/U.N. Climate Talks Collapsed in Madrid. What’s the Way Forward?

U.N. Climate Talks Collapsed in Madrid. What’s the Way Forward?


UN Secretary-General António Guterres was “disappointed” by the Madrid talks.
Photo: Celestino Arce/NurPhoto via Getty Images

You could see the failure of the United Nations’ COP25 climate conference, which just concluded in Madrid, coming from months away — if not years or decades.

It was, of course, the 25th COP, and judging by the only metric that matters — carbon emissions, which continue to rise — the conference followed 24 consecutive failures. Emissions set a new record in 2018, and are poised to set another again in 2019. Just three years since the signing of the Paris accords, no major industrial nation on Earth is on track to honor the commitments it made in Paris. The apparent failure of those accords follows the undeniable failure of previous agreements reached in Copenhagen in 2009, Kyoto in 1997, and Montreal in 1987. The original host of COP25, Brazil, backed out when it elected a climate sociopath, Jair Bolsonaro, as president; the replacement site, Chile, canceled their event just a month before, amid civil unrest sparked in part by rising transportation prices. And when Secretary-General António Guterres, fearing that few nations were ready to make more ambitions decarbonization pledges at COP25, staged a special climate action summit during the U.N. General Assembly in September — a summit designed to whip up new commitments ahead of COP25 — no one aside from the smallest countries came armed with anything more than lip service.

And yet COP25 stings. As quixotic as it might have seemed, Guterres had made a special effort to generate optimism; after Madrid, he said he was “disappointed,” about as downbeat as a secretary-general is allowed to be about his own organization. As for the climate itself, “The point of no return is no longer on the horizon,” he said at the opening of the conference, sounding every bit Greta Thunberg’s alarmist equal. “It is in sight and hurtling towards us.”

The conference was meant to formalize the rules by which the Paris accords would be implemented, and begin the process by which the commitments made in those accords could be systematically ratcheted up over time; judged by those standards, IPCC vice-chair Jean-Pascal van Ypersele wrote on Twitter, “the final result is low, very low.” The chorus of disappointment on social media over the weekend was deafening.

Global delay might have been less maddening if the timeline — the runway — didn’t seem so short. As has become a common refrain among climate advocates since the IPCC’s blockbuster special report on 1.5 degrees last October, the U.N. believes we have only about a decade to cut global emissions in half to safely avoid catastrophic warming. And of course, the conference arrived on the heels of an unprecedented global political mobilization about climate change sparked by that report, which has also boosted public support for aggressive climate action. That year of protest was marked at COP, cruelly, by expelling 300 activists from the conference for staging a protest, while representatives of fossil-fuel companies remained (at least 40 delegates were former or current employees of fossil-fuel companies). The last-minute efforts to salvage some legal language pointing toward growing climate ambitions were conducted without representatives from many of the world’s most vulnerable nations in the room. And the conference couldn’t even manage to “accept” the U.N.’s IPCC report. Which meant, practically speaking, that COP25 failed not only to take action on the science but even to acknowledge it.

Those in Madrid without much sense of climate urgency might have looked to Australia — by some accounts responsible for “cheating” and “thwarting” progress at the conference last week. This week, the country is poised for a record-setting heat wave, with temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius (or 104 Fahrenheit) all across the country, prompting a “code red” warning for vulnerable citizens. The heat wave follows a month of horrifying brushfires there, which have burned through more than 7 million acres. In Sydney, ferry service had to be suspended because the boats couldn’t navigate in the smoke. All across the city, fire alarms inside office buildings went off, the smoke so dense the sensors concluded the buildings themselves had to be smoldering. And millions took in toxic air with each breathe. In general, scientists believe that air quality measuring above 200 on the Air Quality Index scale is dangerous to breathe; technically, air stops being “good” at 33. In 2017, the air in Delhi registered at the very top of the scale, 999. Last week, parts of Sydney broke 2,500.

By accidents of geography and colonialism, Australia is unusually positioned as a climate-change case study, the one exception to the cruel rule of global warming and global inequality: that the poorest countries will suffer most in our hot new world. By far the richest of all the countries staring down the most intense, most immediate warming barrages, Australia is an early test case of how the world’s affluent societies will bend, or buckle, or rebuild under the pressure of temperature changes likely to hit the rest of the well-off world later this century. The country was founded on genocidal indifference to the native landscape and those who inhabited it, and its modern ambitions have always been precarious: Australia is today a society of expansive abundance, jerry-rigged onto a very harsh and ecologically unforgiving land.

And while people in the U.S. and Europe may feel the impacts of global warming have just arrived in the last few years — record wildfires, record flooding, record heat waves — Down Under things have been getting worse for quite some time. In southern Australia, the “millennium drought” began with low rainfall in 1996 and continued, through a Death Valley–like trough that lasted eight years, beginning in 2001 and ending only when La Niña rainfall finally relieved the area in 2010. Rice and cotton production in the region fell 99 and 84 percent, respectively. In 2011, a single heat wave there produced significant tree dieback and coral bleaching, the death of plant life, crashes in local bird populations and dramatic spikes in the number of certain insects, and transformations of ecosystems both marine and terrestrial. Off the coasts of Australia, fish populations have declined an estimated 32 percent in just ten years. New coral formations on the Great Barrier Reef, one of the country’s great natural treasures,
have declined 89 percent.

How has Australia’s politics responded to this obvious crisis? You might expect — or hope — the impacts would have shaken the country out of complacency. But in fact, the opposite has occurred: The brutal assaults of global warming (and the intuitions of environmental pressures and resource scarcity that come with them) have turned what was once a climate-conscious country into a self-interested agent of global indifference. When Australia enacted a carbon tax, its emissions fell; when, under political pressure, the tax was repealed, they rose again. In 2018, the country’s Parliament declared global warming a “current and existential national security risk.” A few months later, its climate-conscious prime minister was forced to resign, for the shame of attempting to honor the Paris accords. His replacement, Scott Morrison, a climate skeptic, campaigned against climate action, relentlessly attacking his opponent for the cost of his plans, and won a surprise reelection. When the bushfires began last month, he declined to answer questions about the influence of climate change.

Australia is not today uninhabitable, but it can look that way from a distance — and indeed, up close, to each of those 4 or 5 million people exposed to that toxic air. And yet, most of them, probably, will continue to live there, as the city and the country adapts to punishing fire seasons, even as they become more punishing. This is, probably, the likeliest course for all of us staring down global warming, and, as it happens, almost precisely what science fiction has long promised when it turned its lens to environmental degradation: not the extinction of the human race nor the total collapse of civilization, but dystopias all the more terrifying for seeming “normal” to those living in them, however horrific they may seem from the distance of a decade or a few thousand miles. The years ahead will surely produce adaptation and accommodation in Australia and elsewhere—one recent paper suggested that economic growth has meant vulnerability to natural disasters has fallen sixfold in just the past couple of decades. But adaptation and accommodation to what baseline of regular brutality? Those years will also surely produce more warming, and the longer the world waits to decarbonize, the more places will look and feel more like ghostly, suffocating Sydney — where, in addition to all the other damage they did, the fires released so much carbon that in just a few weeks the country’s yearlong carbon footprint grew by almost 50 percent.

But if the COP model hasn’t worked, can anything? Perhaps the best news of the last few weeks was the announcement of what is being called, in a charming, mangled double translation of the “Green New Deal,” the “European Green Deal”: a wide-ranging commitment to get the continent to net-zero carbon by 2050. In the United States, America’s Pledge, an alliance of cities and states led by Mike Bloomberg, announced that even in the absence of federal support, local commitments could approach the goals set for the country as a whole under the Paris accords. That math is probably optimistic, and indeed there are natural limits to small-scale efforts to combat warming: Emissions are a global problem, with the impacts of warming distributed globally, and so meaningfully reducing warming, and the assaults it brings, requires a truly global effort. No nation in the world — even China, responsible for about 28 percent of carbon emissions — is a significant enough contributor to dramatically change the trajectory of the planet as a whole on its own, no matter what it does. This is why there has been so much international focus on COP. It is also why the struggles of that approach — getting the hundreds of nations of the world to act in concert — are so distressing.

Are there any other ways, beyond the U.N. model, to organize or incentive that kind of global cooperation? I’ve heard from a number of economists, in the last few months, who would like to see the establishment of something like a WTO for climate — an independent organization, capable of not just rewarding participation but also punishish bad behavior by nations. In the U.S., Senator Ed Markey — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal partner — called for the Senate to give itself unprecedented authority to impose sanctions on nations behaving irresponsibly on climate. And in a conversation with Politico, John Kerry, announcing a new bipartisan climate-action coalition, suggested that some kind of climate sanctions regime was probably inevitable. If you take seriously the scale of climate changes scientists say are in store for us with unmitigated warming, it seems almost inevitable that the nations of the world will turn to sanctions — or even war — to police bad climate behavior and protect the well-being of their citizens. But in the absence of an international accord to provide a legal basis for such actions, climate sanctions would probably become just another tool of great power rivalry. And as a friend of mine who’s worked as a national security analyst for a decade put it to me recently, when have sanctions ever worked?

Which is why, over the last few months, I’ve found myself thinking a lot more about the model offered by the nuclear nonproliferation agreements forged between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the late 1980s — the planet’s two superpowers reaching a kind of consensus about a global existential threat, taking significant (if not complete) steps to mitigate that risk, and then more or less bullying the rest of the world to follow suit. Climate change is a very different challenge, but policy negotiations to address it may nevertheless benefit from reducing the number of sides involved in a game-theory calculus from 186 (the number of nations party to the Paris accords) to just two (in this case, the U.S. and China). Of course, this would require not just a complete change of perspective on climate in Washington but some shift almost as complete in Beijing, where commitments made in 2019 to open new coal plants are sufficient on their own to eliminate the entire planet’s chances of staying below 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming.

Whatever the path forward — an international U.N.-backed framework, a WTO-like structure, regional agreements instead of global ones, a superpower-led negotiation — it probably does require American leadership. It’s even clearer in retrospect that American and Chinese support were critical during the negotiations leading up to Paris, and while it seemed briefly possibly to imagine the election of Donald Trump and the evacuation of climate leadership by the U.S. might embolden Xi Jinping as a climate leader, it is becoming harder and harder to imagine the world moving forward on climate without the U.S. leading the way. Just look at what has happened since Trump came into power: COP25 is only the latest example of bureaucratic infighting and self-interested negotiating leading us, collectively, nowhere. When António Guterres said, “I am more determined than ever to work for 2020 to be the year in which all countries commit to do what science tells us is necessary,” you could be forgiven for thinking he was talking primarily about the American election in November.

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