The climate conference in Cancun was a turning point for the world’s greens. There were two possible outcomes. One was a total political meltdown in Cancun that would have been hideously embarrassing in the short run but that in the long term would have cleared the way for more hopeful approaches to carbon issues. The other was a cobbled together pseudo-deal of some kind that would have avoided short term embarrassment but over the long run would doom the greens to a future of frustration and futility.
Outcome one would have helped the planet; outcome two helps the bureaucratic rent seekers and process junkies of the world’s diplomatic establishment.
Guess who won?
As green negotiators in Cancun ended their embarrassing two-week junket (videos of partying bureaucrats did not go down well with voters in a northern hemisphere freezing in an early winter), it’s clear that the bureaucrats did what bureaucrats do: they kept a ‘process’ (job-creating bureaucratic gravy train) alive while doing little or nothing about the problem they were supposed to solve.
A scene from the recent UN climate change conference in Cancun, Mexico (UN)
The essence of the non-deal deal reached at Cancun: Japan, Russia and other countries sick and tired of the idiocies of the Kyoto Protocol agree to say nothing that prevents other countries from pretending that the Kyoto Protocol lives; advanced industrial countries agree to keep discussing the fantasy that by 2020 they will be collectively shipping $100 billion a year to developing countries; developing countries agree to pretend to believe this will happen; countries agree to continue making laughably inadequate and also non-binding ‘pledges’ on carbon emissions; and everyone agrees not to think about the reality that pigs will fly before a treaty embodying any of these ideas will be ratified by the US Senate.
From a green true believer’s point of view this is less than zero. If everybody lives up to the pledges made to date, the earth will, according to the scientists involved in the process, warm by more than 4 degrees centigrade instead of the 2 degree target. And the pledges, weak and symbolic as they are, have unsustainable conditions attached to them. Without that $100 billion in aid, no developing country will feel bound by its pledge and there is no shadow of an agreement on which rich countries will stump up how much, how this mythical pie will be divided, much less on ways to keep international bad actors and rogue states (North Korea, Iran, Sudan, you name it) from getting their hands on the cash.
But no matter: for the bureaucrats and NGO staff it’s a clear and resounding win. The mice have unanimously voted to keep meeting at taxpayers’ expense until someone bells that pesky cat. The UN process has kept just enough diplomatic credibility to make several new rounds of vast, unfocused global gabfests of bureaucrats and NGO administrators inevitable. More pre-meeting meetings will be held; more secretariats will employ new staff; more non-papers will be circulated, marked up and revised. Paychecks will be mailed; travel vouchers issued. Life will be good.
Christiana Figueres and Ban Ki moon in Cancun (UN)
It’s probably a win for the Obama administration, too. For now, the President got the green monkey off his back. President Obama hasn’t delivered cap and trade or a carbon tax to his green backers, and the early signs are that the EPA is backing off from fights with the Republicans in Congress — but Cancun didn’t collapse into complete and utter chaos, so the President can, just, argue that his administration is keeping green hopes alive.
Next to the bureaucrats and the White House, the real winners are the climate change skeptics. If you think that climate change is a myth or a naturally occurring phenomenon, Cancun helped you out. The UN process of endlessly negotiating a treaty which will either be so weak it is pointless or so controversial the US Senate will never ratify it (and will quite possibly be both) consumes time, money, energy and political capital that would otherwise go towards green efforts that might actually accomplish something.
The “success” of Cancun is a best case scenario from the skeptic’s point of view. The cost of funding endless UN gabfests in exotic tourist locations (next up: South Africa in 2012) is trivial compared to the cost of any serious efforts to deal with carbon emissions on the scale current scientific theory suggests would be needed. Bureaucrats will dance, journalists will spin and carbon will spew, and the greens will be unable to escape this dysfunctional UN process for years and maybe decades to come. More, the fact that axis of ankle-biter countries like Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia use these conferences to flaunt their anti-American credentials — and seek to maximize their influence by threatening to veto the proceedings — ensures that both this process and anything it produces will be unpopular in the US. The more that the radical anti-American gasbags get mixed up in this process, the easier it will be to find 34 senators ready to kill a climate treaty. If you are a climate skeptic, a global warming hand-off to the UN is the best thing since the Hummer.
No sane green would want this result, but the greens have run up against a force stronger than climate change, more insidious than the desertification of the Sahel, more inexorable than the rising of the seas: the bureaucratic instinct for process. Processes and institutions once initiated cannot be allowed to die.
The news reports on the conference are visibly torn. On the one hand, reporters know that at the level of substance this is a complete travesty and a rout. A facade of agreement was carefully constructed by relentlessly sacrificing substance from the various texts. And as loyal spear carriers for the movement, many reporters want to make this point.
But too much emphasis on the utterly empty nature of the ‘accords’ would be, well, defeatist. It would suggest that the noble greens are failing to save the planet, that their chosen course is disastrous and that the entire global green agenda is utopian. That cannot be allowed.
Also, even the most servile lapdogs of the press are bound by certain narrative conventions. There has to be a story. “Thousands of bureaucrats swill canapes, agree to swill more next year” is not news. “Greens fobbed off with empty words,” would be a story, but not the kind of story the press wants to tell.
So what we have now is a rash of stories to tell us first that a great victory has been won. Agreement has been snatched from the jaws of failure; creative diplomats resolve seemingly unbridgeable gaps! Delegates applaud chair as harmony reigns! All those naysayers and prophets of doom were wrong: the process worked!
As the AP headline puts it, “UN Climate Meeting OKs Green Fund in New Accord.” Only in the body of the story do we learn that “The Cancun Agreements created institutions for delivering technology and funding to poorer countries, though they did not say where the funding would come from.” [Italics added by your humble blogger] The lack of specificity on funding is no doubt a minor detail: with mobs rioting in half the capitals of Europe against government funding cutbacks and Tea Party Republicans fixing to take over the US House of Representatives as our deficits skyrocket, funding large new foreign aid programs should not be a problem.
The New York Times turns up the volume: it is more critical than the AP about the lack of substance, but hails these confessedly vapid agreements as glorious vindications of the wisdom of the greens and pours scorn on those foolish critics who prophesied that nothing serious would come from Cancun.
“In all, the success of the talks was a breath of life for a process that many had declared too cumbersome and contentious to achieve meaningful progress,” asserted the Times, citing the head of climate and energy programs at the World Resources Institute who said: “‘This agreement was a remarkable turnaround for a multilateral approach to address climate change, including commitments on emissions from all the world’s major economies.”
Yet the Times did better than many of its colleagues; although the second graph of the story is heavy on the official optimism, a sharp eyed reader can infer what actually happened behind the veil: “Although the steps were fairly modest and do not require the broad changes that scientists say are needed to avoid dangerous climate change, the result was a major step forward for a process that has stumbled badly in recent years.” Further below, it allows Jennifer Morgan, the WRI official quoted in the story, to make a couple more crucial points: “But she said the nations left many issues unresolved, including whether to seek to enshrine the goals into a legally-binding agreement and the sources of the $100 billion in annual climate-related aid that the wealthy nations have promised to provide.”
A genuinely journalistic account of the conference would have highlighted the way Cancun tied the green agenda ever more firmly to a dysfunctional process, and noted more clearly that the $100 billion aid pledge is one of a long list of aid pledges that the rich countries keep making — but which are almost never kept. It would have compared this pledge, for example, to the solemn and frequently repeated pledges made starting in 1970 to raise foreign aid to 0.7% of GDP among rich countries and to the declarations of various summits on aid for Africa and the much ballyhooed UN Millennium Development Goals.
Forty years after that historic pledge to pay 0.7% of GDP for ODA (Overseas Development Assistance) only 5 (small) members of the rich-nation OECD club have reached this goal. The big economies — Japan, the US, Germany — are nowhere near.
More recently, at the Gleneagles Summit of the G-8 countries in 2005, the attendees swore an oath of mickle might to double their aid by 2010 including $25 billion per year in new aid to sub-Saharan Africa. The invaluable Financial Times reports on how that had worked out by the time the target date came around:
The Gleneagles declaration by the Group of Eight in July 2005 to double aid to Africa by 2010 shows the dangers of making specific pledges, writes Chris Giles in London.Now the deadline is due, aid to Africa has not doubled from $25bn in 2004 to $50bn in 2010 and the OECD estimates donor nations will fall $14bn short.
For years after 2005 the G8 ritually repeated the Gleneagles pledge. Even in 2009, when the target was almost certain to be missed, the G8 leaders reiterated “the importance of fulfilling our commitments to increase aid made at Gleneagles”.
But once it became clear the target was going to be missed, the G8 had to backtrack. At the Muskoka summit in June, any mention of Gleneagles was deleted, to the disgust of aid agencies. After this, a new focus without specific targets will be warmly received in many quarters.
Is there anybody on planet earth who thinks that $100 billion is going to be paid? The point is that all the “concessions” by developing countries are contingent on the satisfactory payment of the full $100 billion in “pledges” by the rich ones.
Next year: Durban (UN)
The news at Cancun is that the global green agenda has now turned into one of these endlessly running UN catfights in which developing countries try to guilt-trip rich countries out of money which their corrupt and inefficient bureaucracies often squander (if the corrupt leaders don’t steal it first). The rich countries fob off the third world guilt trippers and their clueless but noisy NGO allies in the advanced countries with hollow promises. These processes usually grind on pointlessly for decades (keeping NGO staff and diplomats gainfully if not usefully employed) with astonishingly little impact on real world events.
That is the big news out of Cancun; the green agenda has fallen into a UN black hole and for now at least it cannot get out.