At Climate Summit, It’s Economy First, Then Survival

The 2012 UN climate negotiations are not expected to be a breakthrough moment in solving the unfolding ecological crisis, but these talks will set the course for a future deal that countries have agreed will enter into force by 2020.

What’s at stake is more than a little overwhelming.

Australia climate protest

Global warming has to be kept to less than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures if we want to avert climate disaster. Scientists say that means we can send 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Meanwhile fossil fuel companies are planning to burn enough oil, coal and gas to release 2,795 gigatons.

And the impacts of a warming planet are already hitting home. Because of sea level rise the island nation of Kiribati in the Pacific Ocean is in negotiations to resettle its entire population in Fiji. And in the United States we’ve just experienced a summer of record-busting heat waves followed by a super-storm the likes of which meteorologists have literally never before seen.

From where I sit in Doha, however, any agreement to avoid predicted extremes in weather, economic disruption and loss of life that will accompany global warming looks a long way off.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — the experts group that provides the climate convention with the latest science — global greenhouse gas emissions would have to peak and start coming down by 2015. That’s right — in three years. Then, by 2050, the nations of the world would need to halve their overall climate pollution.

For the United States that translates into something like a 50 percent reduction by 2020 and deeper than 80 percent cuts by 2050 — a quasi-political calculation based on our responsibility as far and away the greatest contributor to climate change and one of the economies most capable of adapting.

Delivering serious emissions cuts won’t be easy for any country. Re-orienting a nation’s infrastructure to be climate smart — from energy to food to manufacturing to transportation — won’t be cheap.

Not surprisingly, no country wants to be the only one — or one of only a few — that is obliged to overhaul its entire economy to be low-carbon and climate resilient. It would put them at a distinct competitive disadvantage, at least at first (of course, every dollar spent on prevention saves three in disaster cleanup later).

And so the two largest economies and biggest polluters on the planet — the United States and China — have somewhat cleverly staked out positions that set them on the dangerous path of Mutually Assured Inaction. Neither of them will act on climate until the other does — but neither of them really wants to anyway.

The U.S. climate team said in no uncertain terms before leaving Washington DC for Doha that a second Obama term doesn’t translate into a shift away from blocking a climate deal that big countries like China are not legally bound by.

Lead negotiator Jonathon Pershing has repeatedly insisted that he can’t bring home a deal he can’t sell to Congress — and unfortunately Congress is still in the pocket of polluters (look no further for evidence than a recent letter to President Obama from 18 Senators who accepted more than $11 million from dirty energy companies urging him to approve the Keystone XL pipeline and unlock the Canadian tar sands).

At the end of the first week of negotiations, with a fair and effective climate deal looking out of reach, it’s hard to see how developing countries — or civil society — can compel the industrial world to take bold action and live up to their responsibilities.