of science, heedless of risk, and beholden to the most regressive fossil fuel interests. But President bears much responsibility as well. Rather than using the power of the Presidency, his high public approval ratings and his peerless rhetorical gifts to change the political dynamics around climate change, he has simply taken the political space as he has found it.

President Obama has two critical opportunities to re-frame America’s climate diplomacy in the coming months.

First, he must select a new Secretary of State with a clear sense of the overriding strategic importance of climate change to America’s core interests, and the creativity and vision to lead the world towards more ambitious collective action.

Second and more importantly, he must use his State of the Union Address to discuss the stakes and impacts, and explain why an appropriate response is essential for our long-term prosperity and security. He should commit in no uncertain terms that climate change will be a signature priority in his Second Administration. And he should propose a suite of policy initiatives that can swiftly reduce our emissions, and give other nations confidence that we will not shirk our responsibilities.

Together, these actions would go a long way towards ensuring that our climate diplomacy is much more successful in the second Obama Administration than it was in the first.

Steve Herz is a Senior International Climate Attorney with the Sierra Club.


21 Responses to Dithering In Doha: We Need To Re-Frame The Politics Of Climate

  1. It’s time to consider bilateral talks with China, India, and a few of the other major emitters, to see if some progress can be made on issues like short lifetime GHGs as well as longer-lived pollutants. The current negotiations are too cumbersome and take too long.

  2. Dale left coast says:

    I would suggest that FIRST we should ask them to present the Science the Provable Observable Science . . . that Anthropogenic Gorebull Warming is actually happening.
    Of course they can’t . . . because it does not exist.
    Still the scam carries on . . . CO2 is a rare, benign gas that enables plants to grow . . . and if the entire USA sat in the dark for and did nothing for a year . . . it would change nothing. Anyone that is dumb enough to think that the frauds at the Un can adjust the Climate is smokin crack ! ! !

  3. Paul Baer says:

    Why would the US be willing to make concessions in bilateral talks that it’s not willing to make in multilateral talks? Progress on short lived gases is great, but the real problem remains how to get the us congress to admit the problem is serious and will require us to spend real money. If Obama did as Herz, suggested it might help the process.

  4. Jelly Jam says:

    “Second and more importantly, he must use his State of the Union Address to discuss the stakes and impacts, and explain why an appropriate response is essential for our long-term prosperity and security. He should commit in no uncertain terms that climate change will be a signature priority in his Second Administration. And he should propose a suite of policy initiatives that can swiftly reduce our emissions, and give other nations confidence that we will not shirk our responsibilities.”

    I’m not holding my breath on this one. When you talk about climate change as separate from our economic strength and recovery, then clearly you don’t understand climate change and the role it is playing in our national and global demise. Our environment shouldn’t take a backseat to the economy. Our environment IS the economy and is the key to rejuvenating our society and supplying jobs & opportunity.

  5. Ken Barrows says:

    Dale, you have a wonderful sense of humor. I think.

  6. Brooks Bridges says:

    Until a few hundred thousand people show up in DC on the same day to demand action will our elected officials finally realize they have more to fear from us than losing campaign donations from oil companies and banks.

    We know what the stakes are.

    We know NOTHING else has gotten their attention so far.

    Please make this happen. President’s Day weekend by signing up now:

  7. A good question, Paul, but it must be true that the degrees of freedom are greater for two parties than for 194. We also need concrete actions NOW, and if the US and China can agree on specific steps that will improve the situation vis-a-vis the status quo (like for short lived GHGs), then it shows that some constructive action is possible. Right now (and for the past 3 years it seems) virtually no progress has occurred at the International level. We can’t afford that any more.

  8. John McCormick says:

    Dale, you get one crack at trying to be funny. Then, come back with some common sense or find a sandbox to play in.

  9. Dave Bradley says:

    In the US, it is still unprofitable and often a net money LOSER to install significant renewable energy development. And for the time being, let’s ignore hyper expensive PV, either with or without enormous Federal subsidies that try to allow PV to be sold at grid prices (3 to 5 c/kw-hr). It’s the wind, biomass and biogas, and geothermal that will deliver the GW-hr/yr that will allow pollution based natural gas and coal fired generation to be replaced. And heat pump systems – the way to eliminate modt natural gas usage in the US – are essentially beyond affordability for most Americans, especially when the major use for natural gas – residential and commercial building heat – is being subsidized by below the cost of production fracking based gas.

    The approach to raise coal based electricity by 9 c/kw-hr and natural gas based electricity by 5 c/kw-hr (“carbon taxes”) will be a political kiss of doom for any national politician who even proposes it, let alone gets it installed. And then it will be repealed if by some miracle it gets legislated…. And those are the prices needed to allow onshore wind, biogas, biomass and geothermal to be less expensive (less of a money-loser) – as almost all electricity generators can lose money for a while until the less monied generators go out of business in “market based” systems (that’s what is happening with fracking sourced natural gas right now).

    Odds are, this will not be controversial among the 194 nations at Doha. In fact, close to 50 of them already have Feed-in Tariff systems that allow that, or monopoly electric systems where differing prices for different generation techniques can be accomodated. But few of those countries have the awesome wind resource of the US….

    The environmental community in this country as well as the NGO’s that have sway in the enviro community have to get over their bizarre thinking that the only way massive quantities of renewable energy can be installed in a short period of time is with CO2 pollution fees and taxes. They (CO2 pollution taxes/equivalents to taxes) may serve other purposes (including assauging liberal guilt, raising the cost of living and lowering the standard of living and rate of consumption of stuff for MOST (= poor, middle class) people in this country) but they are about as useful as mammary glands on a bull for getting mass quantities of renewables installed at rates that are climatically meaningful.

  10. Mike Roddy says:

    Nice essay, but you are being far too kind to Obama, portraying him as passive and uninformed.

    The evidence from the last four years suggests that Obama is beholden to the oil companies just as surely as if he were a Republican. He has protected their interests more effectively than a Republican would have, throwing us off the track by throwing occasional bones like lower gas mileage standards.

    What Obama has refused to do is a long list, topped by promoting drilling on public lands and the Arctic, maintaining soldiers in the Middle East, and refusing to back a carbon fee of any kind.

    Wake up, Sierra Club. Any change that occurs will be because the Democrats were forced by the people to act. And that won’t happen until enough pressure is placed on the media to begin to tell the truth, and groups such as the Sierra Club put on a pair of pants.

  11. CW says:

    I seemed to have missed the “re-framing” part of the article. Seems like you’re just saying “Obama should care and act!”. Re-framing, to me, especially in the context of these negotiations, would be about thinking differently. Or more precisely, reversing one key assumption.

    These talks are attended by folks who are mis-taught by economists that reducing emissions is a first mover problem. That they’re suckers if they act while others don’t.

    Re-framing here would be for people to clue in to how this “irrelevant truth” is a tragic distraction by theory. In the real world, there is profit and benefit to gained from actions that happen to also reduce emissions and we should all be racing to take advantage of opportunities, not absurdly stalling in hopes that others go first.

  12. I think we need to have a fresh view on the reasons of the failure of the Climate conferences.
    The approach by demanding every country to commit to a CO2 quota (or cap) looks logic, but , if we take some time to think about it, it becomes obvious that this approach cannot be successful, because of the big differences in CO2 emissions. CO2 emissions are directly linked to the wealth of the country , and so the differences are very huge.
    Ie, according to the last figures by IEA, an average USA human being emits 18 tons of CO2 per year, when an average Indian emits 1,5 CO2 ton.
    What would be the “fair” commitment for the next ten years: that USA reduces down to 12 CO2 tons (huge cut by minus 33%) and that India keeps under 3 CO2 ton per capita (+100% increase)?
    Do you think the US Congress will accept this deal as fair? Do you think India will find “fair” to keep restricted at 3 tons while the USA can still emit 4 more times?
    Negociating quotas is an impossible task, (not to speak of 200 countries negociating) let’us stop wasting our time on this.

    More, the European CO2 market (ETS) doesn’t wok actually, because the allowed quotas are too high, and the CO2 ton is at 6,5€, that is 8,5$, and in litre of oil it is nearly 2 cents of $, or 8 cents per gallon of oil.
    In Europe this carbon price is far too low to finance any serious project of CO2 reduction, and it would be the same in the USA.

    The lesson from the failure of the European CO2 market is that the real driver of change is the PRICE! When the carbon price is too low, nothing happens.

    So the fresh idea for the climate conference is to negociate on a carbon price. This carbon price should be payed by the oil producer for every oil barrel, by the gaz producer for every gaz cubic meter, by the coal producer for every ton of coal.
    This carbon price would be included in the price of the fossil fuel just when extracted.
    This money should be collected by a World wide Climate Fund.
    This carbon price has got 2 advantages:
    * this price “percolates” through the process of production of every product and services, increasing the price of those with a lot of carbon inside, and favouring the alternatives with a lower carbon content; this makes decrease our CO2 consumption.
    * it collects a lot of money for the Climate Fund. This money is needed for redistribution towards low income people, for giving them more money than needed by the carbon price. The money will be also used for funding adaptation projects for poor countries struggling against the global warming we rich people, are responsible of (CO2 emisions is directly connected to the personnal wealth, see the IEA figures, IEA has not been known as a communist organisation)
    Last advantage of the negociation around a carbon price. This negociation is neutral. Every one will be hurt by the carbon price, the richer the more we have to pay, the poorer the less to pay.
    Progressively increasing this carbon price will show our collective will to seriously reduce our CO2 emissions, as required by the scientific community.

  13. I fully agree with you, the “reframing” part of the article is seriously missing.
    Without modesty, the proposal I have just made following this comment, is a clear reframing approach; forget the quotas, it is the price (stupid)!

  14. Dave Bradley says:

    Yes, everyone will be hurt and few will be helped by this effective tax on CO2 pollution. And until you get to a price of around $81/ton of CO2 pollutant, it will STILL be less expensive to generate electricity with coal in most of the populated portions of the US. Ditto for coal’s evil twin, natural gas.And raising gasoline prices by $1.30/gallon from this CO2 pollution fee is going to be REALLY popular, too…

    But $81/ton of CO2 will pull a lot of money out of the US economy – around $450 billion/yr, largely out of poor and middle incomes. That means a lot less spending due to this defacto regressive sales tax on fossil fuel energy. Given the poor and insufficient amount of economic demand now in existence, that is totally not good.

  15. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    There are a lot of Dales out there (and Chips) and they are all convinced that they are geniuses and so ‘savvy’ that they can spot a lying ‘watermelon’, UN-loving, ‘warmist’ scienterrific varmint at one hundred paces. One of the problems with capitalist pseudo-democracy is that they all have a vote.

  16. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    You knew that nothing would occur as soon as you knew the Conference was to be held in Doha, home of the Qatari despotism, heaviest greenhouse emitters per capita and hydrocarbon peddlers to the world. The small island states protested, some delegates in tears, at the Qataris’ sabotage of the talks. Where is the next meeting to be held-Riyadh?

  17. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    No chance. The continuing refusal of the Hope Fiends to acknowledge the reality of Obamaismo has me completely befuddled.

  18. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Millions protested around the world at the destruction of Iraq in an illegal aggression based on known lies, and it made no difference at all.

  19. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Well said, Mike. The refusal of the Obamatons to face the facts is simply inexplicable. Fool me once, shame on you etc

  20. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Well said, Mike. The refusal of the Obamatons to face the facts is simply inexplicable. Fool me once, shame on you etc

  21. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Let us ‘re-frame’ ourselves then we can all hang separately on the wall, next to all those other extinct species.