“Climate Breakthrough: Obama and China Commit to Change” by Mark Hertsgaard

09 Dec 2009

Vanity Fair blog, 23 November 2009

“You wouldn’t know it from the coverage in the mainstream media, but last week may go down as a turning point in the history of the climate crisis,” Hertsgaard writes, providing the perspective that’s often missing from daily news coverage.

China and the U.S. are by far the world’s largest annual emitters of greenhouse gases: together, they account for roughly 40 percent of global emissions. Thus the two wield what amounts to veto power over international progress against climate change: if the U.S. and China don’t reduce their emissions, it won’t much matter what anyone else does.

The Beijing climate agreement, which emerged from back-channel negotiations that began before Obama became president, marks the first time that both nations have committed to reduce their emissions of the greenhouse gases that are overheating the planet. Crucial details about the deal—in particular, who reduces how much, how soon?—have not yet been disclosed, however, and probably remain the subject of intense negotiation.

With the possibility receding of a full deal at the climate negotiations in Copenhagen in mid-December, then leaders have been talking about finalizing the deal later. But Hertsgaard says the media portrayed the latest developments as an outright failure:

The lack of hard numbers doubtless helps explain why the significance of the U.S.-China climate deal has been largely overlooked so far. Obama and Hu made their statement at a time when the media was still caught up in a narrative of failure: two days earlier, Hu and Obama had been among the 20 Asian and Pacific leaders meeting in Singapore who declared it was unrealistic to achieve a legally binding climate treaty in Copenhagen. Media coverage portrayed the Singapore declaration as an admission of defeat, but a closer look suggests that that interpretation was considerably overdrawn. What Obama, Hu, and the Pacific leaders actually agreed to was a proposal made by Danish prime minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen, who flew to Singapore unexpectedly to urge the world community to start viewing the Copenhagen talks as step one in a two-step process.

I’m not sure how true that is. All of the climate scientists and policy experts I’ve spoken with said that if there’s no deal in Copenhagen, then people will likely aim for another deal next year. (And remember: the Kyoto Protocol, which the Copenhagen deal would replace, took at least a couple of years to hash out the details and get enough countries to ratify for it to take effect.)

But anyway, it’s good to read that there may be some good news and that there may be more progress than it seemed.

As Hertsgaard notes, they have broken a classic stalemate that crops up in these kinds of “games,” where everyone is hesitant to make the first move:

…a hugely important principle has been embraced: both climate superpowers will commit to real reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions, rather than following the old script of each demanding that the other act first. (As I reported in The Nation in July, this change in mindset dates to the back-channel discussions Obama advisers and top Chinese officials began holding last summer.)


books I've read on failure & grace

The World Without Us
The Last Oil Shock: A Survival Guide to the Imminent Extinction of Petroleum Man
A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
Hell and High Water: Global Warming--the Solution and the Politics--and What We Should Do
The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl
The Tipping Point
Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace... One School at a Time
The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization
Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail
The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850
Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff
Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future
The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World

Mason's favorite books »