THE BLOG
11/07/2011 09:24 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Climate Politics Grow Curiouser and Curiouser

Am I going mad, or are climate politics becoming as weird as the weather itself? Based on developments over the last week, I'd say the latter.

Less than a month before the annual climate conference begins in Durban, confusing signals from a series of international meetings make it harder to distinguish between the leaders and the laggards. And as scientists are poised to release their latest worrisome findings on the state of the climate, it's worth repeating that leadership is needed now more than ever.

Let's start with the science. Following on the heels of the recent study confirming the IPCC's findings on temperature trends, a new report from the IPCC on extreme weather was leaked to the press last week. As an AP journalist described it, "The report paints a wild future for a world already weary of weather catastrophes costing billions of dollars." NBC Nightly News ran a sobering and solid piece that sums up the science on extreme weather.

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

The IPCC report also shows, however, that experiencing wild weather and surviving it are two different propositions, and the difference boils down to resiliency. Sadly, it is the poorest countries and communities which are least resilient. Take Grenada for instance: hurricanes in 2004 and 2005 wiped out its agriculture, and then a record drought in 2010 damaged its fisheries, tourism and agriculture. As a consequence the country is struggling for economic survival, with 30% unemployment.

So what are vulnerable countries like Grenada doing about it? Bracing themselves for one thing, and working to build resilience. But their efforts aren't purely focused on local defenses. Since 1989 the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) has been battling for climate action, and its 1994 proposed treaty was a model for the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. More recently, AOSIS under the leadership of Grenada helped get over 100 of the most vulnerable countries to support a global goal of holding warming below 1.5°C. In 2009, with concern mounting, the Climate Vulnerable Forum was initiated, calling for 1.5° and limiting atmospheric concentrations of CO2 to 350 ppm. The draft declaration for their next meeting (Dhaka, Bangladesh 13-14 November) was posted last week and was inspiring in its ambition:

We are resolved, as vulnerable states, to demonstrate moral leadership by committing to a low-carbon development path on a voluntary basis within the limitations of our respective capabilities, which are to a large extent externally determined by the availability of appropriate financial and technological support and call on all other nations to follow the moral leadership.

From the world's richest countries, however, we are seeing immoral leadership when it comes to climate change. The G20 wrapped up its annual meeting in Cannes last week, and this was the best they could come up with:

We discussed the World Bank-IMF-OECD-Regional Development Banks report on climate finance and call for continued work taking into account the objectives, provisions and principles of the UNFCCC by international financial institutions and the relevant UN organizations. We ask our Finance Ministers to report to us at our next Summit on progress made on climate finance.

As for fossil fuel subsidies they simply reaffirmed their 2009 commitment "to rationalise and phase-out over the medium term inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption..." -- a commitment that has had little impact over the past two years. Does anyone want to take bets on how many years they will continue to call for action, while doing very little in practice?

Some of the biggest, richest developing countries have their own club, known as BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India and China). They met last week and put the onus of responsibility for securing progress on a global agreement squarely on the shoulders of those who were responsible for creating the problem in the first place. They rightly called on parties to the Kyoto Protocol to sign up to a second round of deeper emissions reduction commitments, called for the non-Kyoto developed countries -- read the USA -- to make substantial reductions, and on developed countries to honor their financial commitments, amongst other things.

But they lost some of the moral high ground, however, by failing to ratchet up their own ambition and by taking a pot shot at the European Union's efforts to reduce rapidly growing emissions from aviation. They called for developing countries to be exempted from Europe's scheme on the basis of the principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities." As if anyone who can afford to take a transcontinental flight is too poor to pay the extra costs on a one-way ticket , estimated at between $1.40 and $8.60!

On November 2, the UN's International Civil Aviation Organization bowed to the demands of 26 countries, including the US, Japan, and Russia as well as BASIC countries such as Brazil, China and India, and called on Europe to exempt international airlines from the plan. Thankfully, the EU respectfully declined though it remains to be seen whether the EU will side with the leaders or the laggards when it comes to the future of Kyoto.

Meanwhile back at the Triple C Ranch (aka the Convention on Climate Change), the political heat is increasing in the run-up to Durban. The Environment Minister of Grenada, on behalf of AOSIS, set the cat amongst the pigeons last week with a press release calling out Japan and Russia as "reckless and irresponsible" for working to delay the adoption of a legally binding agreement until 2018-2020. The graph I posted a few weeks ago shows why this is a very bad idea, and perhaps explains why Grenada would risk naming and shaming an important donor country.

The BBC suggests, however, that maneuvering by Japan and Russia may only be the tip of a hidden iceberg: "Behind the scenes, there are concerns that some major developing countries are seeking to blame the West for failure to progress partly in order to conceal their own desire to stave off carbon curbs. 'The US, China and India are in cahoots over this,' said one experienced observer of the UN process."

So to connect the dots between the events of last week: As scientists prepare to issue their latest warning on the consequences of business as usual, several industrialized countries threaten to derail efforts to get a legally binding climate agreement. The most vulnerable countries claim the moral high ground, while developing country powerhouses send conflicting and worrisome signals.

Those who believe in climate justice may well start to wonder which side is up. I for one will try to keep my bearings in Durban by applying a simple moral litmus test: what impact will any given stance have on the world's most vulnerable people and ecosystems? In my view, allowing global temperature to rise to a level at which we may not survive, with the poorest and most vulnerable communities as the first casualties, would be the greatest climate injustice of all.