A Course Adjustment for Climate Talks

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With little hope that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process will produce an effective treaty, at least for the next several years and perhaps longer, are there other paths that could lead to near-term reductions in greenhouse gas emissions? One approach, forcefully articulated by Richard Benedick (Issues, Winter 2007), would replace the seemingly fruitless quest for a unified global compact with a mix of separate efforts that might have a better chance of resulting in action. Benedick builds on his Montreal Protocol experience in reducing emissions of ozone-destroying chemicals, in which discussions among a small group of countries and chemical companies provided the impetus for successful and rapid global action.

Nevertheless, almost five years and four more UNFCCC Conferences have passed since Benedick’s suggestions, with no obvious progress toward breaking what he characterized as “predictable” patterns, “trivial protocol debates and ritualistic ministerial speeches exhorting complicated and unrealistic actions,” that routinely end in “embarrassingly meager” results. The persistence of the stalemate and the urgency of the problem demand that we consider a different strategy.

The all-or-nothing UNFCCC strategy is too easily derailed by the views or actions of one or two countries, which then become the rationale for other countries to refuse to act. Perhaps the real antidote is to open more lines of discussion and communication and to show that smaller measures of progress can be achieved as stepping stones toward bigger ones. Like Benedick, a number of analysts including David Victor and Robert Keohane are starting to urge alternative approaches, including the virtues of focusing on smaller pieces of the climate change problem.

The argument for segmenting issues and addressing them opportunistically finds further support in the progress that has been made in global negotiations to control nuclear weapons. Just as the experience of the Montreal Protocol demonstrates that significant global progress can begin with actions by a few key countries, the history of arms control illustrates that progress can be made even without the participation of some of the major players.

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