If you aren’t part of the solution, then you are the United States

James Traub recently posted a piece to Foreign Policy which argues that even though the U.S. emissions have been decreasing, U.S. climate policy is largely a failure by being too weak in trying to build an effective climate organization.  Traub writes: “the real failure of U.S. policy has been, first, that it is still much too timid, and second, that it has not acted in such a way as to persuade developing nations to take the truly difficult decisions which would put the world on a sustainable path.”

Here’s the deal: The U.S. simply refuses to be part of the solution to climate negotiations.  That doesn’t mean that it has the same policy that it did during the Bush years (which could only be described as outright hostility to climate negotiations), but that the results are largely the same.  The U.S. leadership on this issue is exactly its passivity.  This isn’t like other issues where the U.S. has largely disinteres (biological diversity), outright attempts to undermine (biosafety for GMOs), leading by following (ocean dumping) or hesitant assistance (hazardous materials trade).  No, the climate issue has become one where the U.S. is inserting itself through forceful passivity.

Forceful passivity may seem like a contradictory approach, but it is exactly what the United States is doing at international climate negotiations. Evidence of their passivity is shown in the ENB reports of the Doha Climate Conference, where the U.S. plays a marginal role at best. The December 6 ENB report of the Doha Climate Conference exemplifies this point with no real participation by the U.S. in the effort.

The forceful aspect of this passivity is shown in the debate on the one big outcome that the Doha Climate Conference produced.  Poor countries were able to get recognition and promises of aid from the impacts of disasters for “loss and damage from climate change”.  The Guardian though highlighted that this achievement was seen as a second-best effort as a result of the U.S. obstruction.  The Guardian writes: “Ronald Jumeau, negotiating for the Seychelles, scolded the US negotiator: ‘If we had had more ambition [on emissions cuts from rich countries], we would not have to ask for so much [money] for adaptation. If there had been more money for adaptation [to climate change], we would not be looking for money for loss and damage. What’s next? Loss of our islands?'” The argument made is simple: U.S. (and other countries) have largely failed on funding carbon emission reductions, they have largely failed on funding for adaptation, and so now, the only option was creation of a payment for loss system.

Before I go on, I want to note that although the recognition of payment for countries damaged by climate change is important and a good achievement, the actual obligation on countries seems very weak.  There is no real structure, no real guidance, no formal articulation of how this is going to work.  It seems likely that what will happen will be that when the U.S. sends aid to hurricane of typhoon victims, they will just check a box saying it is for loss due to climate change and that few new funds will be created as a result of this outcome.  So celebrate for sure, but do see this as a third-best solution, and weakly implemented.

So, the U.S. is passive at international climate negotiations but is good at using its veto position to prevent progress on issues.  It makes the saying “If you aren’t part of the solution, you are part of the problem” ring quite true.  The forcible passivity of the United States is a significant problem on international climate negotiations for the next decade.  There will be little incentive for developing countries to agree to any cuts in their emissions without either acquiescence by the United States or (even better) actual leadership by the United States.

That is where we are at going forward: A forcibly passive prime player (the United States), a developing state block which is willing to act if there is funding (the G77 and China), Europe who is stuck in a tough position and opts for the moral high ground but may be actually decreasing their leadership on the issue.  Europe’s leadership needs the United States.  The developing states will not agree to anything without the U.S. agreeing to a significant cut and funding emission cuts elsewhere.  As long as the U.S. retains its forceful passivity, this arrangement seems unlikely to move in any positive direction.

And, if the loss and damage provision is actually implemented, the costs on the U.S. could become quite severe.  The problem is not going to decrease, and the forceful passivity at this point in time is only raising the problem for everyone.

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