U.S. Plays the Bad Guy at Climate Negotiations. Again.

Reason's science correspondent sends a fourth dispatch from the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Durban.


Durban, South Africa—Only two more days left for the negotiators here at the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP-17) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to make COP-17 a "success." The United States chief climate change negotiator Todd Stern noted at a press conference that the two final days at a COP generally represent just the "mid-point" in climate negotiations.

So let's take stock of where the conference stands before the final push toward this weekend.

The Kyoto Protocol: First, I note that some of the earnest youngsters here in Durban are wandering around the conference center sporting adorable "I (heart) KP" t-shirts. Get it? They love the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol. And, after all, who cannot love an arcane 21-page treaty [PDF] that requires rich countries to reduce their greenhouse emissions by 5 percent below the levels they emitted in 1990? In reality, everybody loves it—except for Japan, Canada, and Russia, who are now refusing to go on a second date with KP. Of course, the selfish and self-involved U.S. never loved KP.

Meanwhile, poor countries who would never consider making a commitment to KP, keep insisting that they will unfriend the whole United Nations climate change clique unless the rich countries (mostly Europe) agree to stay with KP for at least another five years.

Two Degrees or Bust: Global warming activists here in Durban fear that the world will become more than 2° Celsius warmer than it was in 1800, unless the world's emissions of greenhouse gases peak soon. Their lodestar on this issue is the Cancun Agreements in which COP-16 "recognizes that deep cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions are required…with a view to reducing global greenhouse gas emissions so as to hold the increase in global average temperature below 2°C above preindustrial levels."

What the hell does "recognize" mean anyway? U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern was asked at a press briefing how the U.S. interprets that phrase. He replied that the U.S. looks at 2°C as an important and serious goal that guides American thinking about what ought to be done, but "that's different from seeing it as an operational cap that we must meet. It's not mandatory." On the other hand, Jo Leinen, a German Social Democratic member of the European Parliament, at a later press briefing insisted that the Cancun agreements had "decreed a limit of 2°C" on future global temperature increases that requires the world to peak its greenhouse gas emissions in this decade. In other words, the Europeans and global warming activists do regard 2°C as an obligatory operational cap.

The China Perplex: As an 8-time veteran of COPs, I feel almost nostalgic when I hear the old familiar script playing out again. The United States is the bad guy once more, denounced on all sides as an "obstacle to progress" and a "blocker." At past COPs, lots of countries found it convenient to say that they would do more if only the retrogressive Americans would agree to join in.

On the other hand, the Chinese can make mere hints about possible policy changes that provoke even the hardest bitten climate activists to swoon in ecstasies of unbounded credulity. For example, at a Climate Action Network press conference, Samantha Smith from the World Wildlife Fund International credulously declared, "China has made the first move and that is unprecedented….China is taking leadership and we need to recognize that."

What is it about leftists and authoritarian governments, especially legacy communist regimes? As I have noted before, perhaps their affection is based on the fact that environmentalists are technocratic planners at heart—and they recognize in China a kindred spirit.

What Smith was talking about is the artful (or artless) statement by chief Chinese negotiator Xie Zhenhua who made the barest hint earlier this week that China might consider some kind of "legally binding agreement" on reducing greenhouse gases sometime after 2020. He never actually said China would consider a legally binding agreement to reduce its emissions; he just said that China would sign on to an agreement that legally binds somebody or other to reduce theirs. In any case, Xie certainly could have clarified China's position with regard to a future legally binding treaty during his official presentation [PDF] to the plenary session of negotiators, but he didn't.

Xie did, however, insist, "Developed countries should face squarely their own historical responsibilities and the reality of their high per capita emissions, truly taking the lead in drastic emission reduction, and honoring their obligation and commitments regarding financial and technology transfer support to the developing countries." Translation: Rich guys keep on cutting your emissions and keep on shoveling billions of dollars in climate reparations to poor countries. Xie also made the fair point that China's priority for the foreseeable future is economic growth, reminding everyone that his country still has 128 million people living on less than a dollar per day.

While some activists remain starry-eyed over China, professional politicians and negotiators were more hardheaded. At a European Union press briefing, European parliamentarian Leinen expressed a clearer view of the current negotiations, "What is frustrating is that for the third time the conference has been hijacked by a ping-pong game between the U.S. and China." Hijacked? Well, since the two countries account for about 40 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, how could it be otherwise?

In any case, a Climatewire article intriguingly notes that blocking negotiations toward a legally binding treaty that doesn't include China could play well back in the United States. Bipartisan Center senior advisor Paul Bledsoe told Climatewire: "For domestic political purposes, I'm not sure the administration is at all uncomfortable being blamed by the Europeans for stalling a legally binding negotiation."

No More Partying Like It's 1992: U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern keeps making the point that the original division of countries into two groups under the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and Kyoto Protocol, rich ones (Annex 1 countries) that are obligated to cut their emissions and poor ones (non-Annex 1 countries) that aren't, is now absurd. As Stern more diplomatically put it, "I don't think the Kyoto architecture…is a tenable architecture for the future." Interestingly, European Climate Change Commissioner Connie Hedegaard seems to agree with the U.S. position, "The division of Annex 1 and non-Annex 1 from the early 1990s no longer reflects reality," said Hedegaard at a press briefing.

Climate Skeptics Celebrate: Representatives from the irrepressible Center for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT) held a press conference at which they played an in-your-face video that featured self-described "leader in standing up against global warming alarmism" Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.). In the video, Inhofe said that he was sorry that he couldn't be in Durban to celebrate "the complete collapse of the global warming movement." He gleefully added, "The only person in Washington who is talking about global warming is me." By which Inhofe meant that global warming has utterly fallen off the U.S. domestic political agenda. At least until after the 2012 election.

Note: This is the fourth daily dispatch from the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Durban. Tomorrow the search for some kind of "success" at the Durban conference should be becoming desperate. I will be reporting from the conference until the bitter end.

Ronald Bailey is Reason magazine's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.