Reflective vingettes

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Katie Nelson
Katie Nelson's picture
Joined: 11/23/2011
Reflective vingettes

After coming back to the States and having some time to digest over the holidays, I’m still sorting out lessons from my experiences at the climate change conference in Durban.  Below are a few vignettes of what I’ve been chewing on.

Global governance is not democratic

Of the 194 countries participating in the climate talks, 185 or so (give or take a few depending on the day) wanted as much climate change action as possible as soon as possible.  Many of this great majority argued that action to mitigate climate change was a matter of literal survival.  However the needs of these countries were hamstrung by the desires of a distinct and powerful minority, the 10 or so leftover countries that also happen to be the biggest carbon emitters.  These countries favored a non-binding agreement--and they got one.  They wanted to wait until 2015 before even making a substantive decision--and so we’re waiting.  They didn’t want that decision to be enacted until 2020. (This was the latest timeframe on the table during the conference.)   Guess what?  We’re left with a mere chance that in 2020 we’ll see a global agreement that climate change is an issue worthwhile…

The forum for global negotiations is woefully inadequate

One of the biggest challenges for the COP process is that national representatives often do not have the power to negotiate their country’s position.  The representative can be sent to the conference to announce the country’s position, but the authority to change that position rests in other governmental institutions-- a parliament, a head of state, congress, etc.  When President Obama went to COP15 in Copenhagen, even his presidential authority to negotiate the U.S. position was critiqued for potentially breaching the presidential powers allowed by the U.S. Constitution.     

A lack of negotiating authority was more than evident during the negotiating sessions at COP17.  Representatives staked their countries’ positions and demanded that other countries fall in-line behind them.  Nations that held similar positions would state their agreement.   Other countries in disagreement would state their oppositional position and demand likewise that others follow behind them instead.  There was virtually no discussion to clarify the reasoning behind different positions or to find common ground between them.  It is little wonder that the last two climate change talks have agreed to little more than a voluntary measures and a timeline to put-off consequential decisions for several more years.  The only substantive shift in climate policy came at a 5:00am meeting that followed a weekend-long extension to the negotiations though three all-night sessions.  Essentially representatives could only be exhausted into an agreement. 

A shift in global climate change policy   

From the dawn of the Kyoto Protocol until now, there has been a division in carbon emission reduction requirements.  Developed countries shouldered the responsibility to reduce their emissions while developing countries did not.  Developed countries were given the burden to make up for their historical carbon production and their greater responsibility for human-induced climate change.  In the time since Kyoto was enacted, several developing countries (China, India, Brazil, and South Africa in particular) have greatly increased their carbon emissions--some becoming among the largest carbon producers in the world.  In an effort to stem future carbon emissions and global temperature rises, the Durban climate talks stepped away from the philosophy of differentiated responsibility.  Instead parties came to their 5:00am agreement that the 2015 decision will require all nations to enact policies that reduce carbon emissions--not just developed countries.  The inadequacy of differentiated responsibility was one reason that the second Bush administration cited for neglecting to ratify the Kyoto Protocol.  Durban’s shift to include all countries in the agreement increases the likelihood that a 2015 decision will produce meaningful action and include U.S. involvement. 

America has a golden opportunity

I edited the above header from “America is missing a golden opportunity” to “America has a golden opportunity” in an effort to be somewhat optimistic.  It seems that much of the rest of the world is looking to the United States to take the lead on proposing and championing carbon reductions.  It also seems that doing so would likely cause much of the rest of the world to reduce their carbon output as well.  I am first to admit that this perception is based on intuition.  Yet, I couldn’t help sensing that when the United States spoke during the negotiations or at press conferences, the atmosphere held a tangible disappointment that the U.S. would continue to ignore this leadership opportunity.   This feeling drooped over COP17, but that was then and that is done.  Between now and the “decision” of 2015 there are three years to change the political situation in the U.S. to embrace carbon reduction.  Not only will reducing carbon emissions and transitioning to a renewable economy make America more competitive in the long-run, but it will also build our credibility as a nation that truly supports democratic values, social justice, and equity. 

The responsibility is ours, the time is now

When Time Magazine bestows the anonymous “Protester” with their famed title, Person of the Year, there is little doubt that we’re entering an era of transformation.  The uncountable protests of 2011 vilified a diversity of oppressors-- government, corporations, religion, the upper classes--yet virtually were united by their calls for justice and equality.  As we look ahead to the climate “decision” predicted to take place in 2015, the time is ripe to call attention to the human side of climate change and the need for political change. 

The way forward

First, talk with those you know about climate change.  Although that may seem utterly inadequate to address a global problem, getting the issue out in the open can influence popular support.  Check out a previous blog post for tips. 

Next, write your public officials.  No official is too local to contact.  Movements often start at the local level before they gain traction on the national stage anyway.  But be sure to discuss climate change risks and solutions that are relevant to the politician--perhaps write city planners about bike lanes, state officials about watershed planning, federal representatives about carbon reduction standards and climate-related aid to vulnerable countries.  Consider throwing in some lesser known climate change factoids that might resonate with different audiences.  To find contact information for local, state, federal officials and agencies, check out the Contact Elected Officials website on   More general letter writing tips can be found on the Union of Concerned Scientists website. 

Finally, get acquainted with your carbon footprint and ways to reduce it: live by example. 


More reflections to come…


M.S. Candidate

Environmental Studies

University of Montana

jbford11's picture
Joined: 09/05/2012
Re: Reflective vingettes


Have you seen this clip?

James Fordyce

akassab's picture
Joined: 08/30/2012
Re: Reflective vingettes

Thank you for shedding light on this issue. As one of the largest contributors to the amount of carbon released in our atmosphere, the U.S. needs to take action as the decision deadline approaches. I agree, and believe that with the influence we have in the global realm, agreeing to reduce our carbon emissions will only create a domino effect, and allow other countries to understand how serious an issue this could become if it's not measured and managed. I look forward to reading future posts as you follow the issue further.

Anna Kassab

St. Lawrence University '14

johncollins's picture
Joined: 03/15/2010
Re: Reflective vingettes

I really appreciate the clarity and thoughtfulness of these reflections, Katie.  Keep up the good work - we are learning a lot from reading your blog!