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High Hopes and Low Expectations for 17th UN Climate Change Conference

Monday, November 28th, 2011, marked the beginning of the 17th United Nations Climate Change Conference held in Durban, South Africa.  With the effects of climate change clear, there have been numerous calls for comprehensive and meaningful international action from various groups throughout the world.  The origins of these pleas range from, but are not limited to, Pope Benedict who encouraged the conference to reach an agreement resulting in “ responsible, credible response” to the “complex” and “disturbing” effects of climate change” to rural African farmers protesting the Durban talks.  This second group is

Rural farmers protesting the situation they have titled "climate apartheid" outside of UN talks in Durban, South Africa. Source: Climate Progress

protesting what they term “climate apartheid” or the situation in which the Caribbean and Southern Africa where changing weather patterns are taking a heavy toll with months of drought followed by heavy flooding as well as the fact that companies often by land in these areas to get profits by trading carbon credits.

Beginning their second week, these talks as well as the nations participating in them have come under criticism.  One such criticism for the conference as a whole is that there are not in fact, in the words of lead U.S. climate negotiator, Jonathan Pershing, “infinite number of pathways to stay below 2 degrees Centigrade,” which is often the number used to describe “dangerous climate change”.  These critics claim that while these talks and cutting emissions remain important, the world is so addicted to fossil fuels that truly meaningful change will require much more than they can possibly accomplish.

In addition, there is a clear distinction between the top pollution producers and the rest of the countries, with the top five polluters, China, the United States, India, Russia, and Japan accounting for more than 50% of all carbon pollution.  These imbalances in pollution as well as in relative influence within the talks have led to friction and criticism of the United States in particular.  A recent letter from numerous organizations to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton encouraged negotiators to abandon their strict refusal to allow a binding legal obligation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, such as the Kyoto Protocol which the United States has never signed.  The same letter also raised concerns about the United States’ rejection of a fund to aid poorer countries in creating programs to reduce emissions on the grounds that not enough was being raised by private businesses.  The letter claims that these objections would seriously hinder developments and that the United States is viewed as a “major obstacle to progress” as opposed to a “global leader on climate change” as promised.

Kevin Kennedy of the World Resources Institute says that the United States’ political climate makes meaningful and comprehensive change difficult, noting that “nowhere else in the world do you see a political debate about whether climate science is real, whether or not the climate is actually changing.”  Despite promises to reduce emissions, the United States remains the second largest polluter and although certain measures such as fuel efficiency methods have been enacted, the necessary aggressive bills have not and according to the World Resources Institute the 17% emission reduction goal will not be reached by 2020.

On the other side of the issue is the concern that drastic changes would severely and negatively impact the United States’ economic competitiveness and claims that although benchmarks are not being reached and the United States is not necessarily taking a leading role it has raised a total of $3 billion, an increase over last year’s $2 billion, in support of these projects.  Alden Meyer, a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists, points to congress’ fears of reduced economic competitiveness and the rationale that the United States alone cannot make a big difference in overall reduction as the reasons for weak domestic policy and claims that this reduces its influence at these talks.

In a potential change in policy, Xie Zhenhua, a top Chinese negotiator, recently announced a willingness to accept “a legally binding arrangement” after 2020 on the condition that other “developed-world emitters”, primarily the United States accepted the same terms.  Although conclusions have not yet been reached in the wake of this announcement, the hope is that it, and efforts like it, will spur comprehensive changes in environmental policy to reduce the effects of climate change.  In addition, many believe that it is doubtful any specific plan will be sorted out at this particular conference, however they point to this development as a possible way of encouraging a more “aggressive timetable” in the future than they previously expected.

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