Our collective weather appears to be at a turning point, fueled by changing climatic conditions—what some scientists are now calling climate disruption. In recent years, many of us either have personally suffered at the hands of unprecedented extreme weather events or know someone who has. We’ve borne witness to shocking images: record droughts leaving land and crops parched and lifeless, floods sweeping houses off their foundations, wildfires consuming vast tracts of forests, hurricanes ravaging shorelines, the list goes on.
Greg Foy, three students representing the American Chemical Society, and I will be heading to the COP 18 UN climate conference in Doha, Qatar this weekend. We will be attending week-two of the conference. We felt that it would be informative to give you—our readers—a brief historical perspective of this annual conference.
Seventeen previous United Nations Conferences of Parties (COPs) have strived to become international climate mitigation enforcers. These are annual gatherings of policymakers from around the globe seeking to protect people, property, and our planet. Each COP has attempted to acquire international, legally binding authority to police our planet, limit greenhouse gas emissions, and verify compliance of those emissions. They have made progress, but policymakers at each COP have failed to forge an international climate change agreement that promises a sustainable planet for our children and future generations.
More than 190 nations have gathered for COP 18—to be held in Doha, Qatar from November 26 – December 7—in an effort to forge global consensus on multiple climate change issues. This will be the 18th Conference of Parties (COP 18) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). To understand the challenges of COP 18 and the imperative for a positive outcome, it may be helpful to reflect on a brief history of the UNFCCC, a few notable COPs, and their corresponding White House administrations.
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was created at the 1992 “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro, with the ultimate aim of “preventing dangerous human interference with the climate system.” The Convention was signed by more than 150 nations, including the U.S. The annual COP, held each year, serves as the “supreme body” of the Convention with the “highest decision-making authority”.
In 1988, presidential candidate George H. W. Bush stumped, “Those who think we are powerless to do anything about the ‘greenhouse gas effect’ are forgetting the ‘White House effect’. As President, I intend to do something about it.” Although Bush did sign the 1992 UNFCCC treaty, the “White House effect” did little to limit emissions during his presidency. Sadly, there has been no meaningful “White House effect” since then. The political will to address climate change has been trumped by powerful voices of opposition, including effective climate-skeptic disinformation campaigns.
A 20-year follow-up to the Earth Summit (Rio+20), held in Rio this past summer, again focused on sustainable development with the aim of reconciling environmental and economic goals of our global community. Here we are two decades & giga-tons of emissions later, and our planet is experiencing unprecedented warming. We are already experiencing the significant human and economic costs of adverse, extreme weather.
The December 1997 COP 3, held in Kyoto, Japan was the most prominent Conference of Parties. The UNFCCC treaty previously signed by Bush had set no mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions for individual nations, and it contained no enforcement provisions; therefore, it was not a legally binding document. However, treaty provisions did call for subsequent updates that would set mandatory limits.
More than 10,000 participants from 161 countries attended COP 3 with the goal of finally establishing mandatory, legally binding targets that would reduce greenhouse gas concentrations. The outcome was “The Kyoto Protocol,” which set binding greenhouse gas emissions limits on 37 industrialized countries and the European Union. These nations were to reduce emissions by an average of five percent against 1990 levels. Following a complex ratification process, the Kyoto Protocol entered into force on February 16, 2005. The United States symbolically signed the Kyoto Protocol, but we stand alone as the only industrialized nation that never officially ratified it.
Leading up to COP 3 in Kyoto, U.S. opposition to a potential binding agreement was bipartisan. In July 1997, the Senate unanimously passed the Byrd-Hagel Resolution that “the United States should not be a signatory to any protocol to…[the UNFCCC] of 1992, at negotiations in Kyoto in December 1997, or thereafter, which would mandate new commitments to limit or reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” Specifically, the Senate would not support mandatory cuts for developed countries unless they included commitments to limit or reduce greenhouse gas emissions for developing countries—most notably China and India.
During their 1992 campaign, President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore (1993-2001) had both pledged to outshine their predecessors on environmental issues. Even with the support of Gore’s strong environmental credentials, however, the Clinton administration was no more successful than the first Bush administration at achieving meaningful, mandatory climate change legislation.
Faced with ardent opponents in the legislature and the business community, Clinton was unwilling to spend his political capital on an issue that would not become acute during his term. Embroiled in the Monica Lewinski scandal, with the fight for his political life looming, and confronting an antagonistic legislature, Clinton lacked the political means to push forth meaningful climate change legislation, let alone ratifying the controversial Kyoto Protocol. He simply kicked the can further down the road, where it could be addressed by a future administration. No “White House effect” here.
During his eight years in office, George W. Bush (2001-2009) displayed a dearth of global cooperation on climate change. Shortly after taking office, he announced in March 2001 that he would not submit the Kyoto Protocol to the Senate for ratification. In a letter to the Senate, he called the Kyoto Protocol “fatally flawed” citing the following primary reasons: it exempts China and India from compliance, it would cause serious harm to the US economy, and he believed the state of scientific knowledge on climate change was incomplete. The second Bush administration chose a “go-it-alone” approach to the issue of climate change.
In spite of limited U.S. engagement, the international community pressed forward. The December 2007 COP 13 was held in Bali—a small, Southeast Asian island surrounded by coral reefs just south of the equator. The purpose of COP 13 was to give direction for the negotiating process leading up to a post-Kyoto Protocol, which was due to expire in 2012. The resulting Bali Roadmap led negotiators through the 2008 COP14 in Poznan, Poland, en route to COP15 in Copenhagen, Denmark. Of special note, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), along with Al Gore, was awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize “for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change.” IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri, who was deeply involved in the Bali negotiations, had to interrupt his activities to fly to Oslo, Norway—right in the middle of the Bali Conference—to accept the Peace Prize on behalf of the IPCC.
Copenhagen was a fitting destination for what could have been an historic international climate conference—one that held the potential to reshape global greenhouse gas emission targets and concomitant control of rising global temperatures for decades to come. Copenhagen fashions itself as an eco-metropolis; it is rated as the greenest major city in Europe and aims to become the world’s first carbon-neutral capital city by 2025. The city had even been dubbed “Hopenhagen,” underscoring the fervent hope that the conference would build a better future for our planet and a more sustainable way of life.
Hopes soared when President Obama announced that he would personally attend the final day of the conference, a strong indication that the administration expected delegates to sign a meaningful agreement in Copenhagen. He arrived with significant political capital, including his own Nobel Peace Prize, awarded just the day before.
Hopenhagen saw the largest gathering of world leaders ever outside the UN in New York. Their collective voices echoed a unified theme: we are all here to agree on a plan to save our planet from a looming environmental crisis that—if not addressed now—will set in motion a cascading and catastrophic series of events. Rising sea levels will erase small-island nations and inundate coastlines, creating millions of environmental refugees. The loss of glaciers will threaten fresh drinking water supplies for half of the world’s population. Desertification, resource competition, and species extinction and redistribution will spark climate wars. The list goes on. In speech after speech, these world leaders all agreed that the social consequences of inaction were enormous.
In addition to a gaggle of U.S. legislators and emissaries who preceded Obama on the Hopenhagen stage, the President also enjoyed significant domestic support. This included a nonpartisan “Climate Framework,” drafted by Senators Kerry (D-MA), Lieberman (I-CT), and Graham (R-SC), as well as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) recent declaration that “greenhouse gases threaten the public health and welfare of the American people.” This gave the EPA the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act.
Unfortunately, COP 15 in Hopenhagen did not live up to its name. International haggling over targets (the emission-reduction goals set for each nation), money (how much financial assistance, and from whom, should be provided to developing nations), and transparency (how would emissions be verified) was intense and intractable. What emerged was a weak and widely varied list of promises under the non-binding Copenhagen Accord. In fact, the UNFCCC parties did not formally adopt the accord—ultimately, they could only agree to “take note” of the document. To date, we have no binding international agreement. COP 15 also redefined the geopolitical landscape, with the emergence of China and India as climate-negotiation superpowers.
The path from COP 15 in Copenhagen has taken us through the 2010 COP 16 in Cancun, Mexico and the 2011 COP17 in Durban, South Africa. The COP 16 Cancun Agreements achieved modest outcomes in terms of funding for developing nations and technology transfer, and member nations confirmed the need for deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions in order to hold our global average temperature increase to less than 2oC above pre-industrial levels. A marathon negotiating schedule at COP 17 resulted in The Durban Platform. Here, parties agreed to create a legally binding global treaty by 2015, with an effective date of 2020. In addition to the developed nations, China and India would be bound by this treaty.
It’s been a long road—20 years and 17 COPS—from the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio to COP 18 in Doha. Along the way, member nations have voiced, in strong terms, our need to curb greenhouse gas emissions. The science has become increasingly robust. We must limit our greenhouse gas emissions for future sustainability.
We have not slowed, let alone reversed the growth of greenhouse gas emissions. President Obama reaffirmed our moral obligation to future generations in his recent election night address, “We want our children to live in an America that isn’t … threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.” The time to begin rolling back the specter of a warming planet is now.