Doha Talks Show Need for Climate Action in Post-Sandy U.S.

Will the United States ever change its policy of obstructing international action to stop climate change? If so, the political pressure to change the country’s role will have to come from the American people.

A passerby takes a picture of an installation erected in protest against pollution. Photo by Neil Palmer.

As the second week of international climate negotiations begins here in Doha, Qatar, rich and poor countries are staking out very different positions and digging in their heels. The big debates on the floor are about how rich and poor countries will strike a deal to reduce their emissions of climate-altering greenhouse gases. And the provision of fair and effective financing for clean development, adaptation to climate change, and compensation for loss and damages is emerging as the make-or-break flashpoint.

After this round of negotiations, it’s up to the populations of the rich countries to make it impossible for their governments to take these positions again.

Essentially, rich countries are obstructing the process by demanding positions that poorer countries say they cannot take. Their approach would condemn millions of people to suffer loss of life and livelihood in the wake of severe climate disruption. Climate negotiators from developing countries should call their bluff and stand together to halt the talks.

For climate realists watching from the United States, the best action in the short term is less clear. There is little anyone can do in three days to alter the position of the United States. The American people sealed the fate of these negotiations when we voted Barack Obama back into office before extracting a promise from him around denying a permit to TransCanada for Keystone XL pipeline, or around stepping back from his announcements that he was going to make the United States into the “Saudi Arabia of natural gas.”

In the longer term, however, the crisis currently unfolding in Doha has made one thing clear. After this round of negotiations, it’s up to the populations of the rich countries to make it politically impossible for their governments to take these positions again.

What’s at stake

At the end of this year, the Kyoto Protocol—the only binding international treaty to regulate climate pollution—will end its first five-year phase of emissions cuts. A shrinking list of countries—including all EU members and Australia but notably not the U.S., Canada, or Japan—have agreed to a relatively weak second round. If no other agreement is struck, most countries will begin 2013 free to pollute to their hearts' content.

Unfortunately, none of the countries involved have years to waste on negotiations. 

While Kyoto limps along, countries have turned to piecing together a new agreement to cap greenhouse gases that would go into effect in 2020—blowing past the 2015 deadline for peaking emissions that scientists say we must meet in order to avoid catastrophic climate change. But this time around, wealthy industrialized countries, and the United States in particular, are saying that they will not be part of any deal that doesn’t also bind emerging economic powerhouses in the developing world.

Developing countries are, in fact, obliged to cut pollution under the U.N. climate convention—but only as enabled by support from the developed world in the form of funding and the transfer of clean technologies. And, wealthy countries have stalled in the delivery of that financing, which was supposed to catalyze a shift to greener development in poorer countries, and thus lower emissions.

Developing countries are so far sticking together and arguing that they’ve already pledged to do more than the developed countries (which is true), and that they won’t move forward until the financing issue is resolved, or at least until industrialized countries make a formal commitment—complete with numbers and deadlines—to fund climate action over the next five to ten years. Wealthy nations don’t want to talk about money at all—and certainly not outside of the context of poorer nations making hard commitments on paper to reduce their emissions.

Unfortunately, none of the countries involved have years to waste on negotiations. In the Copenhagen round of climate talks back in 2009, negotiators agreed that global warming must be kept to less than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrialization temperatures if we want to avert climate disaster. Scientists say we can send no more than 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and stay within that goal. Meanwhile, fossil fuel companies are planning to burn enough oil, coal, and gas to release 2,795 gigatons, a number some of you will remember from Bill McKibben’s article in Rolling Stone on “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.” In other words, fossil-fuel companies need to keep most of that oil, gas, and coal in the ground, or else we’re cooked.

The good news is that after Hurricane Sandy the American public finally seems ready to connect the dots between global warming and extreme weather.

The consequences of the carbon-based fuels we’ve burned so far are already visible. The island nation of Kiribati in the Pacific Ocean is negotiating to resettle its entire population in Fiji because sea level rise threatens its existence. And in the United States, we’ve just experienced a summer of record-busting heat waves and drought, followed by a superstorm the likes of which meteorologists have literally never seen before.

So there’s the catch. We need all countries, rich and poor alike, to act. And it’s the moral and legal obligation for countries like the U.S.—who are more responsible for global warming and more capable of dealing with its consequences—to act first.

What will it take to converge?


Climate negotiators move past activists holding signs demanding climate action. Photo by The Verb/Laura Owsianka.

The problem for the current discussion in Doha is that climate negotiators have arrived with clear marching orders and, short of developing countries literally leaving the table, it’s unclear that anything can shift U.S. red lines. The best outcome we will likely get from this week is still abysmal—vague reassurances of money from rich countries, new market-based tools to offset their responsibility for both emissions cuts and finance, and a lost eight years between now and 2020 where no substantial action is mandated.

In order to avoid a repetition of this outcome, we need to drastically change the political reality in all developed countries. We need to build enough public pressure that companies will be put out of business and elected officials voted out of office if they are willing to condemn the majority of the planet to superstorms, severe droughts, rises in sea level, famine, flash floods, and wildfires.

The good news is that after Hurricane Sandy the American public finally seems ready to connect the dots between global warming and extreme weather. Data from several national polls suggest a sharp increase in the percentage of Americans who believe climate change is a serious problem. And Obama said right after getting re-elected that he’s ready to start a national conversation on climate change.

we need to show that people are ready and willing to make alternatives to a fossil fuel economy work

That’s why the real work is back at home through a three-pronged approach that builds the power of the climate movement. First, we need to bring down the fossil fuel interests that are pumping elected officials full of donations to represent their interests. We should be destroying their reputations, eliminating their bottom lines, and physically blocking their progress.’s campaign to have universities and colleges divest from dirty energy is a good start. So is the Tar Sands Blockade, in which residents are putting their bodies on the line to stop a pipeline from running through their backyards.

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Second, we need to step up our electoral organizing the way that the Asia Pacific Environmental Network and the South West Organizing Project have done to make it clear that climate realists are a political constituency. Politicians must learn that ignoring these voters can cost them their jobs.

And third, we need to show that people are ready and willing to make alternatives to a fossil fuel economy work. It’s already happening—just look at Detroit’s move toward local food systems and the rise of solar power cooperatives in Washington, D.C.

Civil society can and should bring all its fire power to bear on the proceedings here in Doha this week, and meet quietly with the U.S. negotiating team to push innovative ideas like eliminating fossil fuel subsidies—but it’s unlikely to change the existing geopolitics much. It is our responsibility though, once his negotiating team comes home from Doha, to have that tough talk and hold Obama’s, and the rest of our elected officials’, feet to the fire—before it’s the planet that burns.


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