The 17th conference of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, popularly known as COP17, is taking place in Durban, South Africa, at a critical moment, as the historic 1997 Kyoto Protocol is set to expire next year.
However, like the climate-change conferences in Copenhagen in 2009 and in Cancun, Mexico, last year, COP17 can be expected to spend much and produce little.
Indeed, the extravagance of these conferences seems to grow, rather than shrink, as their dismal results become more apparent. COP15 in Copenhagen lasted 12 days and is estimated to have attracted 15,000 delegates and 5,000 journalists.
The carbon emissions created by so many people flying to Denmark was real, while the emissions targets that the conference sought remained beyond reach.
That will be true in Durban as well — and on an even greater scale.
The real problem is that the expectations concerning meaningful action on climate change, as opposed to gimmicks such as US President Barack Obama’s last-minute arrival and minuscule gestures in Copenhagen, are now lower than ever.
There are two problems that cannot be wished away.
First, the US under Obama’s ineffective leadership has drifted yet further into a “What’s in it for me?” attitude on key issues requiring international action.
In place of what the economist Charles Kindleberger once called an “altruistic hegemon,” the US that the world now faces is what I call a “selfish hegemon.”
Thus, the US has virtually pulled out of the Doha Round of multilateral trade negotiations, with Obama acquiescing to greedy business lobbies that will not settle unless more of their demands are met.
However, not only has Obama abandoned Doha, he has also seriously endangered the multilateral trading system by diverting US efforts and resources to discriminatory bilateral trade deals and, most recently, to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which will principally aid countries that are worried about an aggressive China and seek political security rather than increased trade.
The same is true of environmental action: After Australia’s belated ratification of the Kyoto Protocol in 2007, the US remains the only signatory that has not ratified the agreement.
The second problem is that the sheer weight of the US in international affairs, though diminished nowadays, has nonetheless led to a corruption of the principles that should underpin a new climate-change treaty to succeed the Kyoto Protocol.
For example, unlike the WTO, whose dispute-settlement mechanism imposes penalties for abandoning negotiated reductions of trade barriers, the targets for emission reductions are not binding and enforceable commitments.
The US has not agreed to accept such sanctions for failing to meet emissions targets, but, without penalties, the exercise is largely futile and only encourages cynicism about the effort to combat climate change.
Moreover, abandoning the Kyoto Protocol’s exemption of developing countries from obligations for current emissions, the US has insisted on obligations from China and India that reflect a common form of “taxation” of emissions.
However, there are persuasive reasons why these countries insist that the obligations must instead reflect per capita emissions, a criterion that would require far greater emission cuts by the US than its leaders now contemplate.