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All-Night Negotiations in Doha Produce No Cliffhanger

Deadline unclear on climate change, more perilous than economic crises

By Scott Barrett Created: December 16, 2012 Last Updated: December 16, 2012
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Delegates attend the last day of the U.N. climate talks in Doha, Qatar, on Dec. 7, 2012. U.N. climate negotiators, deeply divided on extending the greenhouse gas-curbing Kyoto Protocol and funding for poor countries, locked horns on the final day of talks in Doha to halt the march of global warming. (Karim Jaafar/AFP/Getty Images)

Delegates attend the last day of the U.N. climate talks in Doha, Qatar, on Dec. 7, 2012. U.N. climate negotiators, deeply divided on extending the greenhouse gas-curbing Kyoto Protocol and funding for poor countries, locked horns on the final day of talks in Doha to halt the march of global warming. (Karim Jaafar/AFP/Getty Images)

The annual ritual of climate negotiations has just ended in Doha, following a pattern similar to previous climate conferences. The negotiations continued late into the night. Agreements reached at the last minute will do little to limit climate change.

Negotiations on climate change have been unsuccessful partly because they do not carry the sense of impending crisis that economic negotiations like the “fiscal cliff” talks in Washington do. Meanwhile the planet is inching perilously close to a climate cliff.

Last year, the annual climate conference took place in Durban at the same time European Union member states were meeting in Brussels to save the euro. The euro negotiations produced a new fiscal compact that went well beyond anything contemplated previously. Its purpose was to prevent another crisis, and the negotiations succeeded because the alternative was disaster.

The negotiators in Durban felt no pressure and achieved little, merely agreeing to a process for conducting yet more negotiations.

By contrast, the negotiators in Durban felt no pressure and achieved little, merely agreeing to a process for conducting yet more negotiations. Acting as if they had all the time in the world, they agreed to adopt a new climate agreement by 2015 and start implementing it by 2020.

This year’s climate talks coincided with another economic negotiation—this one between the president and Congress of the United States on limiting the federal budget deficit: On Jan. 1, income taxes in the United States will rise, and government spending will be cut. Only a deal reached between a polarized Congress and the president can prevent the U.S. economy from being pushed over the fiscal cliff. 

Unlike the euro crisis, the fiscal cliff is an invented crisis. In addition to being a purely domestic matter, the cliff was created by a new law passed last year, imposing deep spending cuts if Congress failed to produce a deficit-reduction bill acceptable to the president. The idea was to trigger a set of spending cuts so painful that Congress had to come up with an acceptable plan.

If there’s a flaw in this strategy, it’s that the fiscal cliff is more like a fiscal flight of stairs. The spending cuts will take months to hit the hard, which is why an agreement may not be reached by the end of the year. However, an agreement will probably be reached within weeks of the deadline. Eventually, the consequences of failing to reach agreement will become so great that compromise will be inevitable.

Deadline Ineffective

The Doha talks are similar to the fiscal-cliff negotiations because they faced a self-imposed deadline, but failure to meet this deadline would not have plunged the world over a cliff or even down a flight of stairs. It would only have pushed us down a step. The negotiations succeeded in meeting the deadline, but the agreement won’t achieve much.

The principal aim of the Doha negotiations was to extend the Kyoto Protocol to 2020. If Doha had failed, Kyoto would have died. Some countries, chief among them the European Union, want Kyoto to live on.

The problem with the climate cliff is that we don’t know how close we are to its edge.

The EU is already implementing legislation to fulfill its own pledge to reduce emissions 20 percent from the 1990 level by 2020. A few other countries have also accepted “binding” targets under the amendment negotiated in Doha.  The problem is that this agreement merely codifies in international law what these countries would have done unilaterally.

More important than what these few countries are doing is what the other countries are not doing. 

Japan, New Zealand, and Russia are parties to Kyoto, but declined to join the amendment. Canada declined as well and is scheduled to withdraw from Kyoto in a few days. The United States signed Kyoto, but never ratified it and won’t participate in the amendment. China, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, will participate, but only because the agreement does not ask China to limit emissions.

All countries, it seems, accept that Kyoto is the wrong model for an effective climate agreement. That’s why in Durban they agreed to pursue a new agreement, the form of which is uncertain. All we know is that it’s expected to limit emissions of large emitters, including the United States and China.

From now on, attention should focus on this new agreement. Doha was about keeping Kyoto alive, not about addressing climate change.

Climate Cliff

Negotiations about climate change have been less successful than negotiations about the euro and are likely to be less successful than the fiscal-cliff negotiations in Washington. There is, to be sure, a climate cliff. The problem with the climate cliff is that we don’t know how close we are to its edge.

In 2010, the climate negotiations in Cancun identified the climate cliff as a 2-degree-Celsius change in mean global temperature relative to pre-industrial days. In Durban, countries acknowledged that this threshold would likely be passed. Why should they pass a threshold they believe they must avoid?

In a paper published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “Climate Negotiations Under Scientific Uncertainty,” Astrid Dannenberg and I show why.

We conducted an experiment played by 40 different groups, each comprised of 10 people and representing a different climate negotiation. In 20 of these negotiations, the edge of the cliff was known. In the other 20, the edge of the cliff was uncertain.

In 18 out of 20 of the certain negotiations, the edge of the cliff was avoided. In the two failed cases, one group member behaved unexpectedly, assuring other members that he or she would do a lot to avoid the cliff and then choosing to do nothing.

By contrast, in 16 out of 20 of the uncertain negotiations, the edge of the cliff was crossed. In the four other cases, the edge of the cliff was avoided with only small probability. Overall then, when the edge of the cliff was known, negotiations generally succeeded. When the edge of the cliff was uncertain, negotiations failed.

The problem with climate negotiations is that there’s no reason to believe that 2 degrees C really is the edge of the cliff. The edge could arrive sooner or later. Worse, the relationship between emissions and temperature is more uncertain; countries can only control emissions, not temperature.

Crossing a threshold will throw us into global crisis, giving all an incentive to act. The problem is that exiting a climate crisis will be much, much harder than ending the euro crisis. The climate responds to changes in atmospheric concentrations with a lag of several decades. Energy systems take equally long to be transformed. We can try to adapt.

We could also deploy geoengineering, launching particles into the stratosphere to reflect sunlight so as to cool the planet. But adaptation will be imperfect and unequal, and geoeingeering will create new risks. The one certainty is that, if we cross a threshold, we’ll regret not having done more to limit global emissions before.

The fiscal cliff is a strategic device. We could develop a similar device for climate negotiations, for example, a doomsday machine set to explode the world’s nuclear weapons should concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere top some arbitrary figure. The incentive to reduce emissions quickly would be overwhelming. Future climate negotiations would almost certainly succeed.

However, we won’t do this. As the experiments show, a small chance remains that we’d go over the cliff!

Facing a climate cliff with an uncertain edge, we have only one real option. That is to redouble efforts and rethink our approach to reducing global emissions.  

Scott Barrett is the Lenfest-Earth Institute Professor of Natural Resource Economics at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and a visiting scholar at Princeton University’s Institute for International and Regional Studies. Astrid Dannenberg, his co-author on “Climate Negotiations and Scientific Uncertainty,” published in October, is with Columbia University and Gothenburg University. Copyright 2012 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.

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