Six Reasons Why the Durban Decision Matters

Posted on

"Six Reasons Why the Durban Decision Matters"

by Andrew Light

I’m going to assume that anyone reading this post is driven as I am everyday by alarm at the growing climate crisis and the apparent lack of progress in responding to it.  We all articulate this existential worry in various ways, but I feel that at bottom our alarm is commonly driven by a deep moral concern about what is and is not being done with respect to the welfare of current and future generations and the planet we inhabit, along with moral outrage at the roadblocks that are intentionally thrown up against our efforts.

In this world of deep and abiding moral concern reports of yet another empty pledge, or failed promise for action, or lost vote in a deliberative body may as well be the latest nonsense from the climate denial crowd.  In many ways though its worse.  We don’t expect those folks to listen to what the latest credible science says, marry that to a thorough assessment of our values, and then set priorities for action.  We expect those folks to stand in the way and that’s what they do.

So when a big global event comes together, like the annual meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which ended last Sunday in Duban, South Africa, without easily discernable progress if not game-changing solutions, the climate community’s dismay turns to the same sort of incredulity and frustration with which we greet the climate skeptics.

That’s the view of Mark Hertsgaard over at The Nation about the Durban outcome.  Hertsgaard calls out climate negotiators who settled the Durban deal with a special focus on the U.S. and Chinese climate envoys.  In Hertsgaard’s analysis, the likes of Todd Stern and Jonathan Pershing over at the State Department, are a new breed of climate deniers responsible for the “disaster in Durban.”

This would be a bold take down of the Durban outcome if there was any hint of accuracy in it.  Instead, for anyone who closely follows the climate negotiations, this piece comes across as at best biased by a blind spot about the full package that moved forward at Durban, and at worst remarkably uniformed.

The fact is that not only did Durban produce a package of agreements essential for any hope of a meaningful contribution to mitigation and adaptation to climate change out of this forum, but it also avoided a disaster that would have sent this process back to where it started in 1992.

The Most Ambitious Package on the Table at Durban Came Through

Let’s face it, the UNFCCC process is one that no one in their right mind wanting to achieve an ambitious outcome would ever invent.  194 parties, sometimes acting in voting blocks, sometimes alone, all have an effective veto over every outcome, no matter how great or small.  This “consensus rule,” actually a residue of the inability of the body ever to establish voting procedures for itself, can occasional by fudged with one small party, as it was last year in Cancun, but normally exerts a choke hold on ambition.

What’s more, with the exception of the yearly president of the process – which is the host country for the annual end of the year summit – no party can simply drop new text into the meeting without an agreement on placing it on the agenda and finding a spot for it in one of the Ad-hoc Working Groups or subsidiary bodies where the various tracks of the negotiations take place at the intersessional sessions between the big meetings.

There are more examples that I could give which would make any reader’s eyes roll back.  And while I appreciate the fundamental motivation here is to work under procedures that don’t allow big powerful nations to impose their will over small weaker countries, I’m not alone in seeing the need for urgent reform of this process.

But I’d also like to see the reform of other rules governing other institutions such as the comparatively easier 60 vote threshold in the U.S. senate for considering a bill which exerts a debilitating influence on our ability to govern.  The moral demands of democratic governance demand something better just as the moral demands of the climate crisis demand a better process.  But in both cases we can’t snap our fingers and make these limitations disappear

That’s partly why the Durban outcome is remarkable.  Despite such limitations we not only got the most out of the UNFCCC that was possible to get this year, but the ambition achieved happened despite the flawed process.

Reading Hertsgaard’s column, along with many other critical pieces, you’d think that the only major thing advanced out of Durban is the thin, eight paragraph Durban Platform with its core agreement to start a new working group to create a new treaty by 2015.  If this were true then maybe Hertsgaard would be justified in writing off Durban as a failure and tarring the negotiators with the most insidious comparison one can muster in the climate community.  But fortunately that’s just not the case.

In fact three separate, substantive agreements, the first two with many moving parts, were advanced out of the Durban meeting:  First, an extension of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol set to expire in 2012, now continuing to 2020 at the latest, along with its component parts, second, and the almost universally overlooked part, the implementation instruments and revisions of the 2009 Cancun Agreements in particular the implementing agreement for the new Green Climate Fund, and third, the creation of a new Durban Platform for Enhanced Mitigation which both starts a process for a new treaty and, again often overlooked, a separate process to address the “ambition gap” between where we are now and a pathway for stabilizing temperature increase caused by anthropogenic global warming at 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels.

Because of the time tables of parts of these agreements, and the dynamics of Durban going in, all three parts of the Durban outcome had to advance in order to create a bridge to a positive, even ambitious outcome (see the figure above).  The Durban outcome keeps all three mechanisms moving forward which jointly will do more than any of them separately can do to advance an effective international climate framework.

But this bridge could have easily collapsed.  Essentially, the governing dynamic going in to the meeting which threatened the outcome involved the first pillar, the Kyoto Protocol.

With Kyoto coming to the end of its first commitment period in 2012, and Canada, Russia, Japan and other major developed parties prepared to abandon it, only the E.U. remained willing to extend it for another commitment period.  The interest in extending the protocol had little or nothing to do with emission reductions.  It had to do with satisfying the demands of a number of developing countries that if Kyoto did not continue then they would stop everything else from moving through this meeting.

All year long at the intersessional meetings following the 2010 Cancun meeting developing countries, including the big emitters like China and India, insisted that no progress was possible at Durban without an extension of the Kyoto Protocol.  The protocol is favored for a number of reasons, not least because of its Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) which has sent billions of dollars to developing countries.  In 2005 alone more than $2.5 billion dollars through more than 180 transactions flowed through this mechanism as climate finance for developing countries.  While some had opined that the CDM could continue without a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol this was far from certain.

In addition, the protocol is clearly favored by some parties because it requires emission reductions from participating developed countries but not from developing countries with a fixed definition of where each country in the world falls without any means for identifying graduation from developing country status to developed country status.  The effect has been to create a firewall between the two types of parties so that, for example, the expectation has been that no matter how big its emissions get, or how strong its economy becomes, China does not have to play by the same rules of international scrutiny as developed countries in this process.  This firewall is also the main reason the U.S. did not sign onto Kyoto.

So, the EU took a gamble to upend this system and, frankly, the rest of the world waited for them to blink.

In exchange for their commitment to keep the Kyoto Protocol going, the E.U. asked everyone else – in particular the United States, China, and India – to begin a roadmap for a process that would create a legally binding agreement on reducing emissions later in the decade for everyone.  It was also the Europeans who set a time table to produce a new agreement by 2015.

While this sounds like kicking the can down the road the timetable is aimed at addressing the looming gulf after 2020 in terms of this process.  Kyoto is only set to extend for another five years (possibly eight), and the Cancun Agreements only ask parties to submit their emission reduction plans out to 2020.  The implication of the E.U. proposal is certainly not to do nothing until 2020 but to have something teed up ready to take over when the other agreements stop in 2020 that is more ambitious than anything we have now.

Given the three or four options for some kind of outcome at Durban – including the E.U. backing down and going forward with the Kyoto Protocol without getting their new treaty process started – what was achieved was the most ambitious outcome that could be achieved.

What’s more, the other side of the outcome has to be appreciated.  Because of the timing, if China, India, and the U.S., among others, not bound by the Kyoto Protocol to reduce their emissions, had said no to this demand, then the E.U. would have said no to extending the protocol and, with almost near certainty, the entire meeting would have come to a halt.  And for reasons I will explain below, this would have not only threatened the mechanisms in the Kyoto Protocol, and the mitigation it pays for in developing countries around the world, but also the parts of the Cancun Agreements which I think are the best hope for addressing the gap between current ambition by individual countries and where we need to be by 2020 to still have the door open to a 2C pathway.  The result would be that none of the agreements or mechanisms created since the original framework convention twenty years ago would have been left standing.  This could have been the end of any hope for a comprehensive international agreement.

In this light reading Hertsgaard’s analysis, and many other critical comments on Durban, you would think there was some other achievable agreement that was on the table that could have guaranteed a path to 2C and that the U.S. and China colluded to both keep it from happening and start us down a meandering path to get something done down the road, maybe.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  For the reasons mentioned above the most ambitious proposal on the table was the E.U. bargain for continuing the Kyoto Protocol.  In addition, the South Africans had made it perfectly clear well before the meeting that they would not use their prerogative as hosts to take the reigns and craft something more ambitious than what parties had brought to the meeting as the Mexicans did last year in Cancun.

The Neglected Cancun Agreements

Reading Hertsgaard’s column, and almost everything else I’ve come across this past week, you wouldn’t even know that the Cancun Agreements exist, nor that they were also threatened by the possible collapse of talks in Durban.  Altogether they were a remarkable achievement after the outcome in Copenhagen, detailing everything parties had tried to achieve there with both more substance and successful passage through the UNFCCC consensus process.  Because the reductions pledged under the Cancun Agreements are not legally binding some find it easier to discount them and pretend that the Durban outcome leaves no agreement among the major carbon emitters in tact through this decade.

But in fact, the pledges under the Cancun Agreements give us the best picture of how we can achieve meaningful mitigation goals through this decade.  And the additional institutions created by the Cancun Agreements can be used to increase that ambition.

The mitigation targets of the Cancun Agreements began at the 2009 Copenhagen meeting, which resulted in many more parties, including all major carbon polluters, agreeing to officially submit their unilateral plans for reducing emissions by 2020.  The cumulative submissions account for over 80 percent of global emissions (dwarfing the coverage of the Kyoto Protocol).  Though not impelled by a binding instrument they are motivated by self-interest, such as saving money from improvements in efficiency or reducing dependence on imported fossil fuels, which in the end might be more important.  The reductions identified under the Cancun Agreements are more ambitious than anything legally required under the Kyoto Protocol and the agreements contain protocols for transparency and verification of these pledges not found anywhere else.

Analysis by the Center for American Progress, among others, has shown that if all of these voluntary reductions are implemented then we would achieve two-thirds of the reductions needed to end the decade to plausibly keep the door open to 2C stabilization, though of course with greater reductions needed after 2020.  But not all of those pledges are unconditional.  Some, such as approximately one-fifth of the emission reduction programs submitted by developing countries under the Cancun Agreements, are contingent on financial and technical support.  Once again an ambition gap emerges.

From the point of view of overcoming this gap the most important element of the Cancun Agreements is the creation of a Green Climate Fund.  The Green Climate Fund is tasked with mobilizing a large chunk of the promised $100 billion per year in climate financing by 2020 that was committed to originally at Copenhagen in 2009.  Aside from the obvious advantage of generating this kind of revenue for mitigation and adaptation it’s critical for overcoming the 2020 ambition gap.

The reason is that it’s the only thing that can satisfy the conditions for the full mitigation efforts offered by developing countries as part of the Cancun Agreements and potentially the key to an integrated effort to pay for additional measures out to 2020.  While the price tag for closing this gap is less than $100 billion annually it is still substantial enough.  As I argued in a recent column, it could greatly benefit from a functioning climate fund up and running as soon as possible aimed at ramping up climate finance on the way to hitting the $100 billion 2020 goal.

This is why I argued for much of the year that the most important thing that could emerge out of Durban from the point of view of reducing emissions this decade was the Green Climate Fund.  Once the fund launches it’s the only part of the Durban outcome that could be used as part of an overall effort to close the gap between the non-contingent and the contingent pledges under the Cancun Agreements as well as the gap between all of those pledges and an end to this decade with 2C stabilization still possible though of course not ensured.

Again though the timing in Durban was critical.  After Cancun, an official Transition Committee made up of 40 parties was established to create the governing instrument for the Green Climate Fund.  The committee had four meetings this past year working under the assumption that if they achieved consensus on the governing instrument then the fund would launch in 2012.  But at the last meeting of the committee in Cape Town last October the United States and Saudi Arabia blocked consensus on this critical agreement.  It took the rest of the Durban meeting for the problems raised by these parties to be resolved so the governing instrument was waiting, along with everything else in Durban, for a resolution of the grand bargain offered by the E.U. necessary to move everything forward.

Critics coming out of Durban say the fund is am empty shell since there is not yet an agreement on sourcing it.  My view is that while there is some justification for such worries no one can write a check to a fund that doesn’t exist.  It was enough to get the fund operational coming out of Durban.  Now, in addition to this year’s work of selecting a governing board and a home for the fund, decisions need to be made about sourcing the fund either through the UNFCCC or preferably other forums supported by finance ministries who will have to sign off on any plan for sourcing.  At the end of the day though that’s a better plan to have than what could have happened.  If Durban had ended with a collapse of the talks then the fund would only be a very good idea and not a reality.

The Durban Outcome

But thankfully that didn’t happen.  The whole package went through.  And while somehow the outcome is being read by Hertsgaard and others as condemning us to a future well over a 2C rise in average temperature, what it actually ensured was that those products of the framework convention that do work, and could get us through the rest of this decade on a respectable mitigation path, will continue moving forward.

In addition, as previously mentioned, the Durban Platform also includes other elements aimed at the ambition gap which critics either tend to discount to the point of not mentioning them or overlook entirely.

In the last three paragraphs of the platform the parties agree to a process that “shall raise the level of ambition” of mitigation efforts consistent with the next major report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to be released between 2013 and 2015.  As part of this process parties are asked to submit proposal for plans to increase mitigation actions by the end of February.  While I believe the Green Climate Fund still has more potential to reduce emissions this decade and close the ambition gap this new process is a positive development.

None of this ensures that this part of the international process will deliver everything it can toward 2C, or whatever the best science will reveal is possible at this juncture.  But there are six key changes in the architecture of international climate agreements that changed before and after Durban that make describing it as a “disaster” fairly absurd.

1.  Before Durban there was no second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol.  After Durban we know the protocol and its component parts will continue.  Even critics of the effectiveness of the Kyoto Protocol like me acknowledge that without a second commitment period there was a better than average chance that the institutions created as part of it like the CDM might disappear.

2.  Before Durban the new Green Climate Fund – the key to the promise to mobilize $100B annually by 2020 for mitigation and adaptation – was nothing more than a concept.  After Durban the fund is a reality and along with it other component parts of the Cancun Agreements like the new Clean Technology Center and Network.

3.  Before Durban there was not a single item in any agreement requiring parties to address the ambition gap between what they have unilaterally pledged to do to reduce their emissions out to 2020 and the reductions needed to make a 2C path plausible.  After Durban there is a work plan for addressing the ambition gap.

4.  Before Durban there was no road map for any next step out of this process to produce anything that would replace the Cancun Agreements which expire in 2020 or the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol.  After Durban there is a process to produce a legal instrument to replace both.

5.  Before Durban we could expect that this process would forever be hampered by the firewall between developed and developing countries.  After Durban that wall has been torn down.  The Durban Platform was built explicitly on the promise that the framework convention would not again produce a treaty which was not symmetrical, applying to all parties under the Convention.  As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it last week in an interview at the Newseum with Jim Leher, in discussing the impacts of the Durban decision on the U.S. relationship with China, “Our position is you’re [China] now the largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world.  We cannot act as though you are Botswana . . . or the Seychelles. . . .  you have to take responsibility.  The deal that was hammered out [in Durban]– by no means perfect . . . for the first time, end this differentiation between the developed and the developing, in terms of what we all have to do to meet this global challenge.”

6.  And finally, something I did not discuss previously in this piece, before Durban the ability of the United States to sign onto any international climate treaty coming out of this or any other international process was hamstrung by the 1997 Byrd-Hagel Resolution where the Senate stated unequivocally (95-0) that they would not even look at a climate treaty that divided the world between the responsibilities of developed and developing countries. This decision kept the Clinton administration from even trying to get the United States into the Kyoto Protocol.  After Durban this stated obstacle by the Senate has been answered because the new Durban Platform is required to produce a legal agreement that applies to all parties equally.  This does not guarantee that the United States won’t reject a future treaty for some other reason, but this resolution has cast a long shadow on what U.S. negotiators have been willing to discuss to date.

Those who claim Durban is a failure are missing the big picture.  It emerged out of an incredibly hard process with multiple trip wires for failure.  If there is going to be an international agreement (or cluster of them) that helps bend down emissions to get us to the goals we need to achieve then Durban will be seen as essential to getting there.

While we must and should continue to push on other opportunities for international cooperation to reduce our emissions – a topic of a forthcoming report I’ve been working on – Durban was a critical success at a critical time in the history of this process.

Do we need to do more?  Absolutely.

Andrew Light is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the Center for Global Ethics at George Mason University.


« »

56 Responses to Six Reasons Why the Durban Decision Matters

  1. Sailesh Rao says:

    Andrew Light is missing the point that after 17 meetings of the Conference of the Parties, global CO2 emissions have spiked up by about 50% since 1990 levels. While science is telling us that we need to shift energy usage patterns and drastically change our habits and our way of life within the next 5 years to prevent runaway catastrophes, the Durban platform simply kicked the can down the road to 2020 while being totally opaque over what actions are being contemplated. And Canada simply shredded up its commitments under Kyoto at the conclusion of the Durban meeting, thereby demonstrating the utter lack of seriousness of our world political leaders.

  2. fj says:

    not yet fully understanding the details of what seems to be an excellent post there still seems to be a distinct and substantial advantage for any or all countries unilaterally developing methods and apparatus for slowing and ultimately stopping accelerating climate change at wartime speed and restoring the environment

    the markets, applications, potential profits, & benefits are huge

  3. John McCormick says:

    fi, if you think there are advantages for any developed or undeveloped country unilaterally launching and “developing methods and apparatus for slowing and ultimately stopping accelerating climate change at wartime speed and restoring the environment” you are dreaming beyond rationale thought. And, that is fact. US and the BRICS control this problem and none, I repeat, none are imagining, contemplating or going to go unilateral.

  4. Mike Roddy says:

    Thanks for this, Andrew, but the people and processes at Durban are of less concern than the corrupt and incompetent governments they have to answer to. This means you, Canada, China, and the US. Until someone figures out a way to pressure or bypass the commercial forces that control these governments, we will continue to drift into the abyss.

  5. fj says:

    Nightmare “dreaming being rational thought” is what Shakespeare’s Hamlet does and the global and individual states of inaction in a time of extreme crisis

    Scientific rational thought tells us that things are changing as never before requiring immediate action on strategies for survival

  6. andrew light says:

    First off, we’ve known since Stephen Harper become PM of Canada that they were not going to even try to meet their targets under Kyoto. This is not news. And the fact that Canada can pull out with no pain at all shows how flawed the KP is.

    Second, of course emissions have gone up globally since the framework was created. That’s the limitation of this process so far — there was nothing in it that compelled the biggest emitters other than the EU to reduce their emissions. Durban signals a reverse of that insofar as the big polluters can’t hide behind the firewall of their status under Kyoto any longer. Should this have happened ten years ago? Yes. But since it didn’t those of us who think that part of the solution lies in an international agreement should be interested in the outcome in Durban.

  7. andrew light says:

    Mike, I completely agree that the international process doesn’t work until their is sufficient national ambition. That’s part of the reason I think all the back flips over whether the term “legally binding” or “outcome with legal force” was chosen for the final language of the Durban Platform misses the point.

    My view is that if the Green Climate Fund starts pushing substantive finance out the door in the next couple of years then the international process will have played a big role this decade (we’ll see what the future protocol looks like). If the fund languishes then the international process won’t have contributed much other than giving us a transparent picture of how far we missed the mark this decade.

  8. fj says:

    If understand what Bloomberg is starting to set up to bring solar to NYC on a massive scale, global and local health interventions, poor people first initiatives, development of local human capital, etc., these are actions of tremendous benefit.

  9. fj says:

    And, you may want to look a bit closer at L. Hunter Lovins’ & Boyd Cohen’s “Climate Capitalism”

    Amory Lovins’ & Rocky Mountain Institute’s “Reinventing Fire”

    Storm Cunningham’s “reWealth!”


  10. john atcheson says:

    I am continually surprise — and impressed — at the ability of people to find good news in our criminally slow approach to dealing with climate change. Truly. I’m in awe.

    Look, this locks us into 2+ degrees centigrade increase in temperature, assuming no feedbacks, in which case it’s more like 6.

    This article is sort of like sitting on the tracks with a locomotive barreling down on you and hearing, thinking, someday, they’ll have better brakes, instead of doing anything. Like getting up.

  11. Jeff H says:

    Wow / Disagree / Need For Big Paradigm Shift

    I appreciate the information in this post by Andrew, and all the effort that must have been involved, but I disagree with the assessment, very substantially.

    First, the entire measuring-stick being used for the assessment here, and in some other posts, is the wrong one: it’s not the REAL one that’s SUITABLE and NECESSARY for a REAL problem such as climate change. The essence of Sailesh Rao’s comment (Comment 1, above) is dead-on. When we are dealing with such things as real emissions, the real laws of nature, a real climate, real changes in climate, and the real consequences of those changes on humans and other species, the appropriate measuring-stick is NOT a “relative to” measuring-stick: measuring our progress relative to our own expectations of ourselves, relative to what the situation looked like heading into any particular meeting, or relative to what even-worse outcome might easily have happened.

    (I’ve written about this — quite clearly, I hope — in a comment responding to Robert Stavins’ post a few days ago. The comment was not accepted on ClimateProgress for some reason, but you can read it on Robert’s blog at Harvard.)

    Thus, the whole paradigm being used for assessment needs to change. The one being used here is not appropriate to the actual problem (climate change) or the actual task (facing it and addressing it) or the fact that the clock is ticking. Nature doesn’t care if we humans “beat” the expectations that we have of ourselves, or if we give each other a B+ rather than an F or A+. Nor will future generations, nor will victims of climate change, nor will other species. Get it?

    Second, the entire framework of assessment — exhibited quite clearly in the summarizing points — seems focused on Durban, the meeting. Those points all begin with “Before Durban…” and end with “After Durban…”. Here, I don’t mean that all agreements aren’t discussed: they are. And I don’t mean that some context isn’t given: some is. Instead, I mean that the frame of assessment is a very narrow one — about the two weeks of Durban — as reflected by the “Before Durban…” and “After Durban…” approach in the summarizing points. That approach misses the entire point, and indeed it misses the nature of the measuring-stick that we should be using for our assessments. It misses the big and real picture. The problem is getting worse FASTER than we are addressing it. The clock ticks. Global emissions are growing at a record pace. And so forth.

    On top of all that, even given the agreements — as words on paper — nobody in his right mind (who has been paying attention to the news recently) could possibly judge them as anything other than deeply fragile (at best) and, more likely, insincere. For example, given the way our politics and politicians are working (not working) in the U.S., can one look at agreements such as those coming out of Durban and judge them to be anything other than deeply fragile (at best), likely to be broken or undermined at some point, and subject to the whims of the powers-that-be two years from now, five years from now, or ten years from now? The only thing that can be trusted these days is meaningful ACTION — and by that I mean actual emissions reductions.

    Too, I’m astonished by the lack of criticism of the U.S. in this assessment. Any genuine assessment of the U.S. that reflects the full picture of the matter would have to support the idea that our U.S. negotiating contingent, the Obama Administration, President Obama himself, the Republicans (certainly), and (frankly) most of us deserve to have pie’s thrown in our faces at this point.

    Finally, and in any case, such assessments don’t matter nearly as much as the “what to do about it?” matters. In other words, yesterday was yesterday. So, what do Andrew, Joe, CP, and CAP suggest DOING about the present state of affairs, given Durban and all else? Do we accept and “live with” the Durban outcome? Do we demand something better — much better? And what do we DO to inject climate change much more into the present political dialogues of both parties?

    In sum, although I appreciate the information that the post provides (some of which is very helpful), I disagree almost completely with the net assessment it offers. One way to put it is this: The assessment answers the wrong question, and it also uses a measuring-stick that isn’t suitable to the nature of the actual problem.

    Be Well,


  12. john atcheson says:

    I am a big fan of RMI, but Reinventing Fire has one fundamental flaw, and it is a flaw that infects our whole economic system. To wit: that people operate as rational agents. So simply making the case, makes the good stuff happen.

    The problem with this is it ain’t so. For example, we’ve had a persistent cost-effective efficiency opportunity sitting on the shelf for over 40 years now … that is, we could cut energy use by 30% and save money, and yet we don’t do it and haven’t done it. And we won’t. Until we get government intervention on a massive scale.

    So yeah, great. A few cities do a few things. Amory points out once again that the economy is behaving irrationally, and the carbon continues to spew out in ever increasing amounts.

    Sorry to be Norman Negative, but that’s the reality.

  13. fj says:

    The reality is that we make our own reality and for insight you might consider

    James Gleick’s “The Information”

    Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow” which describes how people act as irrational agents and the ways this is remedied

  14. On a close reading, I find little-to-nothing to argue with in Hertsgaard’s piece at The Nation. It is not “biased by a blind spot,” and it is certainly not “remarkably uninformed.”

    Hertsgaard’s piece simply focuses, strongly, on a different aspect of analyzing the Durban outcome than Andrew would apparently prefer. Hertsgaard says, “the Durban deal—if left unchanged—guarantees that we will fail to reach [the goal of meeting the 2C target].”

    Indisputably true.

    Andrew says, in essence and in contrast, that Durban includes a lot of good and important stuff people worked really hard for, including a chance (with additional future efforts) to meet the goals necessary to meet the climate change mitigation challenge. Also true.

    Both of these perspectives are correct.

    What is not correct is Andrew’s kitchen sink attack on Hertsgaard and his analysis.

    Let’s disclose a this point – since it hasn’t been done earlier – that US Climate Envoy Todd Stern appears to have multiple cross-connections with the Center for American Progress:

    I’m sorry, but this – in concert with the words and tone Andrew has presented – seems to resonate with an emotional cast in Andrew’s multiple postings on the COP17 talks, where Stern is concerned, that seems as motivated by defense of the envoy, as by concern for public understanding.

    Yes, the Durban glass came out half full, and half empty.

    The half full side is right that half a glass represents real and crucial progress.

    The half empty side is right that half a glass leaves us still condemned, by the content of the agreement’s own provisions, to the thousand years of torture.

    On balance, a rational far-sighted views of this is that the Durban talks were overall, very good work, but that THEY FAILED in terms of meeting the actual, fact-based need of humanity.

    Todd Stern should say as much himself. And the Center for American Progress should stop attacking fundamental allies to try to spin up perceptions of the outcome.

    Seriously – time for a long look in the mirror. This is devastatingly important stuff.

  15. And of course, the fundamental failure of the talks, in the sense of reaching a survival threshold, does not mean that we’re done. We will keep fighting for the deeper commitments and faster time tables that could still save the ship of Earth.

    Agreeing that the Durban outcome was a half full glass, and that we need to have a full glass BEFORE 2020, are useful steps for moving onward. Can we agree on that much?

  16. Sailesh Rao says:

    Mark Hertsgaard’s viewpoint resonates with a lot of us who are interested in results as measured in substantial reductions of CO2 emissions within the next few years, and not just promises of distant, future actions, a decade or so down the road. It is true that the sabotaging of the Kyoto Protocol began well before Kyoto when President George H.W. Bush flatly asserted to the world that “the American way of life is non-negotiable.” Canada flipping the bird at the world community a few days ago is just a continuation of this uncooperative attitude. Even the emissions reductions in European nations don’t look so good under closer examination. For instance, the Global Carbon Project reports that while UK’s emissions were 14 percent below 1990 levels in 2010, emissions from the trade of goods and services grew from 5% in 1990 to 46% in 2010 overcompensating the reduction in local emissions. Emissions in the UK were 20% above their 1990 levels in 2010 when emissions from trade are taken into account.

    It is clear that the top-down political process is failing to come to grips with the seriousness of the issue. In that light, it would have been far better if the negotiators had simply thrown up their hands in Durban and admitted that they are just powerless to deal with the issue politically in the face of relentless pressure from fossil fuel interests. At least then, civil society would have a better chance to organize a grassroots approach to the problem.

    And this was what I read into Mark’s characterization of the Durban platform as a “disaster.”

  17. Leif says:

    Thank you for your insights Andrew. Commentators all. thank you as well. This all brings to mind this song and everyone take a deep breath , settle back and listen to this song by Bob Dylan from the late 60s. To quote a line: “Something is happening here and you don,t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones.”
    “Ballard of a thin man” Highway 61 Revisited. This is not the best recording perhaps someone has a better link. Lyrics are easy to find.

    This seams like such a long time ago, but many of us are still in the fight.

  18. Jeff H says:

    Suggested Reading

    Interested readers might find it helpful to read the two following assessments of Durban, which I believe better reflect the big picture in important ways, as well as my explanation at the last link.

    Article, ‘Why Is It So Easy to Save the Banks—but So Hard to Save the Biosphere’, by George Monbiot (reprinted on CommonDreams):

    Article, ‘After Durban: We Must Pull the Emergency Brake Before the 1 Per Cent Drive Us Off the Cliff’, by Derrick O’Keefe (reprinted on CommonDreams):

    My own explanation of the appropriate measuring-stick for assessing outcomes like those at Durban, and overall progress, offered in response to Robert Stavins’ recent post. His assessment and my comment, in response, can be found here at his blog at Harvard:

    Be Well,


  19. Joe Romm says:

    It ain’t a secret that Todd Stern was at CAP before he worked for Obama. See my post here.

    Andrew can speak for himself. I am a huge fan of Hertsgaard’s but thought the overall framing of his post was … unfortunate.

    There is no excuse for how this feckless administration has screwed up on climate — and for that history will certainly judge them a failure.

    But that is precisely why one can’t blame Durban for our current inaction. That rests squarely on the deniers in this country and the not-so-smart-as-we-were-led-to-believe people running China.

  20. Joe Romm says:


    Apparently you read only the Durban posts and none other. I don’t think I could have been clearer on what we should be doing. First, we need to elect people who care about the climate. Second, we need to hold accountable those who are in office and are wishy washy or worse. Third, we need to call out the media. Fourth, we need to call out the so-called intelligentsia. Fifth and Zero-th, we should organize grassroots activism a la McKibben. Sixth, and push the clean energy economy as hard as possible to public and private investment. Seventh, read Climate Progress. Eighth, speak out.

    Seriously, if you can find a major climate or energy blog that has written as extensively critiquing this administration — and countless other crucial players in this country — by all means spend your time there.

    As for your supposed the comment on Stavins blog, I can’t find it anywhere.

  21. SecularAnimist says:

    OK, my take is this:

    1. Half Full: Durban preserved and even expanded the structures, processes and mechanisms available for the nations of the world to take the coordinated, far-reaching actions needed to reduce emissions enough, and soon enough, to avoid catastrophe.

    2. Half Empty: Durban offers no reason to believe that the nations of the world WILL take the coordinated, far-reaching actions needed to reduce emissions enough, and soon enough, to avoid catastrophe; and the structures, processes and mechanisms that are now in place provide ample opportunity for the nations to evade doing so.

  22. Leif says:

    No reason except the increasingly obvious reality that we are talking survival of our species and many others as well…

    For you business leaders out there, factor that into your bottom line…

  23. Jeff H says:

    Tough Love, Leadership, and What’s Needed

    Joe, as far as I can tell, there is not a better overall climate change blog than ClimateProgress. If there were, I’d be there.

    But that does not mean that ClimateProgress is doing enough of what it COULD and SHOULD do, in my view, and what will be necessary for blogs and other media to do if we’re gonna address climate change.

    The “compared to the other guy” scale of assessment, and the “compared to the expectations that we humans have of ourselves” scale of assessment, are not the appropriate scales of assessment when it comes to a problem such as climate change. The word is ‘Leadership’ — not leadership relative to what the next guy is doing, but Leadership that is effective enough to get the damn problem addressed, period.

    My assessment is that ClimateProgress is showing some leadership, yes, but not Leadership. Of course, you aren’t God, and I’m not suggesting that you could address the problem with a wave of your hand. But you DO have the best climate blog our there — and it’s a major platform — and you DO have influence — so my point is this: I think that ClimateProgress could and should be doing more targeted things to actually bring about the sorts of things that you’ve listed here, in your response to me. ClimateProgress could be doing more concrete, tactical, targeted things to help achieve those aims.

    So, this dynamic on my part is sort of a “tough love” thing. But it’s not unreal or unimportant. The movement is not making sufficient progress — not even close! Not even remotely close!! The truth is, that leaders will have to become Leaders, in the sense of measuring their efforts against real benchmarks associated with actually tackling climate change, not merely relative to doing better than the next guy or any other “relative to” measurement.

    As for reading other posts, I don’t read all of them, of course, but I read many, and an assortment. Yet (in some cases) the messages and “take-aways” are mixed. Although you are (appropriately) critical in some posts, to some degree, the present post is essentially apologetic for the outcomes at Durban, and the net effect of such stuff is that it is appeasing, to use a word, to the lack of REAL PROGRESS against the REAL PROBLEM. Sailesh Rao’s comment is a good one. How many years have we been into this process?? And where are we? With record emissions increases, and with people starting to sense big stores of methane starting to bubble up.

    Net-net, BECAUSE of your energetic leadership of the conventional sort (with a small ‘l’), and because ClimateProgress is the best climate blog, and because you have a platform and are in Washington, and because you have a network of connections, all the more reason that you should jump to Real Leadership of the sort that Moves the Needle to the degree that it needs to be moved. Ultimately, the credibility of any effort is tied to its effectiveness. As Bob Dylan says, he not busy being born is busy dying. AS the leader with a small ‘l’, ClimateProgress will actually have to prompt effective progress, or else it will not be doing itself any favors. In other words, in the face of climate change, leaders will have to become Bold Leaders, or else they’ll lose credibility and feel pressure to step aside.

    Anyhow, that’s the essential message, I think. I applaud ClimateProgress for being better than the rest, but that’s still not nearly good enough, given the situation. There are concrete things that could be done. (I’d help too, if the sights are aimed higher.)

    Be Well,



  24. Joe, thanks for that link to your 2009 posting at the time of Todd Stern’s appointment. I think it’s is a great reference for people trying to stay grounded while sorting out Durban and what’s next.

    Many good words from the Secretary of State and the new envy in there. I’ll just quote him on this part…

    “Nor is it time for the kind of recriminations that have marred too many efforts in the past. We cannot afford that now. We should all acknowledge the good faith of those who are committed to this mission, pull our oars in the same direction, and do whatever it takes to get the job done.”

    Probably some generally good advice in general to Durban half-fullers, half-emptiers, and smash-the-glassers alike. So much better, at least 98% of the time, to attack policies and ideas, and even organizations if necessary, rather than individuals. (And such an easy habit to fall out of, in righteous passion.)

  25. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I agree with you Sailesh. Everything the global parasite elite ‘promise’ to do is writ on water. They have no intention of deviating from their prime operating principle-the maximisation of profit and the endless reproduction of capital. These Durban pledges are as worthless as scores of others made in this regard and in regard to global poverty and inequality over decades. In a few years the powers-that-be will start hedging, shifting the goal-posts and ‘re-interpreting’ their pledges. The Green Fund is a sick joke, and with the World Bank influence will be used as a cudgel to force privatisation, foreign economic penetration, ‘market disciplines’ and all the other familar evils of sado-monetarism on poor countries. The only hope of averting catastrophe is that China makes wind and solar so cheap that they spread quickly, but, as China is being sized up for a Western hit to derail its economic rise, I fear that avenue will be cut off, also. I suppose then we will be left with either Divine Intervention or the arrival of benign aliens to save us.

  26. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    John, I detect not a deficiency of rationality, but the complete absence of morality and ethical behaviour.

  27. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    If the so-called ‘Green Investment Fund’ mobilises funds to any significant degree I’ll walk backwards to Innamincka. It will, of course, be used as yet another stand-over man to force even more destructive neo-liberal economic and social sadism on poor countries, to the benefit of the global rich and local kleptocrats and compradores.

  28. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The truth of Durban, I believe, is that the reality of at least two degrees warming has been set in granite, and we are expected, on the other hand, to accept some ‘pie-in-the-sky’ ‘progress’ a few years down the road. My experience, and I doubt that I am confabulating, is that when businessmen and their political placemen promise rewards later for experiencing pain now, then they are lying, and seeking a PR solution to con the proles into acquiescence and quietness. The betrayal comes later, after a PR softening-up period, courtesy of the MSM brainwashing apparatus.Those who see through this perennial tactic, the realists, are harangued as ‘nay-sayers’ ‘negative voices’, ‘idealists’ etc, but they are almost certainly correct.
    The absolutely irreduceable bedrock truth is that the people who run this world are only interested in gain, in money, in profit and in power. Fossil fuels represent a greater concentration of these than anything else on the planet. They will not surrender that for anything, certainly not for the lives of billions of ‘useless eaters’ who they despise and fear. Harper is a prime example, and more honest and open than the rest, but they all think exactly like him. They, and they are the power on this planet, do not care what happens after they are dead. They are not so stupid as to buy the imbecilities of denialism. That is for useful idiots, who God loved so much that he made millions of them.

  29. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    What if the ‘glass’ is twice as big as it needs to be?

  30. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The O’Keefe piece is very cogent, but Monbiot nails it. The 1% and their political employees care only for money and power, even to the point of willfully destroying human civilization. We MUST be rid of them, and ensure that their type never dominates humanity again, or we will be gone. But, given their propensity and preference for open-ended violence to maintain their power, how can that ever happen?

  31. EDpeak says:


    “Saturday, 11 November, 2000, 23:55 GMT
    ‘Massive’ pollution cuts needed”

    “With the UN climate conference delegates assembling in The Hague, [Environment Minister Michael Meacher] says rich countries may have to cut pollution by around three-quarters.

    “His forecast, which he himself described as “mind-blowing”, would mean cuts in emissions of greenhouse gases about 15 times deeper than the world is planning.

    “It will be branded politically extreme, but has the backing of many scientists” BBC added.

    How about, “the vast majority of scientists” say we must cut far, far, far deeper than 5%?

    Nov 2000 article cont: “[Meacher] said: ‘Globally, emissions may have to be reduced, the scientists are telling us, by as much as 60% or 70%, with developed countries likely to have to make even bigger cuts if we’re going to allow the developing world to have their share of growing industrial prosperity'”

    “Mr Meacher said: ‘The Kyoto Protocol is only the first rather modest step. Much, much deeper emissions will be needed in future. The political implications are mind-blowing.’ Carbon emissions today are about 6 Gt annually”

    Today in 2011 we’re roughly where? 30gT CO2 or about 8Gt in carbon? so about 33% higher than back in 2000 (never mind relative 1990)?

    I can understand CP is being tactically realistic that the US is going to choose between bad and worse and it’s better to choose the lesser evil in 2012.

    Readers calling recent CP posts “apologetics” have a point too. This is beyond sad, if we look at what’s needed, beyond even “far too little” to the realm of the surreal: a promise that will not be kept most likely but a promise that, even if it were to be kept 100%, would be to START in 2020, a decade from now. Great, that’s just great…great tragicomedy for the human race.

    We need more than “leadership” or even “Leadership” We need to change the economic model away from one that depends on never-ending exponential growth.

    Monbiot reminds us that it’s silly to pretend that coal dug out of the ground will not be burned. Keep in in the ground. If you take it out, it WILL be burned.

    Similarly, it’s silly to pretend to ourselves that (as if the massive corruption and legal bribes known as campaign contributions aren’t big enough a disaster attacking prospects for better policy) if we keep the economic model, the economic systems whether USA or China’s that depends on exponential growth forever and ever, that it would, magically, by fairy dust, somehow make deep cuts

    Spare us sermons about green growth. I give those sermons too, I know them by heart, they are true…to a _limited_ extent, and in the _short_ to medium run. In the long run, the growth and profits and expansion and exponential increase in consumption and production that is at the _heart_ of the economic systems around the world, will do us in even if (by not one but several miracles) we succeed in overcoming the Koch and ExxonMobils and, and, and, ..and get a number of green-growth things running.

    If you still don’t believe the above argument in favor of a steady-state economy, go back to the basics of US politics. Imagine you’re 10 feet from a clif.

    Flip a coin every 4 years; about half the time you get heads, about half the time you get tails.

    Every time you get heads, you move 2 feets towards the cliff ; if you get tails, you more 1 foot towards the cliff (or for you pro-Democratic party fanatics, at most 1 foot away from the cliff)

    Exercise: what happens in the long run here?

    Even 2 feet to cliff, and 1 foot back, don’t cut it: you get worser and worser, to use contemporary corporate consumeric TV-isms; you go over the clif.

    New Motto:

    It’s the “Economic Model, Stupid!”

    Just environmental considerations mean that’s mandatory. There are other ones to do with democracy and with what is just.

    We need an economic model that serves people. Not one where the people (and environment) serve “it”

    “We want structures serving people, not people serving structures”
    -1968 ParisCommune graffiti

  32. I have long regarded Climate Progress as the single best source of climate news around. I find it indispensable, read it daily and recommend it to everyone.

    Nevertheless, I stand by my latest piece in The Nation. Having just read Andrew Light’s (very long-winded, overly wonkish and meandering) criticism of my piece, I strongly reject his silly assertion that I am misinformed. Rather, I would observe that Mr. Light has also been infected by what I referred to in The Nation article as the essence of the de facto denial practiced by the Climate Deniers-in-Chief: that is, confusing how politically difficult it is to reach a given agreement (such as that emerging from Durban) with how scientifically valid that agreement is.

  33. R Shamel says:

    Jeff makes some excellent points.

    This problem is getting serious enough that we should be looking for workable steps that might allow us to actually preserve a livable climate. Instead, despite all of the good intentions, we seem to be satisfied with making ‘intelligent’ comments on the way to the abyss. Is this how it all ends?

    If so, it is the mother of all tragedies of the commons: our ‘safe bet’ is to comment rather than act–it makes us feel as if we’re doing something, when we’re not.

  34. Nice to see a more nuanced response. The other point I would make in response to all the poo-pooing of the progress at Durban – that “2020 is too late to act!”
    1. it is just 8 years away, like the ETS and AB32.
    2. with a deadline, people act in advance: EU after signing Kyoto, even before 2005 (start of ETS) and California after 2006: even though AB32 was perilously close to being overturned by prop 29, and not to be implemented till 2012-2013, still drove investment in renewables in CA from 2006

    So, the certainty of international (for first time!) cuts by the 2020 deadline means there is more market certainty than there has been as the looming end of Kyoto has demoralized the world.

  35. Sailesh Rao says:

    Speaking of Divine intervention, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and 40 leaders and members of the Interfaith and Scientific community signed a two-sentence pledge in Durban as an addendum to the Interfaith Declaration on Climate Change ( The Durban pledge reads,
    “While Climate Change is a symptom, the fever that our Earth has contracted, the underlying disease is the disconnection from Creation that plagues human societies throughout our Earth. We, the undersigned, pledge to heal this disconnection by promoting and exemplifying compassion for all Creation in all our actions.”
    Ela Gandhi, the granddaughter of Mahatma Gandhi, also signed the pledge and handed the signed declaration to Christiana Figueres at a press event, which can be seen in two parts at
    I don’t think the mainstream press or the major blogs picked up on this signing.

  36. andrew light says:

    Again, you can only say that what happened in Durban is kicking the can down the road a decade if you ignore the Cancun Agreements entirely. We won’t know their full impact until 2020 but the thing to watch now is how much each country tries to achieve its stated policy goals until then. Given where the numbers are with respect to global emissions what you’d want to see is some slowing as electricity capacity increases though not an absolute bend yet given overall emissions.

    I suppose the negotiators could have just given up and gone up, killing off the billions of dollars that flows through the CDM which pays for something other than carbon based power in developing countries and no to the Green Climate Fund which should get even more funding into the system. To my mind though that would be worth the tag “disaster.”

  37. andrew light says:

    The idea that what happened at Durban locks us into any temperature future is at odds with physical reality.

    Nothing at Durban determined an emissions pathway for anyone through the rest of this century. It reaffirmed the global efforts out to 2020, and 2020 only (including the EU since they’re second commitment KP commitment will be the same as their current commitment under the Cancun Agreements), provided a strengthened mechanism to measure and verify steps toward meeting those commitments, and launched a mechanism to help pay for those commitments moving forward. Since the agreement to start a process for a post-2020 agreement was just launched at Durban we don’t know what kind of aspiration the parties will have in place post-2020. So since the overall Durban package at this point only puts numbers on the table out to 2020 how could it be physically possible that anything happening there locks us into any future?

  38. andrew light says:

    Thanks Jeff. All I was trying to provide here was an assessment of the Durban outcome in the context of what was possible to achieve at Durban. Taking a step backward is it enough? Certainly not. But where were all the criticisms of the Durban agenda prior to the meeting? What was on the table was clear enough to anyone who bothered to look at it. What’s surprising to me is all the high handed moralistic criticism after the fact.

    I’ll only comment on the last two points you make.

    (1) What did the US do at the meeting that held up some better outcome? At the end of the day the only thing the EU didn’t get that they asked for is the term “develop a legally binding agreement” in the Durban Platform and instead got “develop a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force.” Since the former is a subset of the latter, and since nothing in the Platform directs what the ambition will be for the 2015 agreement the difference here means absolutely nothing from the bigger perspective you’re talking about. If you want to push that as a reason the meeting failed then there is plenty of blame for the US to share with China and India.

    (2) As to what we’ll do, you can read my other posts linked to in this piece but it’s to do whatever we can do to close what we identify as the mitigation gap out to 2020. We’ll say something about the future treaty their working about but our priority is to get the Green Climate Fund sourced and moving sufficient capital around the world to pay to for the contingent Copehnhagen pledges and what needs to happen between all those pledges and ending the decade with 2C still a possibility but with much more work to do be done. We’ll also focus on getting additional reductions from non-UNFCCC forums given the limitations of this process.

  39. andrew light says:

    It’s no surprise Todd Stern was a part time Senior Fellow at CAP before he went to the State Department. No investigative reporting is needed to demonstrate that point. He left before I started though so I’ve never personally worked with him.

    Again, you can read Hertsgaard and not know that the Cancun Agreements exist and were a major part of the outcome at Durban, and, indeed, the only part of the outcome that speaks to anything on the order of meaningful emission reductions out to 2020. So, since Hertsggard doesn’t mention them at all he either (a) doesn’t know they exist (so he’s uninformed) or (b) thinks they don’t matter (so he has a blind spot to them). What other choice is there?

  40. andrew light says:

    I’m completely sympathetic with the half empty take. Because this is a year by year, inch by inch fight anyone interested in getting the best out of this forum needs to put the pressure on these parties well before these gig climate summits at the end of every year.

  41. andrew light says:

    One more thought on this one. What’s weird to me is that there are lots of groups at these meetings — and the clearest examples of this were at Durban and Cancun — who slam the US during the meeting for any indication they are going to say no to the most ambitious deal on the table at the end of the meeting and then when the agreement comes together turn around and decry the ultimate agreement as being inconsequential, bad for the planet, etc.? I just don’t understand why some folks would work so hard to push the US to say yes to something they think in the end doesn’t matter.

  42. andrew light says:

    This is a nice quip by Hertsgaard but I don’t see anything in this broadside that diminishes any of my analysis or mitigates my conclusions. I’ll admit to being long winded. It’s one of the reasons I’m not a professional journalist. But one would think that even if Hertsgaard was going to discount the Cancun Agreements as part of some “infection” that they’d be worth mentioning in one sentence if only to discount them.

  43. Sailesh Rao says:

    “It is no use saying, ‘We are doing our best.’ You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary” – WInston Churchill.

    I respectfully disagree that the Durban Platform succeeded in doing what is necessary.

  44. Sailesh Rao says:

    There were many people I met at Durban, especially young kids, who seemed to be ashamed to be either Canadian or American. It was truly heart breaking.

    We can’t expect rationality in the midst of so much grief.

  45. Jeff H says:

    Thanks Roger. And you hit a nail on the head in this statement: “… despite all of the good intentions, we seem to be satisfied with making ‘intelligent’ comments on the way to the abyss. Is this how it all ends?”

    I think the role of the web, and specifically of ClimateProgress, could and should be revisited — *partly*, in terms of emphases.

    Information is crucial. Being informed is vital. So the information-providing role is one key. No doubt about it. ClimateProgress provides a great deal of very helpful information.

    But as a communications platform, and a very intelligent one, ClimateProgress could go much further in a few crucial areas. For example, ClimateProgress could, periodically, make direct appeals to, and requests of, specific people — movers and shakers, potential movers and shakers, fence-sitters who really ought to be doing something, and so forth. ClimateProgress could make credible, targeted public requests (to specific people and organizations) and (where need be) professional yet pointed prompts. ClimateProgress could also carry more posts that facilitate action, including responsible activism. And so forth.

    Here, I’m talking about matters of degree, mix, and emphasis. A modest but vital and energetic shift to include (in addition to the present mix) more of the sort of information that requests action, prompts action, and facilitates action.

    And, there need be no conflict between that shift and the supposed aim of ClimateProgress: to facilitate and help bring about real progress in addressing climate change.

    It’s not that we have too much information: it’s that we have far too little action. Informative and seemingly intelligent assessments of single meetings, such as this one of Durban, that “intelligently” assess them as “not all that bad, given the human condition”, are NOT going to get us to where we need to be.

    Anyhow, thanks for the comment, Roger.

    Be Well,


  46. Jeff H says:

    Andrew, thanks for your comment (and for the original post as well), but we seem to be getting far removed from the Real Big Picture. We have a big problem, climate change. The U.S. is falling far, far short of its responsibilities to itself and to humankind, to the point of immense irresponsibility, un-wisdom, and immorality. One of the chief reasons why the going-in expectations for Durban were so low is the fact that the U.S. has been behaving so abysmally, yes? So now we pat ourselves on the back because we didn’t do anything (during the two-week meeting) to diminish the achievement of those low expectations, even though the actual problem is getting worse and our own behaviors are continually irresponsible?

    Imagine a child who has created a very messy room: toys all over, broken furniture, spilled food, dirt, and so forth. A real mess. With one arm, he continues to throw things around, adding to the mess. When his mom asks him to clean up the room — i.e., what he should do — he says with his mouth: “you should not expect me to do anything more than pick up two toys”. Then, he beats those expectations, by picking up three toys. “Look ma, I beat expectations.” Meanwhile, with his other arm, he continues to add to the mess in the rest of the room.

    We are that child. And the means of assessment you are using here, as far as i can tell, are akin to saying that the expectation was two toys and that the child didn’t derail the picking up of two toys, and perhaps even picked up a third. The reality is this: the whole room is a mess, the child has a great deal of responsibility for that mess, the child’s poor behavior is WHY the expectation (of picking up two toys) is so darn low, and the only thing that really happened, apparently, is that the child didn’t undermine the achievement of deeply insufficient expectations that he, himself, caused to be deeply insufficient, given the entire context and history.

    It would be impossible to reconcile a positive “grade” for the whole process, including Durban, with the reality of where we are today. It would be impossible to give the U.S. a good grade for whatever it did (not much) and didn’t do (apparently we didn’t do anything to derail the achievement of an insufficient aim) at Durban, all things considered.

    Andrew, I do appreciate your thoughts, but I have the impression (and I’m sorry if it’s an incorrect one) that you are trying to defend what is, in the big picture of things, indefensible. We should be shouting from the rooftops by now, and more, not handing out passing grades on the basis that we did not (this time) derail the achievement of dismally low and insufficient expectations that we ourselves caused to be dismally low in the first place, given the long history and all things considered.

    Be Well,


  47. Adam Gallon says:

    India kicks the can firmly off the path.
    “India has always taken a stand that India cannot agree to a legally binding agreement for emissions reduction at this stage of our development. Our emissions are bound to grow as we have to ensure our social and economic development and fulfill the imperative of poverty eradication.”

  48. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    andrew, I’ll bet you that the ‘Cancun Agreements’ will be ignored by the rich Western powers, under the control of the fossil fuel kakistos, will be unrealised by the poor world because the Green Development Fund will turn out a fraud and just another World Bank controlled tool to be used to bludgeon them into submission to the West, and will probably be observed, probably over-achieved, by the Chinese and, perhaps, some others. In toto, a probable 80% fail. Just a prediction, of course, and, naturally, I hope I’m wrong, but I’m constitutionally disinclined to believe in miracles.

  49. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    No, no-that’s good. They obviously have moral consciences, and if they can free themselves from the lifetime of jingoistic brainwashing that Americans endure, and identify with humanity as a whole, then they will be not only more successful, but also, I believe, happier for it. Narrow nationalism, chauvinism and xenophobia have always been used by ‘Them’ to keep the 99.9% under control.

  50. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The infinitely avaricious and corrupt Indian kleptocracy isn’t interested in ‘poverty eradication’. In fact poverty and inequality are growing like topsy in India. They are interested in growth to feed the huge fortunes of the rich.

  51. john atcheson says:


    Let’s assume that we get business as usual until 2020, then get an agreement with binding caps that begin to cut into the status quo in 5 years.

    Let’s also assume no feedbacks (an extraordinarily optimistic assumption, given that methane releases from the arctic have been rising for the last 5 years and NASA projects they’ll accelerate. But hey, let’s be conservative.

    We are now increasing the atmospheric concentration of CO2 by 2ppm per year, and that will likely rise, since CO2 emissions are on the rise.

    So, let’s say were going to get a 2.5 ppm increase per year for the next 14 years — or an increase of 31ppm.

    Now that puts us well into the range which is expected to get us to more than 2C, and the latest research suggests that’s a catastrophe.

    It’s pretty simple. Failing to take decisive action now, spells disaster.

    And that’s assuming a relatively slow increase in GHG emissions and no feedbacks.

    Given the rise in GHG emissions last year, that’s probably unrealistic.

    We’re way beyond skating on thin ice here. We’ve hit the open water.

    As I said, I admire your optimism, and I wish I could share it. Doom and gloom isn’t much fun for me, although some seem to enjoy it.

    But I’ve been in the energy/environmental field for nearly 40 years, and it’s rare that folks act outside the context of mandatory requirements.

    Hoping they do while denying the consequences of our irresponsibility, and praying for people to suddenly start acting like the neoclassical economist’s ecohomus after failing to do so for most of our recorded history hardly seems prudent.

  52. john atcheson says:

    Whoops — 35 ppm … not 31. All the worse.

  53. john atcheson says:


    Interesting you cite the behavioral economists — my point exactly. We aren’t perfectly rational agents acting as neoclassical economists say we do.

    We are subject to all manner of irrational motivations — technological lockin, gambler’s fallacy etc.

    So betting — as RMI does — that something will happen because it’s the most rational path is just another kind of delusion.

  54. Sailesh Rao says:

    Andrew, you frame this as a year-by-year, inch-by-inch fight because you seem to have bought into the story that this is a battle between the developed countries and the developing countries as to who will do how much to clean up the mess that we’ve all created in the environment. Let us, for the moment, leave aside who really created the mess in the first place.

    Many of us see this as a battle between the fossil fuel interests and other major economic interests on the one hand and humanity as a proxy for the Biosphere on the other hand – over Existence. We recognize that the same economic interests have global reach and have co-opted the politicians of most nations. We have witnessed the alacrity with which our politicians doled out trillions to bail out the banks, while they are yet to fill up the Green Climate fund. We keep waiting for our politicians to screw up the courage to fight on behalf of Life on Earth, but we haven’t seen it yet. As such, we see the Durban Platform as the equivalent of the 1938 Munich accord and the year-by-year, inch-by-inch framing of the UN process as a Neville Chamberlain style appeasement.

    I hope that clears things up a little. Thanks for engaging in this discussion.

  55. Richard Laverack says:

    Thank you for the article Andrew, I “tuned in” to the COP 17 live feeds and got very involved with proceedings from Wednesday in the final week.
    I think when the alternatives are considered, (back to 1992) I am pleased with the outcome. The precursor to anything happening is to get it written down on paper and signed off, having the same script is a REALLY important part of the process which it appears is not appreciated by many commentators. Of course I am not pleased with the individual emissions reductions targets of the participating nations.
    Like Susan Kraemer I think this timeline will give business no excuses to ignore the future direction of alternative power generation and given the “global agreement”, nowhere to look that isn’t a signatory to the process.
    I also think it is worth looking at the Montreal Protocol which began in 1974 and was not finalised (?) until 1999. This is regarded as “success” and yet we are still messing about with HFC’s which are still being produced and used in developing countries. The “successful” outcome means that the ozone layer “should” start to repair itself by 2050 that is if we haven’t altered the climate so much that upper atmosphere cold air currents are irreversibly damaged – what a win. I think the game changer will be when Obama lines up with the environment for next years election !!!

  56. Donald Brown says:

    I very much appreciate this discussion and believe although there is a need to identify small positive baby steps taken at Durban (Andrew’s analysis) there is also a need to educate the American people not only about the tragic failure of UNFCCC to achieve agreements in any way close to what science is saying is needed to avert potentially catastrophic climate change but how the US government’s behavior in the negotiations have been very responsible for what was politically possible going into Durban. That is, it is very important to educate the American people about how destructive the US role has been for almost 22 years in the UNFCCC negotiations. Although Andrew quite appropriately points to what was politically possible in Durban and then compares the politically possible with what was achieved, what was politically possible has been affected by the failure of the United States to adopt meaningful ghg emissions targets and the failure to participate in the Kyoto deal. The UNFCCC negotiations from Bali to Durban were plagued by the US unwillingness to make a commitment under Kyoto. (From Obama’s point of view the US joining Kyoto was not politically feasible)Now it is true that the Obama administration calculated its position in light of what was politically possible in the United States, yet what was politically possible in the United States is likely to be a disaster for the rest of the world. And so those of us who live in the Untied States have a duty, in my view, to help Americans understand how destructive the US position has been for now over two decades. And so, even if one agrees that one can look at the outcome of Durban in light of either a positive (half-full) outcome, or a much more pessimistic (half-empty) analysis, this distinction makes sense only in light of what was politically possible. Yet what was politically possible has been affected by the US political intransigence. For these reasons, one cannot evaluate Durban without reference to the success of those who have been opposing meaningful climate action in the United States for two decades.