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Prevailing Disaster

Hopes for a new climate treaty grow dimmer, even in the face of extreme weather events

by Cheryl Hogue
August 23, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 34

Credit: National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration
Soot (shown in false-color orange) from wildfires filled the air over Russia in early August as negotiators hashed over what countries should do about global warming.
Credit: National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration
Soot (shown in false-color orange) from wildfires filled the air over Russia in early August as negotiators hashed over what countries should do about global warming.

An ice chunk four times the size of Manhattan broke off a Greenland glacier earlier this month. Meanwhile, Russia battled drought and wildfires while sweltering in record heat that claimed thousands of lives. Flooding began to displace tens of millions of Pakistanis. The eastern U.S. chalked up record numbers of high-temperature days. All of these events are extreme—they compare with or exceed previous records for intensity, duration, or geographic extent, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) says.

What is striking is that these extreme events happened essentially simultaneously. This suggests they might be caused at least in part by human-induced climate change, according to WMO. “The occurrence of all these events at almost the same time raises questions about their possible linkages to the predicted increase in intensity and frequency of extreme events” because of global warming, the organization said in a statement.

However, the recent heat waves, flooding, and shrinking glacier added no urgency to international negotiations aimed at curbing the world’s growing emissions of greenhouse gases.

While Russian forests burned, climate negotiators gathered in an air-conditioned hotel in Bonn. The Aug. 2–6 United Nations talks did not go well. The outlook is gloomy for a new global climate treaty.

“These negotiations have, if anything, gone backwards,” said Connie Hedegaard, the European Union commissioner for climate action, at the close of the meeting.

This backtracking is a result of a trend that started last year, when international momentum for a new climate treaty began to falter (C&EN, Nov. 9, 2009, page 37). Discussions were supposed to culminate in a new, legally binding global-warming treaty at a December 2009 summit in Copenhagen. But negotiations stalled. In an eleventh-hour move, President Barack Obama convened closed-door gatherings with a number of world leaders in the Danish capital. They emerged with a political deal, the Copenhagen Accord.

The nonbinding deal sets the target of keeping the global average rise in temperature to 2 °C when compared with preindustrial levels. Also, industrialized nations agreed to provide $30 billion per year from 2010 to 2012 to aid developing countries in adapting to and mitigating climate change. The amount would increase to $100 billion by 2020. The accord lacks specifics on how countries will meet these goals. Not all countries of the world subscribe to the Copenhagen Accord, and some, including Bolivia and Venezuela, actively oppose it.

Countries are still trying to forge a legally binding climate treaty, a task they’ve toiled at since 2008. Negotiators are trying to craft an agreement that includes the U.S., historically the largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Other industrialized countries are curbing their releases under the Kyoto protocol, a 1997 agreement that the U.S. rejected. The talks are also seeking to include emissions restraints for the world’s largest emerging economies—Brazil, China, India, and South Africa—that are rapidly increasing their releases of greenhouse gases.

Adding pressure to the talks is a deadline: Dec. 31, 2012. That’s the day industrialized countries’ current emissions-cutting obligations under the Kyoto protocol expire. Negotiators have sought to ensure that there is no time gap between when these requirements expire and when a new treaty kicks in.

Earlier this year, diplomats picked up where they left off in Copenhagen. At first, they aimed at finishing the new agreement by the end of this year, at a major climate-change conference in Cancún, Mexico.

But when the recent meeting in Bonn ended, negotiators expressed their pessimism about wrapping up the talks at the meeting in Mexico.

“While I came to Bonn hopeful that we would make significant strides toward a deal in Cancún, at this point I’m very concerned,” said Jonathan Pershing, U.S. special envoy for climate change. “Some countries are walking back from the progress made in Copenhagen and what was agreed there,” said Pershing, who headed the U.S. delegation at the recent Bonn meeting. He declined to name the countries that are retreating because these discussions took place behind closed doors.

In the talks, developing countries are pressing the industrialized world to make good on its Copenhagen Accord pledge to supply climate-related financial assistance. Their negotiators are hunkering down, waiting for industrialized nations to act, said Raman Mehta of ActionAid India, an environmental group.

The EU, which is abiding by the Kyoto protocol, said it will not sign up for more greenhouse gas cuts unless the U.S. agrees to binding reductions. The EU is willing to wait, even if it means a time gap between the end of the protocol’s current obligations and the start of new ones.

“It’s not the end of the world if there’s a short gap,” said Peter Wittoeck, who represented the EU’s Belgian presidency in Bonn.

The U.S., meanwhile, won’t consent to reduce its emissions unless major emerging economies agree to constrain theirs (C&EN, Jan. 11, page 27).

But many developing countries, including the emerging economies, are skeptical that the U.S. is actually serious about curbing its greenhouse gases. The perception, said Dessima M. Williams, permanent representative of Grenada to the UN, is that “nothing will result because the U.S. is not legislatively on board.” Williams, who spoke at the meeting on behalf of the Alliance of Small Island States, a group of island nations, refers to the stalemate in the U.S. Congress over energy and climate legislation.

The House of Representatives last year passed a bill to cap domestic greenhouse gas releases and create an emissions trading system. Efforts on cap-and-trade faltered this year in the Senate, although lawmakers there have made efforts on broader energy legislation. Earlier this summer, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) pulled the plug on an energy bill. But he recently said the Senate will take up the legislation before the end of the year (C&EN, Aug. 2, page 12). Pershing, the U.S. negotiator, stressed that the Obama Administration remains committed to energy and climate legislation.

In the meantime, the Obama Administration is working to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. U.S. negotiators say this action demonstrates that the U.S. is serious about controlling its emissions. However, these hotly contested emissions-curbing rules will likely be in limbo for years as legal challenges to them wend their way through federal courts. Many countries remain unimpressed by these regulatory efforts.

To help move the talks forward, Christiana Figueres, the UN’s top climate-change official, is suggesting that negotiators seek a modest outcome in Cancún. “Countries could agree to take accountable action,” she said. This could include industrialized nations deploying financial assistance to developing countries, boosting technology transfer, and helping the developing world adapt to changes in climate, especially the poorest and most vulnerable countries, she said.

Governments need to strike compromises on these issues before the Cancún meeting, Figueres said. There are opportunities to do so. High-level discussions on climate change are scheduled in September in Geneva and New York. Negotiators will gather in Tianjin, China, in October, before the Cancún conference, which runs from Nov. 29 to Dec. 10.

Since the Bonn talks, the record heat in Russia and the eastern U.S. has abated. Waters receded in Pakistan and the country is contending with the flood’s aftermath. The new ice island floats free off Greenland. Time will tell whether the climate-change diplomacy improves.


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