It's the big pink elephant in the room that few others wish to acknowledge, but a central theme in a new report by former climate negotiator Nigel Purvis: An international climate change treaty isn't likely to be signed anytime soon.
Purvis served as president Clinton's chief UN climate negotiator, and in his report released today Purvis says that the United States and Europe should "accept reality" and take immediate practical steps to deal with global warming.
The report, entitled Rethinking Climate Diplomacy: New ideas for transatlantic cooperation post-Copenhagen, co-authored by Purvis and Andrew Stevenson, a research assistant at the think tank Resources for the Future, see opportunity in their grim assessment:
While the outlook may seem bleak, the United States and Europe have a number of meaningful opportunities for ratcheting up global climate action," Purvis and Stevenson write. "Progress will depend, however, on letting go of cherished, unrealistic goals while opening up to new ways of thinking."
The report is a contribution to the Brussels Forum paper series through the German Marshall Fund, and is one part of a growing body of analysis that attempts to sort out the "mixed and messy," as Purvis calls it, outcome of the COP15 climate conference in Copenhagen that produced the Copenhagen Accord.
Purvis and Stevenson argue that two fundamental truths emerged as a consequence of COP15: America might make promises it can't keep. Conversely, China won't make promises, but will act.
Even though many saw China as a major spoiler at COP15, strongly resisting a "top-down international climate protection regime" that threatens state control and its economic self-interest, most analysts expect China to make good on its promise to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, meeting or even exceeding its stated goals.
Despite president Obama's expression of support for climate legislation, the reality is that the Senate will likely be unable to act on any climate bill this year (indeed, the Senate appears unable to act on any substantive legislation of late, but that is fodder for another post on another blog).
Even though the Copenhagen Accord is a step forward, it does not fundamentally change the political calculus in the Senate," say the authors.
As a consequence, Europe must "come to terms with the unfortunate truth" that the United States won't be a leader in the climate fight and should thus be "prepared to continue leading alone."
Working through the catch-22
The major stumbling block to an international climate treaty coming into COP15 proved the insurmountable hurdle going out: developing countries like China and India will not agree to any treaty that puts poor nations on a par with rich developed nations that carry the baggage of decades of greenhouse gas emissions. And on the other hand, rich industrialized nations like the US won't go along with an agreement that does not apply equally to rapidly emerging economies - in particular China.
Therefore, it is time, the report argues, to adopt a new way of thinking. One that does not insist on trying to convince countries the need to build a climate protection program based on international commitments.
The primary transatlantic climate strategy needs to become directly incentivizing action and penalizing inaction," the report states.
Purvis said in an interview that the new partnerships that emerged last year between the United States and developing countries like China and India are a good start, but need to be "dramatically ramped-up," with wealthy nations looking for ways to raise funds for climate finance, suggesting fees on international transport as one possible area.
Emission reductions are urgently needed and can be achieved now if funds are made available, with economic and security co-benefits for the United States, Europe and the world," Purvis and Stevenson wrote.
Further, despite the political resistance, funds should more easily flow to rapidly developing countries, like China and India, whose emissions are growing in tandem with their expanding economies.
In short, a "zero-sum" mindset, where one country's advantage comes at another's disadvantage, should be replaced with a "non zero-sum" mindset that incorporates the mutual benefits of bilateral cooperation.
Making good on financial pledges without too many conditions related to global climate talks is essential," they write. "The key here is to understand that doing so is not raising the white flag of surrender, but that helping to reduce the cost of climate action is a winning strategy for convincing developing nations to act even if those nations continue to resist international climate conditions."