Waiting for Obama: Hope Not Enough in Battle against Climate Change

A Commentary by Oliver Geden

In the search for a negotiated agreement to combat global climate change, US domestic politics play an outsized role. But even if President Barack Obama unexpectedly pushes emissions reduction legislation through Congress, the resulting treaty would still have to be ratified. Such a process would take too much time -- and it is time we don't have.

Climate conference attendees in Doha on Monday. Zoom

Climate conference attendees in Doha on Monday.

Two decades after the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, international climate policy remains an unfulfilled promise. Since the adoption of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992, global greenhouse gas emissions have risen by one-third. In light of these sobering figures, it is astonishing to find that the principle of hope still prevails in climate policy.

At last year's climate summit in Durban, 194 states once again agreed to make everything better in the future. Europeans succeeded in pushing through a schedule for negotiations intended ultimately to produce a comprehensive and ambitious world climate agreement. The Durban declarations envisaged the adoption of a global climate treaty by the end of 2015 and its entry into force in 2020. It would include reduction targets for countries that had previously blocked international climate protection agreements, such as India, China, and the USA, and a 2 degree Celsius limit on the global temperature increase. But at the beginning of the 2012 climate summit in Doha/Qatar, it is already clear that this plan will fail.

One of the most serious weaknesses of the negotiation process is the overdependence on US domestic politics. Despite President Barack Obama's re-election, fundamental change is not about to come. The president is likely to maintain his previous position: that the US will only be able to commit to emissions reductions in the UN context after the level of these commitments has been set down in national climate legislation. In 2010, an attempt to pass such a law failed despite a comfortable Democratic majority in both chambers of Congress.

Waiting in Vain

At the present moment, it is almost inconceivable that a renewed legislative effort could achieve a successful outcome. Despite losing the presidential election, Republicans defended their majority in the House of Representatives. And the issue of climate change remains one of the major dividing lines in US politics, a constellation largely unaffected by Hurricane Sandy. But even if the US government should, contrary to all expectations, agree to a comprehensive global treaty in 2015, the world would still be faced with a ratification marathon that would last at least five years. And at that point, if a two-thirds majority cannot be reached to ratify the agreement in the US Senate, all the waiting will have been in vain.

Even under the optimistic assumptions that a comprehensive global climate treaty can be concluded and ratified by 2020 and that the signatory states will feel bound to comply with it over the long term, the central objective of international climate policy is still destined to fail. Limiting the global temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius would already require decreasing global greenhouse gas emissions by 15 percent over the next eight years, before having to implement even more dramatic reductions in 2020 and adhere to them consistently for decades.

The current trend in global emissions points in the opposite direction. And the current negotiation roadmap is not creating incentives for emissions reductions. While waiting for UN summits to produce a "grand solution", many governments and companies will use the absence of a global treaty as a convenient excuse to justify their lack of ambition. Should the decisive world climate conference in 2015 fail, then political consequences will be far-reaching. Willingness to pursue global cooperation will decline drastically. Merely adapting to the inevitable could become the dominant strategy. The US and China would be encouraged to focus on methods of technical climate manipulation, the approach of geo-engineering.

Dubious Hopes of an Epochal Breakthrough

Europe cannot have any interest in this outcome, since it would mean losing its edge in the development of low-emissions technologies. It would therefore be very risky to tie the EU's climate policy to dubious hopes of an epochal breakthrough in international climate negotiations.

What is needed now is a new sense of pragmatism. Europeans are faced, first and foremost, with the practical task of demonstrating that a de-carbonization strategy is indeed technologically and economically feasible under present-day conditions and that this can be beneficial not only for climate protection but for energy security as well. Second, they will have to focus their efforts internationally on designing a much more flexible climate policy architecture. Where global agreements cannot be achieved, European countries should aspire to "coalitions of the committed" and sector-specific agreements with as many participants, incentives, and sanctions as needed to achieve concrete gains.

The major argument against pragmatic approaches in climate policy is that they are inadequate to address the severe future consequences of climate change, that they lack in vision and that they fail to acknowledge the UN's central role. All these arguments are ultimately rooted in the narrow pursuit of an "optimal" solution to the problem. After two decades of largely unsuccessful climate negotiations, it is time to think about alternative paths. In limiting climate change, it is not the conceptual elegance of the political approach that will be decisive. The focus must be on achieving measurable progress in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

Discuss this issue with other readers!
Share your opinion!

All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH

About Oliver Geden
  • Oliver Geden (@Oliver_Geden) is a Senior Research Fellow at Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP), the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. He is the author of a new study entitled:
  • Modifying the 2 Degree Target