A climate change treaty negotiator explains why the landmark accord isn't accomplishing much of anything.
I am intimately familiar with the international response to climate change: I’ve spent two decades negotiating treaties like the Paris Agreement.
And so I can say this, with some degree of certitude: It’s total bullshit.
How many major industrialized countries are on track to meet their targets under the Paris Agreement? Zero. Rich countries know that we're not going to get ahead of climate change; they've already begun the process of transforming themselves into gated communities.
Perhaps the most distressing aspect of the Paris Agreement isn’t the fact that every major developed country on earth hasn’t yet enacted policies that would meet their pledges. Neither does it lie in the disparity between nationally determined emissions targets and pledged policies, as infuriating as this hypocrisy is. In fact, even if every major developed country met all of its pledges, we’d still be on track for roughly three degrees Celsius of warming by 2100—or double the Paris Agreement’s nominal goal, which is in turn based on IPCC’s recommendations.
Our current policy trajectory puts us directly on track for widespread devastation and misery, all of which is likely familiar to anyone who has read a newspaper or watched the news at any point in the past few decades.
What’s most distressing about this dynamic is that even though every major developed country pays lip service to “climate hope” or similar greenwashing mantras, in the background these same countries are quietly jockeying for primacy on soon-to-be-viable polar shipping routes, forestalling immigration by climate refugees, or taking steps to secure freshwater and other resources in anticipation of a hotter, drier future.
For every paean to climate optimism by leaders, there are multiple subtle signals that countries actually expect to fail at preventing climate chaos. Canada, which terms itself “a world leader in the fight against climate change” has begun deploying military rangers to lay the groundwork for shipping lanes in the Arctic. Norway, with something of an environmental halo for its “green” policies and well-regarded role in international environmental diplomacy, is currently accelerating its pace of oil well exploration and is on track to drill more oil wells than ever before. Germany, a leader among major industrialized nations for its share of renewable energy is tightening immigration policy to decrease the numbers of asylum seekers allowed in the country (both climate-driven and otherwise). New Zealand, a darling of the international set for its “clean, green” image and 84 percent renewable electricity has been fighting to prevent an expected upwelling of Pacific Island climate refugees from seeking asylum, arguing there are “no legally binding regional conventions or treaties that prescribe obligations for developed countries towards Pacific Island neighbours in the climate change context.”
The discrepancy between countries’ words and actions takes on special significance when these actions serve to force others to pay the cost of climate inaction. This discrepancy between word and deed is a bad faith version of the free-rider problem. Virtually every country wants to avoid the consequences of climate change, but developed countries are apparently trying to virtue signal their way into everyone else carrying the water (often literally—China is hard at work re-engineering transboundary water flows in its favor).
No amount of recycling or carpooling is going to surmount our multiple decades of inaction on climate change. No amount of lofty rhetoric or calls for comity is meaningful when we still don’t have binding international agreements, let alone carbon fee and dividend plans with border tax adjustments. Since the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was adopted in 1992, per capita CO2 emissions have increased by 17 percent.
We’re not just failing to heal the world, we’re not even flattening the curve on climate change.
Against this backdrop, references to sustainable futures by wealthy countries begin to seem like misdirection, intended to lull us into a false sense of security while the greatest tragedy of the commons in human history is allowed to reach its logical endpoint. Major industrialized nations sign (non-binding) declarations sanctifying territorial integrity, sovereignty, agreed upon international norms, development goals, decarbonization, sustainability—and then muster a dismal zero percent compliance rate with the Paris Agreement.
Our generation has been tasked with finding solutions to environmental catastrophes set in motion long ago. Everything in my experience suggests to me that the UN will likely not be up to the task of addressing climate change. No one is riding to our rescue. There are no adults in the room. We have no recourse. We will need to take direct action if we want to save the planet. Failing that, the cynic in me thinks the safest individual course is to take the lead of wealthy industrialized countries, and hope that conspicuously miming climate action will trick other people into making the sacrifices we’re not willing to make ourselves, while secretly planning for a hopeless future.
Ivan Goncharov, in his novel, Oblomov, noted that “it's the trick of dishonest people to offer sacrifices that are not needed or cannot be made so as to avoid making those that are required.” International diplomacy around climate change mitigation and adaptation is suffused with precisely this variety of trickery. I have never in my life flown more than when I worked for a UN specialized agency on climate change programming, and multiple branches of the UN (including the one requiring me to fly around the world for meetings that could have easily been transacted online) don’t even bother offsetting their carbon emissions.
This disregard is mirrored in the behavior of the diplomats and trade representatives who attend international climate change negotiations. I have personally seen delegates asleep in their seats at climate change meetings, and resource-constrained country delegates agitate for more widespread travel because it renders one eligible for a (relatively) generous daily service allowance. I don’t at all intend this as a lamentation about the edifice of international environmental diplomacy. Rather, I’m arguing in favor of actual diplomacy with teeth, that will result in common but differentiated responsibilities, tangible provisions to offset the loss and damage that vulnerable countries have suffered, and binding, enforceable climate mitigation agreements. Anything less amounts to avoiding the sacrifices that we actually require.