Climate Talks: Endless Treadmill, Without The Health Benefits

Global climate negotiations in Doha are nearing their conclusion and the talks are, as ever, beset by myriad divisions between rich nations and poor ones, between established economies and up-and-comers, and between, well, the United States and just about everyone else.

Among the agenda items still up in the air:

The Kyoto Protocol -- Negotiators are haggling over phase two of the only extant global treaty requiring signatories to commit to reduced greenhouse gas emissions, the first period of which expires at the end of the year -- and which the U.S. never joined. Three other industrialized polluters -- Japan, Canada and Russia -- have all said they don't intend to sign on for a new phase of the agreement.

Hot Air -- Under Kyoto's existing guidelines, the emissions cuts required of industrialized nations could be met either by curbing emissions directly, or buying credits from countries that cut greenhouse gases beyond the levels to which they agreed. For countries of the former east bloc, which saw their economies -- and subsequently, their industrial emissions -- collapse after the demise of the Soviet Union, that proved a windfall, and the Kyoto market is flush with surplus credits that significantly dilute any actual emissions cuts. Countries like Russia and Poland want to keep cashing in. Other participants want to do away with this "hot air."

Financing -- Developed nations haven't come up with a clear plan on how to meet their pledge, made at Copenhagen in 2009, to provide $100 billion annually to poor nations -- which did not create the climate problem, after all -- to adapt to global warming. Given tough economic times at home, rich nations are balking on detailed roadmaps to that sum.

Loss and Damage -- Poor nations are also seeking funding for so-called losses and damages that are expected to accompany rising seas, extended droughts, more violent storms and other by-products of a warming planet. For rich nations, such liability and compensation talk has been a complete non-starter.

A Post-Kyoto Agreement -- Nations agreed at talks in Durban last year to craft by 2015 a new, comprehensive climate agreement, which would include binding commitments from developing nations as well as rich ones and would take effect in 2020. China, now the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases by volume, is among other developing countries holding up discussions on this front, arguing, not unreasonably, that industrialized nations are still dragging their feet on existing obligations.

Common Accounting Rules -- Such that any emissions reduction commitments are met or made now or in the future, the community of nations still lacks a common protocol for measuring success and policing compliance. It's a major problem that is unlikely to be resolved in Doha.

Of course, hundreds of other fault lines -- some substantial, others procedural -- run through the United Nations-sponsored talks, and with just one day left in the negotiations, history suggests that an agreement to continue negotiating these and other particulars will be the most likely outcome.

Which leads me to one of my favorite extended metaphors for global climate change talks, which surfaced after last year's largely fruitless round in Durban.

David Roberts, the formidable green pundit at the website, had taken issue with the suggestion -- long made by the Danish political scientist and environmental bête noire, Bjorn Lomborg, among others -- that the talks have always focused on a politically and economically unfeasible solution: immediate cuts to carbon dioxide emissions.

Better, these critics say, for nations to focus time, attention and, most importantly, money on developing, improving and bringing down the costs of cleaner forms of energy. Such a shift, the argument goes, would be less costly and far more politically expedient.

Roberts likened all this to a critically obese patient weighing advice from two sources. On the one side, a group of physicians -- all recommending swift but difficult weight loss. On the other, a sympathetic life-coach, who suggests a slower, less daunting, more self-affirming path to good health -- and one perhaps embroidered with "a better haircut and some new clothes."

It was a rich and apt image -- made even more so by the recent accumulation of troubling research that suggests that the atmosphere is more larded with human-generated greenhouse gases than ever, and that the planet's health may be in serious danger.

But the real payoff came in the comments following Roberts' post, wherein a reader dubbed "Realist" brought the allegory back to the realm of global climate negotiations:

It's a flawed analogy because it relies on a single person making a single decision. A more accurate analogy would be a hundred people, each weighing 350 pounds on a leaking ocean liner, and told that 10,000 pounds in total need to be lost by all the people on the boat in order to keep it afloat. Of course, you'll have some people who will be gung-ho about the weight loss, since it's something they were meaning to do anyway. Others will say "don't bother me, I'm facing this custody battle with my wife right now, and food is the only solace I have," while others will try to use their wealth to pay others to lose more so they don't have to hit the gym. Still others will say that the time spent at the gym could be more constructively used on repairing the boat, or determining the cause of the leak.

I'd add a further nuance: The passengers on the sinking ship all weigh different amounts. Some are obese, some rail-thin, and many others somewhere in between.

In any event, so go negotiations at Doha -- unavoidably raising the question: Would a Lomborg-esque approach really be any better?

By his estimate, committing just 0.2 percent of global GDP to intensive research and development of clean-energy technologies would be more politically palatable -- and more economically feasible -- than what's currently on the table. It might not result in the sort of immediate greenhouse gas reductions that the U.N. process seeks, but it would surely lead to better, more competitive, and perhaps even revolutionary green energy technologies down the road, which can then be used to draw down global emissions quickly.

Whether that idea will ever take hold is an open question. So much has already been invested in the emissions treaty process that it would be profoundly difficult to change tracks. And many experts believe that, in any case, such an approach puts too much faith in technological outcomes, and would ultimately prove insufficient for solving the problem at hand.

"There's nothing about doing more research that precludes taking strong swift action now," said Bill McKibben, who has been spearheading a global campaign to vilify fossil fuel companies as a way of spurring broader action on climate change. "It could then provide the next punch, once we use up the immense amount of current technological opportunity," McKibben said. "But immediate rapid deployment is key, and that's why we've got to start pushing the system with movements, instead of just endless U.N. jawing."

I asked Christoph Bals, the executive director of policy with the Bonn-based nonprofit trade and environment policy group Germanwatch, who is on the ground in Doha, whether the U.N. process had outlived its usefulness.

"The process has different weaknesses, but this is not the real problem," he said. "What is missing is the lack of political will of key players like U.S., China and partly the EU."

There's just one more day for that political will to be found.