December 21, 2009

This Weekend's News: A Winter Wonderland...and Copenhagen

The big story for many of us this weekend was, of course, the monster blizzard that slammed the East Coast on Friday night, continuing through Sunday, stranding thousands during this peak travel season just before the holidays, including me. (I was supposed to fly out on Saturday afternoon, but to no avail. I am, at the time of this writing, stranded in the nation’s capitol. Though with any luck, by the time this is posted on Monday morning I will be airborne.)

Hundreds of thousands experienced power outages, while thousands of others were stranded as the northeastern corridor’s air, rail and road services were crippled by winter whiteouts and the nearly 2 feet of snow that covered many parts of the region.  In Washington, DC, snow accumulation from Saturday’s storm broke the city’s December snowfall record. Meanwhile traffic accidents claimed at least 5 people throughout the region.

The other big news, of course, was the announcement coming out of Copenhagen: the inability of global leaders to forge a binding agreement to address climate change – settling instead on a “take note” agreement, or “gentlemen’s agreement,” among the world’s major nations (The New York Times profiles the winner and losers of the so-called Copenhagen Accord).

The Copenhagen Accord lacks many of the essential elements deemed necessary for a successful outcome from Copenhagen, including firm targets for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. According to The New York Times:

The final accord, a 12-paragraph document, was a statement of intention, not a binding pledge to begin taking action on global warming — a compromise seen to represent a flawed but essential step forward.

Tensions between developed and developing nations festered during the conference over inadequate proposals for targeted reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by developed nations, as well as commitments to send money to help developing nations adapt to climate change. But, according to The Los Angeles Times, “Nations joining the accord will, by Jan. 31, list their pledges for long-term emissions control.” However:

[The accord] is not legally binding. It does not cut emissions aggressively enough to avoid a level of warming that scientists warn could prove catastrophic. It includes no measure to enforce nations' emissions pledges, other than international peer pressure, and no deadline to turn the accord into a treaty to be ratified.

One of more interesting analyses of the Copenhagen Accord was written by The Washington Post:

If the talks that resulted in an imperfect deal to combat global warming provided anything, it was a glimpse into a new world order in which international diplomacy will increasingly be shaped by the United States and emerging powers, most notably China.

When CNAS conducted its own climate change war game in the summer of 2008, this was in some ways one of the central conclusions. When it comes to climate change “American leadership was important and a more favorable U.S. policy helped shape the game, but participants widely and explicitly recognized that Chinese leadership – or at least followership – would be even more important and possibly decisive,” wrote Sharon Burke and Christine Parthemore in the war game’s final report.

Some believe that a binding agreement on climate change, including agreements on technology sharing and how much money to send to developing countries, could be struck through a smaller group of 30 nations – those nations that account for 90 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions – instead of within the politically fraught confines of the 193 nation climate conference.

But as we turn away from the news at Copenhagen, it’ll be interesting to see what materializes at home. Many nations are looking to see what the United States is willing to do to curb its own carbon emissions. And with bills in both the House and Senate, and a President who has taken unprecedented steps toward a national cap-and-trade system and streamlining green energy technology, only time will tell.