Climate Politics Come to The Hague

Just a few strange days after the American elections, the climate negotiations will have a long-anticipated, critical, and entirely inevitable confrontation with global environmental justice. Still, you may not notice it. The stage on which the confrontation will unfold -- COP6, the 6th Conference of the Parties to the climate convention -- isn't likely to get much coverage, at least not here, and even if it does, "the equity issue" is too subterranean to be "news." Still, we can hope, and we should, for COP6 isn't just going to be the most crucial climate meeting since 1997's Kyoto showdown, it's going to be its completion. This November, the other shoe is going to drop.

We won in Kyoto, or so it's said. But that was in simpler days, when winning only meant keeping the oil companies, the Saudis, and the rest of the Carbon Cartel from entirely derailing the negotiations. That was before the scientific consensus had firmed into its current, decisively grim outlines. That was back when the Kyoto compromise, though it was pitched exclusively to the rich North, could still look like victory. Now, three years further down the road, we're coming face to face with the stolid, implacable fact that an effective treaty has to actually work. And it has to work for the poor as well as for the rich.

Unfortunately, COP6 is unlikely to do much in response. The negotiating focus, now, is writing the rules that will put meat on Kyoto's fragile bones. What's the problem? Only that we need a 60% to 80% reduction in global carbon-dioxide emissions; that this almost incomprehensible reduction must come soon, even as the South, strains to follow the North on the road to "development."

Only that Kyoto promises the North continued access to its current, vastly disproportionate share of the global carbon budget, even as that budget shrinks. And that, in direct consequence, Kyoto threatens to leave the "developing world" without any atmospheric space to develop into.

What comes next? We know the players, if not the outcome. We know that The Hague will soon fill with diplomats, economists, scientists, activists, and journalists.

We know that the Saudis will demand compensation for the oil sales they'll lose in a clean-energy transition, that the nuclear lobby will be out in force, that the World Bank will be trumpeting itself as no longer part of the problem, but now part of the solution, that Kyoto's many loopholes will be pried wide open. We know that the Americans, in particular, are primed to insist that there be no limits on the ability of the rich to simply buy all the emission rights they need from the poor. And we know that in the spirit of Seattle, there will be protestors in the streets. We know that ultimately the agenda calls for "Climate Justice," and that whatever those strange syllables turns out to mean, that it's not going to come easy.

At least the time of denial is ending. The scientists, warming up for The Hague, have just announced that the worst-case scenario is far worse than they'd previously warned. And the changing climate, as Hurricane Mitch made finally, inescapably clear, will suffer the weak far more than it does the rich. Let us, then, be realistic. Let us bless Kyoto, which was bad enough to survive. And now, wiser and closer to decisive action, let us admit that there's more to realism than the perquisites of power. Let us even see the obvious, that there's a specter haunting the negotiations, the specter of climate justice, and that, indeed, COP6 will see equity lurch closer to the center of climate politics than ever before. Why? Because when the North's negotiators head off to The Hague, intent on buying still more time, they're going to have to at least nod to the spirit of justice. If they don't, they'll be coming home empty handed.

Why? Because we're not alone here. Because, in preliminary negotiations India and China, with the support of a large number of other Southern countries, submitted proposals which call for Kyoto's flexibility mechanisms, including its emissions-trading schemes, to be based on equal per-capita entitlements to the atmospheric commons. Because this notion of per-capita rights, strange though it may seem in the U.S. seems when you think about it to be, well, fair.

The battle now is to define what equity means. It will inevitably, yield strange results. A COP6 compromise, for instance, would likely balance the South's equity demands against the North's insistence on a whole raft of emissions trading and carbon sinks based loopholes. It would be a mess, but it just might be a mess that could be brought home and debated. And the interesting thing is that when the climate debate finally begins, the writing on the wall is going to be pretty easy to read. Because the fact is that no treaty that glosses over the matter of justice can hope to succeed. If there's to be a real climate deal, it'll have to be based on a phased convergence from the carbon budgets of the past, budgets which in effect granted the rich all the atmospheric space, to a new set of explicit and even constitutional budgets, in which each person gets one share. Because the bottom line is that each of us, Microsoft Chairman, Bosnian suburbanite, or Sudanese peasant, has the same inalienable claim to the limited atmospheric commons.

And let me add that this notion-Contraction and Convergence-has friends around the world, friends that include a large bloc of European Environment Ministers, international NGOs like the Red Cross and Christian Aid, Britain's Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, the head of the of the IPCC's Scientific Working Group, and even Jan Pronk, the Dutch Environment Minister who will play the role as COP6's President.

Not to mention the Chinese.

How will COP6 end? The optimists hope that an international effort to ratify the Kyoto Protocol will swing into high gear. It's more likely that COP6 will mark the point when even American environmental elites begin to quietly admit that the Kyoto Protocol, as we know it, is doomed.

What's really on the agenda now is "Kyoto II," and one way or another its framers will have to address the world's division between the affluent and the aspiring, even as they contrive to draw down total global emissions into a "soft landing" corridor that avoids utter ecological catastrophe. The good news is that this is possible. New technologies can help, and if carbon-emissions markets grant us efficiency and are, thus, inevitable, so be it. But the situation is far too serious to indulge dreams of simple techno-economic salvation. A workable treaty must be founded on claims to common-sense justice, and it must explicitly accommodate the South's aspirations for development. Far from the spirit of "global environmental management," in which Northern greens have too often sought to reform the practices of the poor, it must look first to reform in the North, and to the pathologies of affluence.

Will there be meaningful participation by the South? The answer, actually, is pretty clear-only after there meaningful participation by the North.

Tom Athanasiou (email: is the author of Divided Planet: The Ecology of Rich and Poor (Little Brown, 1996). He's also a member of EcoEquity, a new organization which aims to bring the discussion of convergence to per-capita emissions rights into the mainstream of the US climate debate.

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