Twenty years on, not good enough

After more than twenty years of climate diplomacy, how much closer is the world to avoiding dangerous climate change?  Not close enough, according to the UK’s special representative for climate change, John Ashton, who yesterday called for a renewal of the diplomatic effort to reach an ambitious global deal.

Speaking in London, he pointed out that the pledges on the table after Cancun will take global average temperatures up 4 ºC   by the end of the 21st century, rather than the 2 ºC that most countries recognise as the safe upper limit and which they have pledged to avoid.

The difference matters, Mr Ashton stressed, because the dangerous tipping points that would take the world into uncharted climate change lie between 2ºC and 4 ºC.  Besides, the promises made in Cancun remain non-binding. After two decades of negotiation, the world is still wishing the end, a 2ºC rise, without wishing the means — legally binding mitigation.

It is puzzling that international resolve should have weakened even as the evidence of climate change continues to mount. From Australia to Pakistan, extreme weather events of the kind that science has predicted are causing terrible damage to human lives and economies. In a rational world, these events would make the need for urgent action more evident by the day.   

But whereas twenty years ago, as Mr Ashton put it, “the future seemed ours to shape,” today the OECD countries have lost confidence and the momentum of  emerging economies like China is locking them in to rising carbon emissions.

There are two diplomatic paths open post-Cancun, Mr Ashton argued. The first is to accept that Cancun defines the limits of the possible and to accept a bottom up process of limited pledges and review. The second is to strive to expand the limits of the possible by adding to the bottom-up process the top-down, legally binding forcing mechanism of a global treaty. The bottom up approach is clearly not enough, but at present an ambitious global deal seems out of reach. That, nevertheless is what is required.

To get there Mr Ashton called for diplomats to renew their ambition, supported by politics that align climate security with the national interest.  Without climate security, he pointed out, there will be no food, water or energy security, and a shared doctrine of climate risk must take a  2ºC limit as an imperative.  

“We need climate security,   resource security, financial and macroeconomic stability, and an open global economy. We need to neutralise the risks arising from global pandemics, state failure, mass displacement of people, international organised crime, and nuclear proliferation,” he said.

“These interconnected problems threaten the system conditions for security, prosperity, and equity in an interdependent world.  They can only be resolved by creating the political conditions for convergent responses across national and sectoral boundaries at a sufficient level of ambition. “

“ It does not matter how much power you have if you cannot use it to secure what you need,” he said. We need to ask how we can harness and direct the forces unleashed by interdependence. How can we bend into alignment the way nations see their interests when the system conditions we all need depend on it..  If we fail, climate change will multiply those stresses to the point where the system conditions will not hold.”.