International efforts to address climate change solidified somewhat in December when nations agreed that more action is needed to meet a goal of containing warming to no more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s the degree to which the world’s top scientists believe warming must be held to avoid major human catastrophes.
But the deal reached in Cancun is proving difficult to define and put into action.
This week, at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Bangkok, talks again appeared to sour on the Kyoto Protocol and how to balance greenhouse gas reductions between developed and developing nations.
The two nations that continue to loom large over the international efforts are the United States and China; neither committing to specific greenhouse gas reductions. It was one of the main topics of discussion in December when I spoke with German and European officials during an energy study tour in Berlin.
“The U.S. is by-standing in the way,” Hinrich Thölken, head of the Division for Climate and Environmental Policy in the German Foreign Office, said in December.
German and European officials said they understood America’s concern to protect its still flagging economy, but said the nation has underestimated the potential economic gains of an emerging renewable energy industry. Meanwhile, many nations feel vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
Germany, in particular, is very concerned about potential “mass migration” of people due to climate change, which could lead to turmoil.
“It can be just as harmful as tanks and guns,” said Thölken, adding that Germany sees climate change as a foreign policy issue, as do a growing number of nations. “We believe it is a security concern.”
I was among 14 Americans with the American Council on Germany, and we’d just arrived in Berlin days after the Cancun negotiations ended.
Lili Fuhr, head of international climate policy department for the Heinrich Boll Stiftung, had just come back from Cancun and said an apparent lack of leadership was the main topic of conversation.
“It seems like nothing important happened,” but at least participating nations had something new on the table, Fuhr said. “In Copenhagen, China was the elephant in the room. In Cancun, it was the U.S.”
Both the U.S. and China joined the Cancun agreement in saying more action is needed, yet both still resist making specific reductions. Fuhr said China has no incentive to move toward making commitments without the U.S., and Americans noted that U.S. leaders have no incentive to make commitments without China.
Another big topic in Cancun, said Fuhr, was the notion that too much money is poured into American politics and rendering the U.S. government dysfunctional. I asked where that leaves the international climate effort.
“We can’t address climate change without the U.S.,” said Fuhr. “They’re making us abandon principles we don’t want to abandon.”
Fuhr warned against the temptation among developing nations to invest in the “wrong solutions”: coal and nuclear. I asked Fuhr how the international community should engage the fossil fuels industry, which many say is riling the international effort by pumping a lot of money into American politics.
“I would tell them either become (clean) energy companies or die,” said Fuhr. “There are going to be losers,” and we’ve got to think about how we deal with that, she added.
Upon returning to the U.S., I spoke with University of Wyoming economics professor Jason Shogren, who was among a group of scientists that shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President Al Gore. Shogren said the U.S. — and Wyoming — is rightfully protective of its existing fleet of coal-fired power plants.
“We have this capital stock. The question is, how quickly do you retire that capital stock?” said Shogren. “It was made at a time when climate change — we weren’t thinking about it. Now that it’s an issue, the question is, ‘Well, Okay, how quickly do we give up this investment?’”
Shogren said he believes the environmental and economic risks of climate change are real. But he said Wyoming and the federal government have acted responsibly in investing in the research of cleaner coal technologies. Wyoming saw the need to buy an “insurance policy” when it created the Permanent Mineral Trust Fund in 1975.
“In this sense Wyoming has to view this as Wyoming insurance,” said Shogren. “We depend on fossil fuels as the lifeblood of the state. It funds all the public goods we all love, and it also poses a risk to the outside world.”
— Contact Dustin Bleizeffer at 307-577-6069 or [email protected]