If you happened on Friday morning to walk into the Temple of Earth in Beijing the nearly 500-year-old monument where Chinese emperors once prayed for good harvests you would have noticed a steady drip. The environmental group Greenpeace placed ice sculptures of 100 children made of the glacial meltwater that feeds China’s great rivers inside the temple, to symbolize the risk that climate change and disappearing ice poses to the more than 1 billion people in Asia threatened by water shortages.
But there was another side to that symbolism. Aug. 28 marked 100 days before the beginning of the annual U.N. climate change summit, to be held this year in Copenhagen, which is emerging as the world’s last good chance to craft a new global warming deal. With time running out, however, global negotiators still seem far apart, and there’s a growing fear that the world really could fumble the opportunity. “Negotiations are moving much more slowly than they need to be,” says Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists and a veteran of past climate talks. “If we’re going to get a climate deal by Copenhagen, we’re going to need political will injected into the process not just rhetoric.”
Rhetoric is one thing the stop-and-start global diplomacy over climate has never lacked. It’s that strength of political principle that has been the truly threatened resource. For eight years, that was largely the fault of U.S. Under former President George W. Bush, American diplomats played an obstructionist role in climate talks, and even before Bush’s arrival, the country failed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol the international treaty intended to curb global warming. The U.S. Senate rejected the pact by a cool 95-0, and Bush later pulled it off the table for future consideration.
But with the election of President Barack Obama, who has made climate change one of his priorities, there was hope that the path could be cleared to a more equitable and effective warming deal. The timing is right Kyoto expires in 2012, which means that a replacement treaty needs to be in place soon.
With a little more than three months to go, however, things are in real doubt. To be sure, the Obama Administration is pushing for a global deal, and a cap and trade bill passed by the House and up for debate in the Senate would finally commit the U.S. to real carbon reductions. But under the new law if it passes American emissions would still fall only 13% from 1990 levels by 2020. The European Union, meanwhile, has pledged to make cuts of 20% below 1990 levels by 2020, meaning there is still considerable daylight between what seems politically feasible in the U.S. and in the E.U., even after Obama. And while governments at last month’s G8 meeting pledged to keep the global temperature increase from climate change to 2 degrees C or less, that would require emission cuts from developed nations of as much as 40% by 2020. No leader in the world seems willing to go that far. “There’s no doubt we can and should be doing more,” says Meyer.
The deeper divisions, though, are between the developed and developing world. Under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change the highly acronymized organization that oversees climate diplomacy rich and poor nations have what is called “common but differentiated responsibilities” on cutting carbon. Decoded, that means rich nations have to take the lead on reducing emissions as seems fair, since most of the carbon in the atmosphere has been put there over the past 200 years by the developed world but poor nations need to take some action as well. Fine, but the emergence of China, already the world’s biggest carbon emitter, and to a lesser extent India, have complicated that equation. If China doesn’t constrain its emissions, there’s no hope of controlling global warming. Yet while China is getting richer all the time, it’s still a developing country. Both China and India are likely to resist calls to make any sharp reductions to their own emissions any time soon, even as they and other developing nations ask for billions in assistance from rich nations to deal with the climate change they’re helping to drive. That’s a formula for deadlock which is exactly how the most recent round of negotiations ended, at a meeting in Bonn in the middle of August, with a 200-page document that included more 2,000 separate points of disagreement. “We are nowhere near any kind of agreement for climate change,” says Janos Pasztor, the director of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon’s climate change support team. “Time is not on our side.”
That means environmentalists will need to make the most of what time does remain. U.N. chief Ban is leading the way, organizing a one-day summit for world leaders on climate change during the General Assembly meeting in late September. “We want them to talk with each other, interact with each other,” says Pasztor. That’s key; climate change policy has become far too important to be left up to the environment and energy ministers of the world, whose influence tends to be limited.
But civil society has a role to play as well, by mobilizing the public to push politicians ahead. The Climate Group a global nonprofit is sponsoring events from the U.S. to China in the lead-up to Copenhagen, trying to build a wave of public support for more ambitious carbon cuts. “This is the moment,” says Steve Howard, the Climate Group’s CEO. “If we lose this chance we may not get it back.” That dripping sound could be our last opportunity to fix the climate, melting away.
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