Cancun Climate Summit - English

Don't Call It Worthless

By Ottmar Edenhofer13.12.2010Global Policy

The Cancun summit was dominated by power politics and greed for profits – at least if you listen to the doubters and naysayers. They are wrong. It is a misconception to taunt UN climate negotiations as useless.


The last summit in Copenhagen has let the world down. As a result, expectations for the COP-16 conference in Cancun were low. After years of gridlock, climate summits are often perceived as the rock bottom of international politics. Even well-meaning critics cannot deny that power politics, greed for economic gains and simple prejudice dominate the negotiations among 194 states. That is the argument of those who doubt the UN climate summit. But it would be a big mistake to dismiss the UN negotiations as useless. Lamenting that politicians think in electoral cycles (and not in the decade-long scale that climate change requires) does not change anything. And it is simply a misjudgment of reality to dream of an independent expert council that would formulate environmental policy based on the advice of sage thinkers. But the Cancun summit shows that the relationship between science and politics needs to be re-defined.

Politicians and scientists

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Chance (IPCC) provides the factual basis for all climate policy. It is thus of utmost importance that the organization pursues excellence in its daily work. Many doubted that last year when the IPCC was harshly attacked. But the criticism focused on some transposed digits with regard to Himalaya glacier. Still, many had the feeling that an aristocratic elite of scholars was trying to tell the rest of the world how we had to live our lives and what we had to do. It was thus important the the IPCC outlines all alternative ways by which humanity could cope with climate change without taking sides beyond the weighing of facts. In the future, it will work with scenarios showing various ways as well as their chances and risks, instead of only recommending one best practice. It is not a flaw that the council is an “intergovernmental panel”, its projects and reports are reviewed and sanctioned by politicians instead of scientists. That is what makes it politically relevant. Scientists cannot replace politicians. They should not negotiate compromises or organize majorities. What they can do is present the facts and analyze the potential of different alternative approaches. But politicians are no replacement for scientists either. They cannot decide on the truth content of various scientific claims. But the dialogue between scientists and politicians can help to strengthen the mutual understanding and make science politically relevant. The climate summits are irreplaceable because they are the only instrument that can create world-wide legitimacy for historical change away from fossil fuels. The success of Copenhagen was the admission that climate change is largely man-made, that it can be risky, and that the most threatening scenarios can be averted through concerted action. Cancun was supposed to be about the next steps: a mandatory global limit for emissions and a resulting allocation of the emission allowances as well as setup of an emissions trade.

More negotiations, not fewer

The slow pace of progression does not imply that state-level negotiations are useless. To the contrary. They need to be taken as a starting point and must be reinforced on a smaller scale within the G20. The stakes there might even be higher, and no country would suddenly discover its charitable side. But the benefit of the G20 would be an avenue for pragmatically driven compromise. That, by itself, would be a huge gain. Additionally, we must remain open about negotiations below the state level. The thirty largest cities could come together; their global influence must not be underestimated. Their infrastructural decisions – such as in the area of transportation – will have a significant impact on the emissions of the coming decades. The goal is to complement the world summit through negotiations on other levels and expand the area for compromise and progress. We need to act fast because time is pressing.



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