Politics of climate change

There is a lot to the politics of climate change.

In 2009, 98 heads of governments attended the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP) of the UNFCCC in Copenhagen

In Cancun, one year later, according to a UNFCCC press release at the close of the conference, "119 world leaders attended the meeting, the largest gathering of heads of state and government in the history of the UN."

That is half of all the global heads of state and over half of the 195 countries who are signatories to the convention.

No other topic has drawn so many leaders together.

Not poverty, food security, nuclear disarmament, or the massive loss of global biodiversity.

100 leaders pitched up at the 1992 Global Summit in Johannesburg that was the precursor to the UNFCCC and that was, at the time, hailed as the biggest environmental conference ever.

Politicians clearly have the politics of climate change on their minds. It is a high enough priority for some serious posturing and even though there has been a drop in public interest the beating of political chests continues.

If direct human issues raise less ire, why does climate change?

Why is there even a politics of climate change?

Here are five possible reasons:

Reason #1 It's all your fault

Developing nations blame the industrial countries for the greenhouse gas emissions that are the given cause of anthropogenic global warming

They are also none too happy at the idea of having to curb their own economic growth to keep emissions down.

It does not take much for the developing countries to throw brickbats at the west and climate change is too good an opportunity to miss.

Reason #2 We don't want to pay

Paying the cost of emissions reduction is a significant economic impost on industrial nations.

Many believe that it is an unnecessary cost and one that will hurt their foundation of economic growth.

Reason #3 We cannot pay

Paying the economic cost of emission reduction may be desirable but could be done if the impact is a percentage point or two off growth projections. We don't want to pay but we can.

The argument, from the US and China in particular, is that they cannot pay on the timeline proposed, mainly because there are more pressing fiscal demands.

The cost of transition to a low carbon economy is simply too great and would cripple their economies.

Reason #4 Fundamentals

Politics is essentially the tension between the individual and the collective.

Personal freedom and the right to opportunity against the benefits of collective actions.

Climate change has a collective impact but is the result of personal actions.

Climate change skeptics and those with climate change denial are at the extreme of this divide unable to accept that an individual cannot have complete choice over their actions.

Freedom is paramount.

Reason #5 Nobody wants to be the first

When the huge herds of wildebeest arrive at the Mara River in Kenya they pile up, bundled together on the bank. One of them will have to be the first into the murky water and its hidden crocodiles.

No country wants to be the first committed to large emission reductions; just in case they are the only one.

It works for everyone if everyone commits at the same time; but the situation is ripe for the benefits of hanging back.

The UNFCCC is the place where everyone could move at once.

Commitments can be negotiated relative to each country's ability to achieve reductions and then targets set.

Market mechanisms through carbon trading ease the financial burden of targets as the idea is to start with a weak target, a generous cap, and then to slowly harden that cap to push up credit price. Change emission behaviour and hit the target.

Add up the targets and there is a global outcome. This is the idea.

So far, the negotiations have gone the way of most human negotiations, slowly.

A small win here and there, occasional generosity and rather too much recalcitrance.

Everyone piled up on the bank with no-one prepared to take the leap into the water.

In the end

Politics of climate change is really about

  • personal freedom
  • the economics of capitalism
  • international co-operation

And, ultimately, a collective conscience.

How far are we prepared to compromise as individuals and countries in order to achieve a collective outcome?

So far we have been able to ask the question, but have been unable to find a workable answer.

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