If the colloquial definition of insanity holds – doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result – the United Nations climate change negotiations should be committed.
Governments have gathered in Warsaw for their annual climate bargaining ritual. The international community agreed in 2012 to finalize a new climate agreement by 2015 so the pressure for a breakthrough in Warsaw is minimal, even after the poignant call for action from the Philippine representative despairing the destruction of Typhoon Haiyan. Hope for the negotiation of an effective treaty before 2015 is similarly low, even with the valiant efforts of negotiators and UN organizers. In 20-plus years of negotiations, the familiar disputes that pit North America against Europe and the industrialized countries against the developing world have changed little.
Yet hope is not insane for the global response to climate change if we stop looking in the usual places – from scientists and the largest nation-states – but rather in the myriad activities being undertaken by cities, provinces, non-governmental organizations, and corporations around the world.
Science won't lead the way to an effective response to climate change. The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report laid bare the overwhelming scientific consensus around the causes and consequences of climate change, but, unfortunately, knowledge of the problem has never been the biggest obstacle to nation-states moving quickly on solutions. We know what the problem is and what needs to be done – the challenge for the UN negotiations is agreeing on who will do what and how the costs of action will be distributed.
There are signs that the United States and/or China are poised to lead, but the politics in both countries present significant obstacles. The U.S. is moving to regulate coal-fired power plants and its emissions have dropped to levels not seen since the early to mid-1990s. China has initiated pilot carbon markets and is working feverishly to build a renewable energy industry. Leadership from the world's largest emitters could motivate other countries to move quickly toward a global agreement, but political gridlock is currently endemic in the U.S. and climate change is a touchstone issue for Obama administration opponents. Hope for Chinese leadership is tempered by the fact that that economic development concerns trump action on climate change.
Fortunately, the UN negotiations are not the sum total of the global response to climate change. Cities around the world are networking and developing multiple policies around transportation, energy, and planning that promise emissions reductions. Canadian provinces and U.S. states are actively pricing carbon through taxes and cap and trade mechanisms. NGOs and corporations are pushing new renewable energy technologies forward and making the case against fossil fuel subsidies. All around us there is an enormous amount of activity geared toward progressive action on climate change. Actions like this are the basis for hope both for the UN negotiations and for avoiding a climate crisis.
Achieving an effective climate change treaty is only possible if the gridlock of incompatible interests is broken. Our best hope for this is that the climate-friendly actions of cities, provinces, environmental organizations, and corporations continue to expand. Interests that oppose action on climate change are strong, especially in North America. However, activities of innovators working outside the UN negotiations have the potential to mobilize strong interests and coalitions that may change the nature of global bargaining. When nation-states see acting on climate change to be in their domestic political and economic best interest, action at the global level will follow. There are pathways through which momentum for national and global action can be built.
Even more importantly, these bottom-up innovations have the potential to disrupt dependence on fossil fuels in our energy systems, transportation systems, and, really, the whole global economy. This decarbonization is ultimately what an effective response to climate change requires. While the global negotiations move glacially, innovations pursued by other means provide hope that we can avoid the worst consequences of climate change.
There will be no breakthrough in Warsaw, though I would love this prediction to fail. Hope stems instead from the diverse and innovative climate responses being developed by cities, provinces/states, environmental organizations and corporations. Those dedicated to action on climate change, including those working so diligently in Warsaw right now, would do well to identify and strengthen this bottom up innovation wherever and whenever possible. This is the path to sanity and a global breakthrough on climate change.
Matthew Hoffmann is a political science professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough and co-director of the Environmental Governance Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs