Thursday, September 24, 2009

New York climate talks: The good, the bad, and the ugly

smoke stacks
(Photo: Thaddeus Robertson)

Representatives from 100 nations are meeting in New York to discuss global warming. That is good.

But they're meeting because the United Nations leadership is worried that there isn't momentum enough to create a strong successor to the Kyoto Protocol that governs global warming action worldwide. That's bad.

While everyone talks a good game about the importance of doing something about the old rich nation-poor nation divide, embodied by hyper consumption in the U.S. and hyper industrialization in China, with neither willing to concede too much ground for fear of alienating citizens and losing power. That's ugly.

More to chew on:

The Good

World leaders have already agreed to halt the growth in temperatures to no more than 3.6 degrees F (2 degrees C) by 2050.

China vowed to cut greenhouse gas emissions, get 15% of power from non-fossil fuel sources (including nuclear) and foster a green economy, all by 2020.

The U.S. House has passed the first-ever national cap on carbon emissions, as part of a comprehensive energy bill designed to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and jump-start a more sustainable economy.

U.S. negotiators are no longer questioning whether global warming is really a problem in need of a dramatic solution, as they did during the Bush Administration, nor trying to work outside of the U.N. process with only the world's biggest polluters.

Climate Week is mobilizing hundreds, if not thousands, to take part in events designed to show that U.S. residents want to see action, both within our boarders and around the world.

More than 500 companies signed a statement urging dramatic and fast action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The Bad

Rajendra K. Pachauri, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's chief scientist, warned leaders that the worst-case scenarios for climate change appear to be unfolding before our eyes, as emissions lead to more drastic and near-term consequences than had been anticipated.

Many U.S. politicians, citizens, think tanks and business associations still cling to arguments that human's role in global warming is neither real, really a problem, or really worth doing anything about.

Small island nations are so scared that global warming-induced sea-level rise will inundate them that they're committing to steeper cuts by 2020 than the rest of the world has set. The bad news: The moral high ground is about all they have in that category.

The Ugly

While world leaders have agreed to a temperature target, they have not agreed to a framework to achieve that target, with mandatory emissions limits or technology transfers from rich to poor nations.

China's 2020 goals lack specificity, and are contingent on economic growth, so that they mirror in some ways President George W. Bush's "carbon intensity" targets, which cut carbon dioxide emissions only relative to economic output, not overall.

Debate on a U.S. Senate bill that might match the House carbon cap-and-trade bill is stalled at least until the health-care reform is finished, and however the health-care bill comes out, it may leave President Obama without much political capital to spend on a revolutionary energy policy. If the Senate fails to act by December, other nations are unlikely to follow Obama's call for worldwide action.

As Thomas Friedman illustrated recently, the U.S. is falling far behind in reaping the jobs benefits of its technological prowess, with one Silicon Valley solar company having built 14 solar panel plants, employing hundreds -- all overseas.

As CBS News pointed out, the U.N. gathering has a heavy carbon footprint.

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