I'm following the UN climate talks with Adopt a Negotiator not only because I care about the fate of our planet, but also because I care about US global leadership. Perhaps more than any other country in the world, the United States has the financial, diplomatic, and technological resources, and therefore both the responsibility and the opportunity, to take the lead on the global fight against climate change and its impacts.
That's one reason I was excited to have the opportunity to speak with the US Deputy Special Envoy on Climate Change Jonathan Pershing this morning, the head US negotiator here in Durban. A scientist who previously worked for an environmental resources think tank and the International Energy Agency, Pershing was the lead US negotiator for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol.
In his 2009 inaugural address, President Obama promised that during his administration, “We will restore science to its rightful place … We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories… With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet.” Yet since that high point, the administration’s vision for a new climate future has foundered, with the failure of Congress to pass emissions reduction legislation, and in the international arena, the failure to get a legally binding outcome in Copenhagen. A recent report even claims that the Obama administration has been a poor environmental steward at home, overruling scientific advisers and blocking some environmental standards proposed by the EPA.
Given this ambiguity, I asked Pershing for clarification on the United States’ long-term vision for addressing the global climate change problem. Here’s what he had to say:
In the long term, the vision was defined in the way that the global community can keep emissions consistent with being below 2 degrees and adapting to the consequences that are unavoidable. And you do that by engaging all the major players in mitigation, and by providing support for those most vulnerable countries with particular attention to those that do not have domestic capacity. On the mitigation side, it’s a combination of new technology, of political commitment at a domestic level, and of international engagement to build confidence for future action.
At the end of the day the question for us is not the legal regime specifically, it’s the international regime and how you take action. What I worry about is a process where we are focused on the form instead of the subject. …it’s this combination of the pragmatism and the science. The science says you have to do more. We agree with the science. The pragmatism says you have to do more in a way that gets everyone in. The major players may not be willing to do legal… it’s much more important for us to solve the problem than to rigidly adhere to a form which may not solve the problem.
One of the most pressing issues facing the Durban talks is whether negotiators will agree on a plan for a new legally binding emissions reduction regime, in tandem with a new commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol. Pershing’s comments over the past few days have indicated that the US doesn’t think a new legal regime will be agreed upon before 2020. But 2020 will be too late to avoid catastrophic and irreversible effects of climate change.
The ad hoc, voluntary emissions pledges that Pershing touts, as under the Copenhagen Accord and Cancun Agreements, aren’t enough to ensure that we avoid the disastrous and unpredictable effects of climate change. Pershing says he believes that the US is demonstrating global leadership at the UNFCCC. Yet I think that the US can do more to meaningfully engage with others to take the lead on ensuring a new legally binding climate change regime. As one of many young people here who will experience the worst of climate change’s impacts if negotiators here fail in their task, I hope they will redouble their efforts to reach a new agreement.