Understanding the Failure of the UN's Climate Talks

12/12/2011 08:12 am ET | Updated Feb 11, 2012
  • Steven Cohen Executive Director, Columbia University's Earth Institute

It is getting to be a pretty familiar routine by now. Thousands of people from around the world gather to negotiate and influence global climate policy. Rhetoric flies for a week or two, negotiators bargain long into the night, and a modest, unenforceable agreement is finally brought up for a vote. At this point, it is pretty obvious that the United Nations climate negotiation process may serve as a useful agenda-setting mechanism, but it is no way to make global public policy. For all but a small number of trade, environmental and security issues, it is impossible to formulate meaningful global public policy.

Unfortunately, climate change is not one of the issues amenable to global agreement.
To understand why these talks are not succeeding, it is useful to think about the evolution of environmental policy and its gradual movement from the fringe of the policy agenda to its center. When the environmental movement begins in the early 20th century it was characterized by a concern for wilderness preservation and identified with naturalists like Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir. The environment was a spiritual quest associated with nostalgia for a pre-industrial America. Protecting the environment was a nice, but not particularly essential task for the political and economic elites running America. This culminates in the 1960's and 1970's with enactment of laws regulating air, water and waste. At this point the environmental policy issue might be thought of something akin to keeping your house neat and presentable for visitors. It was embarrassing when Cleveland's Cuyahoga River caught fire. When Apollo 8 showed us those incredible pictures of the entire fragile blue planet from outer space, it all became codified: Nice people took care of their home planet.

In the late 1970's, the Love Canal toxic waste dump crisis taught America about the issue of hazardous waste. We learned about the connection of air pollution to cancer and other illnesses. In the 1980's the environment evolved into an issue of public health. It wasn't just that nice people tried to make sure they kept the planet looking pretty, but environmental pollution was poison that could make you sick or even kill you. With the emergence of this health dimension in the last two decades of the 20th century, the environmental issue moved a little off the fringes of the policy agenda, a little bit closer to the place where important public policy is made.

If we fast forward to today, in the second decade of the 21st century, the environmental issue has morphed into the issue of economic and environmental sustainability. The environment has assumed a new place at the center of community, corporate, and national policymaking. It is no longer a second-tier issue relegated to those "environmental types," but a key issue affecting profits, economic growth and political power. The U.N. climate policy process was designed when the environment was not yet a central issue to the power elite. The very fact that the U.N. was able to take the lead on this process is an indication that it was not considered a central issue by the world's political and economic powers. As the implications of global climate policy for nations and industry became clearer, the U.N. decision making venue became increasingly irrelevant. Unfortunately, no other venue has been developed to replace it.

Meanwhile, here in the USA we find ourselves subject to the idiocy of politicians and pundits who pretend that the science of climate change is uncertain. The projections of modern climate science are increasingly certain, and there is evidence that the planet is already warming as a result of human activity. Moreover, as China, India and eventually Africa develop into modern economic powers, the impact of fossil fuels on the planet's climate system will only get more intense. Climate change is the first major global environmental issue, but it will not be the last.

Unless something changes, climate issues like sea level rise may be the least of our troubles. If we do not develop an economic system less dependent on the one-time use of natural resources, not only energy, but water, food and all sorts of critical raw materials will become more and more expensive. With seven billion people on the planet now and another three billion coming, the development of a sustainable renewable resource-based economy has become a necessity. The species that really needs healthy ecosystems is not some endangered sea turtle, but the one you and I belong to--the human species. Energy and climate are the first places we see the strain on the global biosphere, but they won't be the last.

You will know that climate policy, energy policy and economic policy have finally landed in the correct venue when we see economic ministers running the talks rather than environmental folks. That will tell you that the centrality and priority of these issues has finally been recognized by the world's actual global policy makers. The U.N climate talks have failed because the issue has become too important for the world's more powerful nations to assign negotiations to the U.N.'s deliberative bodies.

As the global economy develops, it becomes increasingly important that global rules of the game be established and made enforceable. We not only need to ensure that companies can compete on a level playing field, but that poor people are not asked to trade off food and shelter against exposure to toxics. This will require new forms of global governance that are beyond current institutional capacities.

Back home in the U.S.A. we need to dramatically increase funding for basic and applied science and focus attention on research and development in energy, food, water and other key areas. One of the great strengths of this country is our amazing research universities. The current cutback environment in government is threatening these institutions and will ultimately impair America's economic and political security. The good news on climate is that research on renewable energy has captured the imagination of a generation of young scholars. Coupled with greater attention to building the institutions needed to promote sustainability management, we actually have a chance of figuring out a way to solve the climate problem and maybe save humanity in the process. The U.N. may not be capable of formulating global sustainability policy, but that does not mean that there are no other options available.