Published in openDemocracy, 7th December 2007.
A version of this article is also being published by the International Institute of Environment and Development (IIED)

The “global” problem of climate change is endlessly discussed, but rarely looked at in a cold light. The crux of the matter is that all of us, everywhere, share this same monumental problem. To prosper we need energy security; but if we persist in using fossil-fuels with current technologies, our prosperity will founder. The roadmap drawn up at the Bali climate-change convention on 3-14 December 2007 will show what we need to do to establish the post-Kyoto regime. But to get through the ferocious complexity of the process, we will need a change of mindset. Moving away from a focus on who is to blame and who should act first, we must gain a new political maturity.

Four key messages
? The political torpor round climate change has left us with policies too weak to stem emissions

? This could change with the negotiations in Bali, which it is hoped will culminate in a global deal in Copenhagen in 2009

? The negotiations, expected to be hugely complex, will focus on a daunting array of core issues, and highlight divisions between supporters and opponents of the Kyoto protocol

? The process will work only if it moves beyond claims to the “moral high ground” towards working out ways of moving together towards a low-carbon economy.

The departing United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan warned in November 2006 of the growing gap between what scientists say is necessary to avoid dangerous climate change and what politicians are willing to do. Since then, concern among climate scientists has grown along with our knowledge of the impacts of a rapidly changing climate.

Furthermore, the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is growing at a faster pace. In November 2007, the International Energy Agency published new projections in its World Energy Outlook. These now forecast a 57% increase in CO2 emissions by 2030, with coal use due to grow by 73% in a “business as usual” scenario.

But the torpor that afflicts the political response to what former United States national-security advisor Sandy Berger calls “the existential problem of climate change” continues. The world’s climate policies, at their current level of ambition, are simply too weak to stem the onrushing tide of emissions.

The window of opportunity to keep the eventual temperature rise below 2 degrees Centigrade – increasingly recognised as the threshold of dangerous climate change – is closing rapidly. It is no exaggeration to say that the fate of the earth and its 6.5 billion citizens largely depends on the success of the United Nations climate-negotiating process being launched in Bali.

The Bali conference is the ultimate in “talks about talks”. Its purpose is not to agree what more should be done to tackle climate change. The political conditions simply do not yet exist for such an agreement. Instead, it will try to agree to launch a negotiating process aimed at reaching such an agreement at the conference of the parties in Copenhagen (COP 15) in November-December 2009.

The date for reaching this agreement is important because the first commitment period of the Kyoto protocol ends in 2012. Contrary to much press and political comment – some misinformed, some malign – the protocol does not “expire”. International treaties do not simply disappear.

Without agreement on a second commitment period, or an agreement that replaces the protocol and all its mechanisms completely, the world’s burgeoning carbon markets would collapse. Agreement is needed by 2009 because of the time it will take for it to be ratified by enough governments to come into force before 2012.

The hoped-for outcome from these talks is a Bali roadmap charting the way forward to a “global deal” in two years’ time. Quite what this “global deal” will consist of – and who it will include – remains to be seen. The core elements are now on the table:

? further steep cuts in carbon emissions by industrialised countries

? more money – much more money – for adaptation and technology-transfer

? some kind of quantifiable commitments from developing countries

? measures to reduce deforestation.

But it is not at all clear how these elements will fit together.

Tighten up or all change?

No one should underestimate the bewildering difficulty of these negotiations. Some want to push forward with the current protocol, tightening the targets for the Annex 1 (industrialised) nations and trying to persuade the developing countries, especially the largest emitters like China and India, to take on binding targets of some kind.

Others want to start again with a replacement of the protocol by a completely new instrument that might or might not include the Kyoto mechanisms. The current United States administration would prefer that we went back to 1992, when the United Nations framework convention on climate change (UNFCCC) was established, and simply agreed to do our best voluntarily.

The political effort required for these negotiations to really succeed is on a par with that the west required to win the cold war. That victory involved creating Nato to counter the military threat and the OECD and address the economic and intellectual challenge. It also involved the willingness of western states to spend untold billions on weapons they hoped never to use.

The world is some way from making a comparable effort yet on climate change even though the inexorable threat to the prosperity and security of everyone on earth is far more certain. We are currently stuck in an increasingly futile conversation about who caused the problem, who should act first to solve it and how the pain should be shared.

There is no question about where the main responsibility lies. This is a problem primarily caused by the activities of the rich, western industrialised nations. The cumulative nature of the carbon loading on the atmosphere makes the issue of whose current emissions is largest immaterial. To point fingers at the rising level of Chinese or Indian emissions is nothing more than a pathetic and provocative piece of evasion.

But there is equally something pointless about occupying a moral high ground on which very large numbers of your citizens are simultaneously suffering violent storms, floods, fires, droughts and rising tides of salt water and migrants. If we are to arrive at a ‘global deal’ on climate change we need a much more mature political discussion than is currently occurring.

That conversation must start from the recognition that every country in the world faces the same shared dilemma. All must achieve energy security if they are to prosper. This means using more fossil-fuels. But if they are used with present technologies the climate will change rapidly. If that happens, the very prosperity that required the energy security will itself be undermined.

The “global deal” to be negotiated at Bali and beyond would be better focused on how nations can work together to make a rapid transition to a low-carbon economy than on who should carry the biggest burden for reducing emissions. As the old English phrase has it, if we do not hang together we will certainly hang separately.