AFTER CANCUN: Reflections on Apocalyptic Multilateralism (written in collaboration with Hilal Elver)

13 Dec

The thousands of delegates and many civic activists have temporarily retreated from the climate change wars waged on the battlefields of Cancun. The inter-governmental battles were fought in the resort setting of the five star Moon Palace Hotel, known for its manicured golf course, situated in an ecologically sensitive area beyond the easy reach of activists, while the main NGO happenings were staged on the streets of the urban poor of the town of Cancun, and in a isolated huge convention center.

The overwhelming majority of the delegates went home content, feeling that they did all that was possible under the circumstances for their governments and having rescued for the time being the reputation of the multilateral approach that had been so tarnished by the failures of Copenhagen that were magnified by the rash and unexpected ineptitudes and police violence of the Danish hosts. Cancun, at the very least, was a triumph for Mexican hospitality and diplomacy, with Latin American women running the show with panache, tact, and a credible commitment to inclusiveness of participation and transparency of negotiations. Of course, there were glitches in the process, and moments of high tension at the end, but overall, and certainly by comparison with Copenhagen, there were good feelings generated in most governmental circles by the end of the proceedings. I suppose that the best summary of these atmospherics was ‘Onward to Durban’ where next year’s climate change gathering will convene, and where there were a variety of pledges to get beyond the compromises and ambiguities that clouded the results at Cancun.

If we put aside these diversionary atmospherics to one side, it dawns on us that this meeting of governments, most represented at the ministerial level, was supposed to address urgent concerns relating to climate change, which has up to now widely understood to mean doing what is necessary to keep global warming from rising above 2 degrees Celsius, the absolute highest tolerable average earth temperature as measured since the onset of the industrial age. The scientific consensus seems increasingly to believe that this ceiling is dangerously high, having at most a 50% chance of avoiding severe harm to the quality of life throughout the world, and that a 1.5 degree increase, although seemingly too ambitious to be realistic as a target, is the most average increase in heat that it is prudent to allow. If this is the case that means a reduction of the current 390 ppm (parts per million) of greenhouse gasses to a utopian upper limit of 350 ppm. Even it these lower levels were somehow achieved over time, great problems would remain as the heating of the earth is uneven, with Africa getting a much higher than average heating, causing dreadful droughts and fires already. At Cancun these realities were essentially ignored except by Bolivia as they were correctly understood by the convenors and delegates to bring the whole negotiating process to a grinding halt, uncovering all the unresolved battles about the distribution of responsibilities for reducing carbon emissions, the developing world is united in refusing to slow their development when the problems of global warming were, in their judgment, mainly a result of the buildup of GHGs during the centuries of industrialization in the developed world. The developed world, led by the United States Government (with a climate skeptic Republican dominated Congress in the background), insists in opposition that present contributions to emissions should be the primary basis for assessing levels of responsibilities, making the developing countries, led by China, share the burden on a roughly proportionate basis. This standoff is fundamental, and seems unlikely to be resolved soon by either multilateral diplomacy or by enlightened leadership on either side of this paralyzing divide.

This state of affairs puts the spotlight on the pluri-national democratic state of Bolivia, as it insists on being identified, that stood bravely and resolutely on principle throughout the conference, cogently arguing that the refusal to work toward the control of carbon emissions was unacceptable, and meant dooming the future of humanity as well violating the integrity of Mother Earth. At the final dramatic session when there existed near unanimity in the great hall the Bolivian chief negotiator, Pablo Colon, with eloquence and indisputably, played the role of spoiler refusing to go along with a final text, called ‘The Copenhagen Agreements: A New Era of International Cooperation on Climate Change,” that he described as a virtual death warrant for the human species and the surrounding reality of a habitable earth, precisely because it failed to address the central issue of global warming in a prudent and responsible fashion. That Colon with great composure and dignity stood alone in a vast hall filled with tired and angry delegates, was shamelessly shouted down, and invoked the notion of ‘consensus’ to contend that no negotiated text could be procedurally adopted without adhering to UN procedural rules requiring ‘consensus’ to be equated with unanimity.

In the end to the relief of the assembled crowd at about 4 am, the President of the Conference, the Mexican Foreign Minister, Patricia Espinosa, declared the agreed text adopted, receiving thunderous applause that was also meant to convey the enraged response to the Bolivian efforts to block the process. It is a nice technical question for the legal community as to whether or not in UN circles ‘consensus’ should be understood to mean ‘unanimity’ or just an expression of the overwhelming political will, a kind of super-majority plurality. A related issue is whether a UN climate change conference can establish its own procedural norms for reaching decisions. The Bolivian voice was wonderfully expressive and determined, a courageously prophetic intoning of the underlying failure of the conference to come to grips with the challenges of climate change, but in terms  of process, it would operate as a veto on a process that would become unmanageable if serious decisions required the unanimous assent of the more than 192 participating governments.

Should we conclude that Cancun was a small step forward, restoring some hope to multilateral cooperation, achieving some help for the most vulnerable countries, and illustrating the willingness of most governments to work together for the sake of achieving what was attainable given the political realities of the moment? Or should we condemn Cancun as one more demonstration of the incapacity of the world of states to rise above national interests and geopolitical ambitions, to see ahead to the terrible consequences of inaction at present, and to administer a sedative to the peoples of the world when what is desperately needed is a strong stimulant?

As has been so well said on other occasions, my friends, “the answer is blowing in the wind.”

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5 Responses to “AFTER CANCUN: Reflections on Apocalyptic Multilateralism (written in collaboration with Hilal Elver)”

  1. p wapner December 13, 2010 at 7:47 pm #

    Ok, so statist logic wins out again. This reader wonders, however, as governmental delegates yourselves, where was YOUR room for maneuver? How compelling is that logic when you’re inside? Perhaps the better metaphor for an answer: stuck inside a mobile w the westphalian blues again?

    • Richard Falk December 14, 2010 at 5:34 am #

      Good question: we were in the role of advisors helping the lead Turkish officials present their positions more effectively, but even heads of delegation were bound by instructions from the political leadership of their governments coming from their home capital cities.

    • Richard Falk December 14, 2010 at 7:37 am #

      Paul: I responded earlier without realizing it was you who wrote the comment! But the Westphalian Blues played well
      in Cancun, but further toxified by an ugly overlay of American-led backroom diplomacy, confirmed by WikiLeaks, but obvious
      in any event.

  2. Andrew Z. December 16, 2010 at 9:11 am #

    Now in Cancun one more (small) steps was take to curb climate change and promote international negotiations. However, I am not sure how much international legal norms have evolved since Rio Declaration to address current challenges. What norms do you think seem to be the most promising from the perspective of the lobal environmental change?

    • Richard Falk December 17, 2010 at 8:43 am #

      Sadly, and dangerously, there are no authoritative global norms that major states believe
      to be legally binding on them. ‘Soft law’ norms deriving from the Stockholm Declaration (1972),
      Rio Declaration (1992), and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (1992) do
      provide a vague, abstract set of norms, but without a curb on greenhouse gas emissions, especially carbon,
      the effect is insufficient, based on voluntary pledges and discretionary behavior.

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