Prestigious Journal Nature Should Have Peer Reviewed Its Editorial on COP-19

by William Yeatman on November 22, 2013

Today marks the conclusion of the 19th Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Warsaw, Poland.

For the uninitiated, COPs are the preeminent global climate confab for the green glitterati. The purpose of COPs is to facilitate negotiations for a global treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Each annual COP is a two week affair that follows a similar pattern. During the first week, participant nations send only lower level negotiators. As the second week progresses, ever-more important diplomats and dignitaries arrive, as the discussions ratchet up. On the final Friday, the parties will deliberate through the night, so that they might produce some sort of agreement, no matter how watered down, before they leave.

[N.B. I’m not being cheeky by describing COPs thusly. Consider: I wrote the paragraph above for a newsletter that we sent out last Friday, at the end of the first week of COP-19. [Sign up for the weekly, free Cooler Heads Digest newsletter on the top right of this webpage!]. That is, the above paragraph is a week old. Today is the final Friday of COP 19. Below, I’ve pasted a headline from this morning Energy & Environment News ClimateWire (subscription required):

COP19

I was able to predict, a week ago, that today’s negotiations would last all night, yet I’m not clairvoyant. I was able to do so for a simple reason: This is what happens every year! ]

It’s been a bumpy two weeks in Warsaw. First, the coal-dependent host country held a pro-coal summit the same week as COP-19. Then, developing countries walked out. Finally, environmentalists walked out. Needless to say, agreement has been few and far between.

Nonetheless, Nature, one of the top science journals, wrote a hopeful editorial this week about the prospects for success in Warsaw. Despite the discord to date, the editorial board took solace in the low expectations that had been set for COP-19. They note that, “The goal for Warsaw this week is not an agreement, but a viable roadmap to an agreement,” and conclude, “Surely that much can be achieved.”

To a degree, Nature is correct: Expectations were set low for COP-19. Participants seek only to establish a “roadmap” to an actual emissions reductions treaty that would be concluded in 2015 at COP-21 in Paris. So there are no emissions targets on the negotiating table. Instead, participants seek a “framework” for subsequent discussions.

However, the Nature editorial board seems to have an ultra-short memory. If you’ve been following climate change diplomacy for a while, then “roadmaps” are a familiar purpose. In 2007, at COP-13 in Bali, Indonesia, delegates agreed to a “Bali Roadmap,” by which they established a “framework” for deliberations that would (supposedly) facilitate a global warming mitigation treaty at the 2009 COP-15 in Copenhagen, Denmark. Of course, the Copenhagen climate confab imploded, spectacularly.

So it would seem the cycle has started anew: Another conference writes another roadmap to yet another conference, where, sometime in the future, hard decisions will [supposedly] be made.

As I explain here, realpolitik dooms all meaningful climate diplomacy. The fact is that “doing something” about climate change would require enormous cost-sharing among countries of the world. There is, however, zero precedent for such cooperation, short of world war. A global climate change treaty, one that requires actual sacrifice (i.e., one that is effective), is impossible in an anarchic world system of international relations.

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