Grist's coverage of Copenhagen climate talks

We hear plenty about the divisions that make reaching a global climate agreement in Copenhagen daunting. “Negotiators at Climate Talks Face Deep Set of Fault Lines,” as the New York Times put it on Sunday. Indeed, the opening salvos from the negotiators confirm that they have a long way to go in less than 2 weeks.

As knotty and intractable as these “fault lines” may seem, they are surface creases in the scheme of things. Dig down a bit, and we are all in the same, deep stuff.

Here are the fault lines laid out in the NYT piece on Sunday, and the solid connections underneath them.

Rich nations vs. poor nations:  Who should pay whom for what — and how much? 

The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change has a passage that establishes the core principle for allocating the responsibility for solutions among nations. It’s a mouthful, but it’s good:

The global nature of climate change calls for the widest possible cooperation by all countries and their participation in an effective and appropriate international response, in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities and their social and economic conditions.

That’s fair; “who should pay whom” depends on “responsibility” (i.e., how much you contributed to the problem) and capability (i.e., how much you can contribute to solutions.). There’s some good math on what this means in Oxfam’s Hang Together or Hang Separately and EcoEquity’s Greenhouse Development Rights.

As Argentine climate negotiator Raul Estrada-Oyuela famously said at an earlier COP “We are all adrift in the same boat — and there’s no way half the boat is going to sink.”

Developed vs. developing economies:  

This is where postindustrial economies like the United States and Europe, which became prosperous by burning carbon-dioxide-spewing fossil fuels, face off against industrializing economies like China, Brazil, and India, which resent pressure to decarbonize their energy systems now that they are growing.

At almost every climate talk I’ve ever given, someone asks “What about China and India? Won’t their rapidly growing emissions sink us no matter what we do?” China and India do not aspire to become huge polluters; they aspire to become prosperous. And the current model of prosperity, which we pioneered, requires excessive fossil fuel use. 

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We can’t very well pull up the drawbridge and say “Sorry, the atmosphere is already full of the emissions that created our prosperity, so there’s no room for yours.”  But we can and must pioneer a new prosperity, based on efficient use of clean energy — a prosperity that can work for China, India, and a lot more Americans, current and future. And unlike fossil fuel-based prosperity, it’s not a zero-sum game. Clean energy will generally get cheaper the faster global markets grow.

Elizabeth Kolbert nailed it with her pie analogy in Field Notes from a Catastrophe

To insist now that all countries cut their emissions simultaneously amounts to advocating that industrialized nations be allocated most of the remaining slices [of the atmospheric 'pie'], on the ground that they’ve already gobbled up so much.

Island and coastal nations vs. the clock

In mid-October, ministers of the government of the Maldives, a low-lying island nation in the Indian Ocean, donned scuba gear and held a 30-minute cabinet meeting underwater off the coast of the capital, Malé. The stunt was designed to highlight the nation’s plight … should global warming raise sea levels in the coming decades.

The clock, unfortunately, is not negotiating. So this isn’t a “fault line,” it’s a humanitarian emergency. The crisis invests the leaders of these nations with an urgency and moral clarity that may help light the path for the rest of us. President of the Maldives Mohamed Nasheed’s speech at the Climate Vulnerable Forum is a must see.

Europe vs. Europe

While Europe as a whole is on track to meet its goal of an 8 percent reduction over 1990 emissions levels by 2012, not every country has pulled its weight. 

Europe has an increasingly successful carbon reduction strategy.  The fact that European nations squabble about how to proceed, or that the emissions trading system hit some bumps in its trial period, are hardly surprising. The news here is it’s working: Europe is navigating through its conflicts, improving its climate program and moving forward

OPEC vs. clean tech

Oil-producing nations are worried about the impact of a global climate deal, and they have increasingly argued that any agreement that would reduce reliance on fossil fuels should include compensation for their lost revenues.

You read that right.

It was reputedly the Saudi oil minister Sheik Yamani who first said, “The Stone Age didn’t end because they ran out of stones.” Yes, it’s true that climate policy tends to make clean energy more profitable, by removing the enormous public subsidy we offer to fossil fuels in the form of free carbon dumping, with all of its socialized costs. But energy producers are free to follow the market toward the clean energy future, as BP implies with Beyond Petroleum. As for OPEC, Tom Friedman makes a persuasive case (in “The First Law of Petropolitics” and elsewhere) that oil wealth is one of democracy’s greatest enemies. Fossil fuel suppliers arguing against climate legislation are about as persuasive as Lipitor vendors arguing against good nutrition. 

Carbon taxers vs. carbon traders

Many experts argue that the only way to tackle climate change is to put a price on carbon. Some say the best way to do that is to create a cap-and-trade system, in which industries are issued permits to emit carbon dioxide up to a certain level, or cap. Some critics argue, however, that such systems are unnecessarily complicated and prone to manipulation. A simpler solution would be a tax on carbon, they say.

Pretty much everybody who’s serious about climate solutions acknowledges that we need strong commitments to reduce the quantity of climate pollution, and that carbon prices will help us meet those commitments as efficiently as possible.  (See the Dec. 3 Economist). An upstream cap-and-trade system with auctioned permits is pretty hard to distinguish from a carbon tax. You’ve heard a million arguments on both sides, but no matter what, we need a commitment to reduce climate pollution to safe levels, and a carbon price to grease the economy to achieve that commitment. Of all the excuses-for-inaction-our-ancestors-will-not-believe, fundamentalism on this policy design point ranks near the top.

Emergency vs. we’ll figure it out

In 2008, the NASA scientist … James Hansen identified 350 parts per million as the upper limit for safe atmospheric carbon concentration. Current levels are approaching 390 parts per million. Others argue that there is no reason for panic … They are putting their faith in human ingenuity, arguing that planetary-scale engineering projects like blasting seawater into the atmosphere to increase the heat reflectivity of certain clouds (yes, that’s a real idea), will eventually solve the problem.

Puhleeze. Who wants to be the descendant of someone who stares a probable catastrophe in the face and says “My smart, rich kids will deal with it.” Just so we don’t waste any more time on this one, think about what it will really take to turn this thing around before we exceed the thresholds of dangerous climate change. If we’re serious about 80+ percent reductions in our lifetimes, we’re going to need both emergency measures and all the smart stuff our kids will figure out to have a fighting chance.

I know these divides won’t dissolve away just because we realize that our fate is common.  All I can say is that delaying global action only makes them deeper.

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