Science

Fixing A Broken National Flood Insurance Program: Risks And Potential Reforms

Fixing A Broken National Flood Insurance Program: Risks And Potential Reforms

June 2012

by Dan Huber

Download the full brief (PDF)

Read the related blog post


The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) insures 5.6 million American homeowners and some $1 trillion in assets. For many years, however, the premiums collected have not been sufficient to cover losses, resulting in a current debt to the U.S. Treasury of more than $18 billion. A number of factors, including increased flooding as a result of climate change, are likely to further widen the gap between revenue and risk. Reforms are needed to put the NFIP on the path to solvency and to reduce homeowners’ exposure to chronic and catastrophic flooding risk. Ideally, such reforms should fully account for the increased risks posed by climate change. At a minimum, steps are needed to adjust premiums, improve flood mitigation measures, and prepare for the catastrophic risk of events like Hurricane Katrina. 
 

Introduction

With government budgets still reeling from the effects of the recent recession, and ongoing debates over the future costs of Medicare and Social Security, unfunded public liabilities are of growing concern. The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) is one such liability that is often overlooked. The NFIP is already significantly in debt due to premiums that have not reflected the true risk of flood damages. Looking forward, the risk of further losses only increases, as demographic trends place more infrastructure in harm’s way, watersheds are developed and climate change increases flood risk over time.[1]

This paper explores the structural issues underlying the growing gap between flood insurance premiums and actual flood risk. It also examines reforms that can put the program on a more sound financial footing and the incentives needed to reduce the potential costs of future flooding. A report by the American Enterprise Institute found that insurers have “a huge opportunity today to develop creative loss-prevention solutions.” [2] Using both adaptive and financial tools to manage the rising risks posed by climate change will be critical to preventing losses and maintaining the insurability (and therefore property values) of trillions of dollars in at-risk property assets.

Between 1980 and 2005, U.S. insurers paid out a total of $320 billion in weather-related insurance claims.[3] While not all weather-related claims are flood claims, losses from weather events are increasing.[4] Today, the NFIP covers over $1.2 trillion in assets, representing more than a fourfold increase since 1980.[5] If providing this coverage is to remain affordable, Congress must provide FEMA with the tools to accurately price and manage risk.
 

References

1. Kousky and Kunreuther, (2010, March 1). Improving Flood Insurance and Flood-Risk Management: Insights from St. Louis, Missouri. Natural Hazards Review, Vol. 11.

2. Kunreuther and Michel-Kerjan, (2009, January 15). Market and Government Failure in Insuring and Mitigating Natural Catastrophes: How Long-Term Contracts Can Help. Washington D.C., USA: American Enterprise Institute Conference on Private markets and Public Insurance Programs

3. Stephenson, John B., (2007). Financial Risks to Federal and Private Insurers in the Coming Decades Potentially Significant. Washington D.C., USA: United States Government Accountability Office

4. Kunreuther and Michel-Kerjan, Market and Government Failure in Insuring and Mitigating Natural Catastrophes: How Long-Term Contracts Can Help. Op. Cit.

5. Michel-Kerjan, Forges and Kunreuther, (2011). Policy Tenure Under the U.S. National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). Risk Analysis. 

 

Daniel Huber
0

Hot Weather Springing Up in 2012

The U.S. has just come through the warmest spring on record—indeed, the warmest 12-month stretch since record-keeping began.

With headlines like “Warmest spring heats up economy,” readers weary of bad economic news might be forgiven for thinking that a little global warming is not such a bad thing. But the warming we’ve experienced globally over the past 30 years is more than “a little.” And in the U.S., it’s likely contributing to drought and wildfires in the West and more extreme weather nationwide.  

This past May came in as the second warmest on record globally, trailing only May of 2010. For land area only, it was the warmest on record, at 2.18 degrees F above average. It was also the 36th consecutive May, going back to 1976, with global temperatures above the 20th-century average.  

Bringing Lessons in Low-carbon Innovation to Rio+20

Opportunities for low-carbon innovation are growing, driven by policy changes, market shifts, and continued growth in energy demand, particularly in developing countries. This Sunday in Rio de Janeiro, ahead of the UN’s “Rio+20” Conference on Sustainable Development, C2ES will have a chance to share what it’s learned about low-carbon innovation with partners from around the world.

With the Global Environment Facility (GEF), we will convene a panel of companies (Johnson Controls, DuPont), small-business innovators (from the Cleantech Open), and government and business representatives (from UNIDO and ABDI) to share stories and lessons from the front lines of clean-tech entrepreneurship. The event, to be held at the U.S. Center pavilion, will examine the keys to successful low-carbon innovation, and the benefits for climate mitigation and adaptation, energy security, resource efficiency, and job creation.

Evaluating Corporate Influence on the Climate Debate

Last week, the Union of Concerned Scientists released a new report, A Climate of Corporate Control: How Corporations Have Influenced the U.S. Dialogue on Climate Science and Policy. It’s an important topic, as we know there are professional merchants of doubt whose sole purpose is to exaggerate scientific uncertainty on environmental issues where in fact the science is quite clear. As the report points out, we have seen this time and again with topics such as tobacco, leaded gasoline, SO2, asbestos, DDT, and now climate change. 

Here’s how the authors describe their aim: “…Ultimately, we seek a dialogue around climate science and policy that prioritizes peer-reviewed scientific information over the agendas of specialized interest groups.” That’s a goal we at C2ES certainly share. And toward that end, we’d encourage a somewhat more nuanced and realistic perspective on how companies behave and why. Let me explain.

Report Highlights Climate Change Risks to Key Gulf Coast Industries

Press Release
June 6, 2012

Contact: Rebecca Matulka, 703-516-4146, matulkar@c2es.org

 

Report Highlights Climate Change Risks to Key Gulf Coast Industries
Recommends Steps to Reduce Impacts on Region’s Energy and Fishing Sectors 

Climate change is already having major impacts on the Gulf Coast region and action is needed to protect its vital industries from the likely impacts of continued warming, according to a new report from the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES).

The report, Impacts and Adaptation Options in the Gulf Coast, examines the risks that climate change poses to the region’s energy and fishing industries, and to its residents and local governments. It concludes that climate impacts are already being felt across these sectors, and outlines measures that can be taken to adapt to the growing risks, reducing the region’s vulnerability and the costs associated with future impacts.

The convergence of several geographical characteristics—an unusually flat terrain both offshore and inland, ongoing land subsidence, dwindling wetlands, and fewer barrier islands than along other coasts—make the Gulf Coast region especially vulnerable to climate change. Among the impacts and risks cited in the report:

  • Over the past century, both air and water temperatures have been on the rise across the region;
  • Rising ocean temperatures heighten hurricane intensity, and recent years have seen a number of large, damaging hurricanes;
  • In some Gulf Coast locations, local sea level is increasing at over ten times the global rate, increasing the risk of severe flooding; and
  • Saltwater intrusion from rising sea levels damages wetlands, an important line of coastal defense against storm surge and spawning grounds for commercially valuable fish and shellfish.

“Nowhere else in the U.S. do we see the same convergence of critical energy infrastructure and high vulnerability to climate change,” said C2ES President Eileen Claussen. “These risks are not borne by the Gulf Coast alone. A major energy supply disruption, for instance, would be felt nationwide. We must respond on two fronts: We have to work harder to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change. And we must take steps, in the Gulf Coast and elsewhere, to prepare for the impacts that can’t be avoided.”

The report’s lead author is Hal Needham, a researcher at Louisiana State University’s Southern Climate Impacts Planning Program (SCIPP) and an expert on hurricane storm surges in the Gulf Coast. The co-authors are David Brown, an assistant professor in LSU’s Department of Geography and Anthropology, and Lynne Carter, associate director of SCIPP.

In their analysis of the Gulf Coast’s energy industry, which comprises about 90 percent of the region’s industrial assets, the authors found significant risks from hurricanes, sea level rise, rising temperatures and drought. The report noted the considerable damage the energy industry sustained from recent hurricanes in 2004, 2005 and 2008.  Thirty percent of the nation’s refineries are located in Texas and Louisiana, and Louisiana Offshore Oil Port in Port Fourchon is the country’s only deep-water oil import facility. At its current elevation, Louisiana Highway 1, the only access to the port, is projected to be flooded 300 days a year by 2050.

For the region’s other major industry, fishing, the report details major infrastructure risks, especially relating to coastal docking and fish processing. Fish and shellfish populations are also vulnerable to climate impacts, with a combination of warmer water, ocean acidification, and excessive runoff from the Mississippi River combining to increase the risk of large-scale changes in the Gulf ecosystem.

The authors emphasize that advance planning can reduce the region’s vulnerability and the costs incurred from future climate impacts.

For the energy sector, adaptation strategies include learning from recent hurricanes to more rigorously assess vulnerabilities; strengthening design standards for drilling platforms and other infrastructure; and undertaking projects such as the planned raising of sections of Highway 1 to Port Fourchon. To reduce vulnerability in the fishing industry, options include strengthening docking facilities and other infrastructure subject to storm surges, and limiting fertilizer use upstream on the Mississippi River to reduce the incidence of hypoxia (oxygen-starved waters) in the Gulf.

“Climate change is already taking a toll on the Gulf Coast, but if we act now to become more resilient, we can reduce the risks, save billions in future costs, and preserve a way of life,” said Needham. “The Gulf Coast is one of the first regions to feel the impacts of climate change. It only makes sense to be a first mover on climate adaptation as well.”

###

About C2ES
The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) is an independent non-profit, non-partisan organization promoting strong policy and action to address the twin challenges of energy and climate change. Launched in November 2011, C2ES is the successor to the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, long recognized in the United States and abroad as an influential and pragmatic voice on climate issues. C2ES is led by Eileen Claussen, who previously led the Pew Center and is the former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs.

 

Impacts and Adaptation Options in the Gulf Coast

Impacts and Adaptation Options in the Gulf Coast

June 2012

by Hal Needman, David Brown, and Lynne Carter

Download the full report (PDF)

Press Release

Press briefing (mp3)

 

Introduction

The central and western U.S. Gulf Coast is increasingly vulnerable to a range of potential hazards associated with climate change. Hurricanes are high-profile hazards that threaten this region with strong winds, heavy rain, storm surge and high waves. Sea-level rise is a longer-term hazard that threatens to exacerbate storm surges, and increases the rate of coastal erosion and wetland loss. Loss of wetlands threatens to damage the fragile coastal ecosystem and accelerates the rate of coastal erosion.

These hazards threaten to inflict economic and ecological losses in this region, as well as loss of life during destructive hurricanes. In addition, they impact vital economic sectors, such as the energy and fishing industries, which are foundational to the local and regional economy. Impacts to these sectors are also realized on a national scale; Gulf oil and gas is used throughout the country to heat homes, power cars, and generate a variety of products, such as rubber and plastics, while seafood from the region is shipped to restaurants across the country.

This report reviews observed and projected changes for each of these hazards, as well as potential impacts and adaptation options. Information about the scale and relative importance of the energy and fishing industries is also provided, as well as insight into potential vulnerabilities of these industries to climate change. This report also identifies some adaptation options for those industries.

0

Climate Change's Impact on International Arctic Security

This blog post is cross-posted on the Center for New American Security's National Security blog.

Today we released a new report today titled Climate Change & National Security: The Arctic as a Bellwether. The lead author of the report is Dr. Rob Huebert, Associate Director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary. 

Official military doctrine in the United States now holds that “climate change, energy security, and economic stability are inextricably linked.” Nowhere is this linkage more clearly illustrated than in the Arctic, and that’s why we think the region is a bellwether for how climate change may reshape global geopolitics in the post-Cold War era. 

As the planet has warmed over the past few decades, temperatures in the Arctic have been increasing at about twice the global rate. And the Arctic sea ice cover has been shrinking much faster than scientists anticipated. The five smallest sea ice covers ever recorded have all occurred in the past five summers. As a result, the Northwest Passage through the Canadian Archipelago has opened up every summer since 2007, and the Northeast Passage along Russia’s coastline has opened up every summer since 2008.

New Analysis Finds Climate Change Is Driving New Security Concerns In The Arctic

Press Release
May 1, 2012

Contact: Rebecca Matulka, 202-701-5032, matulkar@c2es.org

 

New Analysis Finds Climate Change Is Driving New Security Concerns In The Arctic

Report Calls for Stronger Multilateral Mechanisms to Avert Potential Conflicts


Arctic melting driven by climate change is reshaping the geopolitics of the far North, and as governments respond with steps such as rebuilding their military capabilities, multilateral mechanisms must be strengthened to head off potential conflicts, according to a new analysis released today by the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES).

The report, Climate Change and International Security: The Arctic as a Bellwether, examines a recent spate of Arctic-related announcements and actions by circumpolar states, including the United States, Canada, Russia and several European countries. The emerging security issues in the Arctic, it concludes, could foreshadow climate change’s broader influence on geopolitics globally in the post-Cold War era.

Temperatures are rising in the Arctic at about twice the global rate, and the decline in summer sea ice over the past decade is outpacing scientists’ projections. The rapid melting is driving increased interest in new and expanded shipping routes, oil and gas exploration, and Arctic fisheries.  In the five years since Russia planted its flag at the North Pole, Arctic states have issued a string of major policy announcements and begun reassessing and rebuilding their military capabilities in the region.

“The repositioning we see in the Arctic clearly demonstrates that climate change presents not only huge environmental and economic challenges, but national security challenges as well,” said C2ES President Eileen Claussen, formerly Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs and Senior Director for Global Environmental Affairs at the National Security Council. “These emerging Arctic issues are unfortunately just a preview of the kinds of security challenges we’ll see more of as the world warms.”

The analysis was led by political scientist Rob Huebert, associate director of the Center for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary. Huebert’s coauthors were Heather Exner-Pirot of the University of Saskatchewan, Adam Lajeunesse of the University of Calgary, and Jay Gulledge, senior scientist and director of the science and impacts program at C2ES. Heubert is presenting the report today at the Arctic Forum portion of the American Geophysical Union’s Science Policy Conference 2012.

In their analysis of countries’ announcements and actions since 2008, the report’s authors found that while all support the goal of maintaining cooperative relations in the region, several have also made clear that they intend to defend their national interests there if necessary. 

In policy statements, as well as multilateral actions and agreements, the Arctic countries have demonstrated a sincere desire for the region to be developed cooperatively and peacefully, the report says. For example, in the 2008 Ilulissat Declaration, the five coastal Arctic states—Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the United States—agreed to settle any territorial disputes under accepted principles of international law as they seek to extend their claims to Arctic territory.

On the other hand, the authors note, some countries are rebuilding military forces far beyond “constabulary” needs, such as policing waterways, and others are drawing up plans to. For example, Russia plans to build several new nuclear-powered submarines for fast attack or nuclear missile launch missions, and the Norwegian Air Force has announced plans to acquire 48 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. “Consequently,” the report says, “if political cooperation in the region should sour, most of the Arctic nations will have forces that are prepared to compete in a hostile environment.”

One potential source of tensions is access to shipping routes through the Northwest Passage, through the Canadian archipelago, and the Northeast Passage, along Russia’s coast. While the United States views freedom of the seas for navigation as a core interest in the Arctic, Canada and Russia, each with vastly more Arctic coastline than the United States, put stronger emphasis on territorial sovereignty.

To keep relations from veering toward conflict, the report calls for countries to move quickly to strengthen existing multilateral mechanisms. As a first step, it recommends that the Arctic Council, which includes all of the Arctic states, reconsider its existing prohibition on discussing military security issues. Otherwise, it warns, smaller groupings may emerge, and countries left out may feel threatened.

As another example, the report cites support by the Department of Defense for U.S. ratification of the Law of the Sea treaty, which provides a framework for resolving issues such as the delimitation of the continental shelf in the Arctic.

“The Arctic is a true bellwether on climate-related security issues,” said lead author Huebert. “Arctic states should act quickly to reinforce multilateral mechanisms before resource competition and core national interests take center stage. And other countries should watch closely to learn from our successes or failures in managing this new breed of security challenge.”

 

###

About C2ES
The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) is an independent non-profit, non-partisan organization promoting strong policy and action to address the twin challenges of energy and climate change. Launched in November 2011, C2ES is the successor to the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, long recognized in the United States and abroad as an influential and pragmatic voice on climate issues. C2ES is led by Eileen Claussen, who previously led the Pew Center and is the former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs.

 

 

 

Post-Durban and Pre-Election: The Climate Outlook

Remarks of Elliot Diringer, Executive Vice President of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions
Deputy Minister's Speaker Series-Environment Canada
Ottawa, Canada
April 19, 2012

Watch a video of Mr. Diringer's remarks

I’ve been asked to talk today about the international picture – about where the U.N. climate negotiations might be headed after Durban. And I promise I will eventually work my way toward that topic.

But I’d like to start with some reflections on a few recent events in Washington–events that I think in many ways sum up where we stand in our struggle with climate change.   

This past weekend, some of you might know, Washington celebrated its annual Cherry Blossom Festival. This was a special year – the festival’s 100th anniversary. Tens of thousands of people from around the world joined in the festivities. There was only one problem: no cherry blossoms. They’d already come and gone – early – in fact, it was just about the earliest bloom in the century since the festival began. Washington was not the only place that experienced summer in March. Some 15,000 temperature records fell across the eastern half of the U.S.  In parts of Canada, temperatures were higher in March than the previously recorded highs for April.

Now we all know that you can’t really attribute any single event – like a blossom-less Cherry Blossom Festival–to global warming. But even among TV weathercasters, who are generally skeptical of climate change, its emerging influence is getting hard to ignore. Here’s what Stu Ostro, chief meteorologist at The Weather Channel, had to say about the record heat: “While natural factors are contributing to this warm spell, given the nature of it and its context with other extreme weather events and patterns in recent years, there is a high probability that global warming is having an influence…”

My point is this: the impacts of climate change are being felt now–and, on our present course, they are certain to intensify. At some levels, this reality is beginning to sink in.  As the Arctic sea ice begins to melt away, Canada, the United States, Russia and other Arctic states are very actively considering the implications for shipping, for resource development, and for security. Some are strengthening their military capabilities in the region. But in too many places–including here and in Washington–the growing risks of climate change are not yet real enough with the public, or with our political leaders, to drive the changes needed to avert the worst of them.  

Twenty years after the first Rio summit–which launched the international climate effort–we are barely making a dent in the problem. Global leaders agreed in Copenhagen on a goal of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius. To meet that goal, according to most scenarios, global greenhouse gas emissions must peak by 2015. That’s three years away. Instead, global emissions are projected to grow 17 percent by 2020, and 37 percent by 2035. Under that scenario, we could see average global temperatures rise 3 to 4 degrees by 2100.

So let me come back to Washington, and a second recent event: the latest step by the Obama administration to regulate greenhouse gases. The recession has significantly moderated U.S. emissions. They dropped 9 percent from 2007 to 2009. They’re now rising again, but fairly slowly. In fact, current projections don’t show emissions returning to 2005 levels until after 2035. But they would still likely be significantly higher in 2020 than the target pledged by the U.S. in Copenhagen.

Three years ago, you may recall, the goal was comprehensive legislation, including an economy-wide cap-and-trade program. A bill did pass the House, which was at the time controlled by the Democrats, but the effort fizzled in the Senate. The Republicans took control of the House in the next election–and a number of moderate Democrats who’d supported the bill were tossed out. Prospects for any major climate legislation in the near future are now generally put at nil.

So the only option open to the Administration is to regulate greenhouse gases under the federal Clean Air Act–and at the moment, it is proceeding cautiously. When it came to reducing emissions from cars and light trucks, the Administration was able to capitalize on a particular set of circumstances to deliver a genuine breakthrough. The automakers were already being pushed by California to lower emissions, and having just been rescued from bankruptcy by Washington, were more obliging than usual. The resulting rules – one already in place, the other pending–will increase the fuel economy of the average new vehicle from 30 miles a gallon today to 50 miles a gallon by 2025, avoiding some 3 billion metric tons of greenhouse emissions. 

Now the Administration is turning its attention to stationary sources–starting with power plants. Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed a rule to limit greenhouse gases from new power plants. Under the proposed rule, they could not exceed the level emitted by a natural gas combined cycle plant – the most efficient now available. Any new coal-fired plants would have to use carbon capture-and-storage, which could be phased in over time. The reality, though, is that with the natural gas boom there is virtually no talk of building new coal plants.  So the rule would more or less lock in the direction things are projected to be heading anyway. The bigger question is what happens at existing power plants, which account for 40 percent of U.S. emissions. On that–or any other steps to control stationary sources – we’re unlikely to hear anything at all out of EPA until after the November election.

This is, of course, a presidential election year, which helps explain the context for a third recent event in Washington–one that no doubt more of you will have heard about. I’m talking about the President’s denial of a permit for the Keystone pipeline.  

Those of you very familiar with the manmade geography of North America know that Keystone would be but one more addition to a vast network of pipelines linking our two countries. Insofar as it would continue our dependence on high-carbon fuels–something that’s true of countless other investment decisions being made around the globe–Keystone is indeed worrisome. But given the global nature of the oil market, building or blocking Keystone is unlikely to have any significant impact on the price of gas, the U.S. job market, or greenhouse gas emissions. With or without Keystone, as long as oil prices remain high, the Canadian oil sands will continue to be developed, and that oil will reach market. If the real problem is, as I believe, our dependence on oil, then the real answers are reducing consumption and developing alternatives. Blocking Keystone does neither.

Yet with this being an election year; with the economy still struggling; with gasoline prices at record highs; with Keystone advocates promising jobs, cheaper gas and energy security; and with climate advocates rallying outside the White House, it’s easy to see how Keystone has emerged as a symbolic flashpoint. The upshot for now is that a southern section of the pipeline, fully within the U.S., is proceeding, and the President has left the door open for a revised proposal for the upper, transboundary portion.  

The political theatrics of the Keystone episode–with the president trying to punt the issue past the election, and Republicans in Congress forcing him to make a decision now, and the President managing to punt it anyway–underscore a troubling aspect of the climate and energy debate in the U.S.: like so many others, it has become increasingly partisan.

Which leads me to a fourth telling event recently in Washington: A group called Republicans for Environmental Protection took “Republican” out of its name. The group is now called ConservAmerica, a switch that its leaders say is aimed at better highlighting the conservative roots of conservation. Indeed, as far back as Teddy Roosevelt, some of America’s greatest environmental achievements have come with Republicans in power. But Republican moderates are today a disappearing breed. Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine, one of the last remaining, announced her retirement recently. Looking back over her 33 years in Congress, she lamented that “an atmosphere of polarization and ‘my may or the highway’ ideologies has become pervasive in campaigns and in our governing institutions.”

Even outside the hyper-partisan atmosphere of Washington, there is a clear partisan divide. Sixty-five percent of Democrats believe global warming is mainly caused by human activities, while among Republicans, it’s only 36 percent. Most Americans generally support an all-of-the-above approach to energy. But here, too, there are clear partisan differences: while roughly 85 percent of Democrats favor more government money for wind and solar, as well as mandatory CO2 controls, 85 percent of Republicans favor opening more federal land to oil drilling.

So that is how things look right now. I imagine many of you are wondering how they might look after the election. And I’ll get there. But for now, I’d like to put Washington aside for a moment and turn, as promised, to the international picture.

I think years from now, it is quite possible that we will look back at the UN climate conference last December in Durban as a critical turning point. The deal that was finally eked out there at 3 in the morning, 30 hours after the conference was supposed to end, delivers little in the way of concrete action. But it does open up some possibilities. I’d say it is a deal delicately poised between two eras in the evolving international climate regime–between the fading age of Kyoto, and a new phase beyond Kyoto, with developed and developing countries presumably on a more equal footing. What that phase might look like is at this stage very difficult to say.

Since the very start of the climate negotiations, there has been a tension between two different approaches: a top-down model with binding targets and timetables; and a bottom up approach called pledge-and-review, with countries undertaking voluntary efforts, and subject to some form of international review. Twenty years later, we’ve yet to choose between them. Right now, we are in fact pursuing both.

We’ve tried the top-down model, of course, in the form of the Kyoto Protocol. The theory there was that binding international commitments would drive domestic action. One might point to Canada as a clear exception in this case–or, perhaps, as proof that the whole theory is wrong. I, for one, think the truth likely lies somewhere in between. We’re all familiar with the Kyoto critique: that it covers a small and shrinking share of global emissions, while leaving emerging economies like China and India free to emit all they want. Canada is the only country to have actually withdrawn from the protocol, but others like Russia and Japan have made abundantly clear for some time that they want nothing to do with it after 2012.  

Now interestingly, even as Kyoto has been sputtering along, other things have been happening in the international regime. The 2009 Copenhagen summit, declared by many a failure because it didn’t produce a binding agreement, did in fact produce an important political agreement, one calling for both developed and developing countries to pledge climate targets or actions for 2020. The Copenhagen Accord also called for a new climate fund for developing countries, and stronger transparency measures so parties could better keep tabs on one another. In another wee-hour episode, this one perhaps best forgotten, formal adoption of the accord was blocked in the final moments by a handful of parties. But a year later in Cancun, parties adopted all of its major elements and began implementing them. They were, in essence, creating a parallel framework that looks very much like pledge and review.

The upside is that so far, more than 80 countries have made explicit pledges for 2020. This includes, for the first time, all of the major economies, both developed and developing. The downside is that taken together these pledges fall far short of what’s needed to put us on track for the 2-degree target adopted in Copenhagen, and again in Cancun.    

For all its failings, the Kyoto Protocol retains enormous symbolism around the globe as the first and only binding commitments to fight climate change.  And going into Durban, many developing countries were adamant that if there was to be any deal there, Kyoto’s survival had to be part of it.  While Canada and others were saying count us out, Europe said it might well be willing to take a new Kyoto target, but on one condition: that parties launch a new round of negotiations toward a binding comprehensive agreement.  

That became the crux of the Durban deal: Europe and a handful of others agreed to take new Kyoto targets, keeping the protocol alive, if only barely.  Parties took a number of steps to further flesh out the framework emerging from Copenhagen and Cancun.  And they adopted the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, launching new talks aimed at a new agreement in 2015.

What kind of agreement?  If you look to the Durban Platform for guidance, you won’t find much.  Here is the critical passage: parties “launch a process to develop a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all parties.”  There are two central issues embedded here, and on both, these words leave considerable ambiguity.

The first issue is the agreement’s legal character–will it be legally binding? A protocol would meet that test. So, presumably would “another legal instrument.” But the third option contained in the text–“an agreed outcome with legal force”–is a completely novel formulation. An artful one, to be sure, but one easily open to interpretation. And the interpretations already being suggested by some parties sound less than binding, at least as it’s been conventionally understood.

The second issue is the balance of responsibility between developed and developing countries, a perennial concern. Back at the start, in the Rio convention, the parties spoke to this issue by laying down the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities.” A country’s responsibility varies according to its contribution to the problem, and its capacity to address it. Kyoto applied this principle in an especially stark and especially rigid manner: binding targets for developed countries, no new commitments for developing countries, and no clear path for ever moving beyond that.  One thing that can be said of the Durban Platform is that it sweeps away this strict notion of differentiation, and with good reason. China has overtaken the United States at the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, and collectively, developing countries now account for nearly 60 percent of annual emissions.

But beyond discarding the strict binary differentiation of Kyoto, Durban offers scant guidance. While it doesn’t directly invoke the phrase “common but differentiated responsibilities,” it does so implicitly by placing the new agreement “under the Convention.” It would be a mistake to think for a minute that developing countries have in any way abandoned this core principle. And while Durban says the new agreement will be “applicable to all parties,” the same actually could be said of Kyoto, so it’s hard to read that as ensuring full symmetry.

On another issue–the form of commitments to be taken–Durban is utterly silent. The Copenhagen and Cancun agreements were clear that developed country pledges were to be economy-wide emission targets, while developing countries were free to pledge in any form they chose. Is that the presumption for next time? Can’t say.

So on the one hand, by knocking down the so-called firewall between developed and developing countries erected by the Kyoto Protocol, and by establishing a strong preference at least for a binding outcome, the Durban Platform opens up, for the first time, the possibility of a balanced, binding agreement. On the other hand, it tells us virtually nothing about what that agreement should look like.

Let’s look again at the two models we’ve already created. One option might be to keep the Kyoto approach of binding emission targets, but this time set targets for the major developing countries too. Realistically, I see very little chance of getting there by 2015. Another option is to keep building up the framework coming out of Copenhagen and Cancun. It’s proven to be a very inclusive framework, while allowing differentiation between developed and developing countries in the form of their commitments.   

But how would we move it beyond pure pledge and review? Can we make it a system that actually encourages countries to elevate their efforts by giving them confidence that others are doing their fair share? Can we agree on what a fair share of effort is?  Will countries be ready to legally bind themselves? And with Canada providing proof that binding is not always binding, we really do have to ask ourselves, what is it we even mean by binding?

As we start looking for answers, I think this is a good moment to reconsider what it is we are actually looking to the international climate regime to accomplish. Experience has shown us that in the case of many countries, including many of the largest emitters, we cannot realistically expect the international regime to drive the domestic effort. But I believe it can serve to facilitate and to encourage; and as the place where emerging national efforts are stitched together, hopefully in ways that that build confidence and a sense of reciprocity that, over time, delivers a stronger collective effort.

If that is one’s vision of the international effort, then what follows is that the real work to be done right now is not in the international negotiations, but rather, at home. So let me return to Washington, and our election, and the outlook beyond.

One could very reasonably suggest that a re-elected President Obama would be more favorably inclined to strong climate action than would a President Romney. But the reality is that how quickly we are able to ramp up the U.S. effort depends a lot more on factors other than who occupies the White House. First and foremost is the state of the economy, and while there are hopeful signs, we’re not out of the woods yet. The next most important factor is probably the level of public awareness and concern, and that may be very closely linked to the weather.  In a recent survey, a large majority of Americans said they believe global warming is making the weather more extreme. As the impacts become more pronounced, so may public support for action.

And regardless of who’s in the White House, it matters a lot who is in Congress. Right now the situation is so fluid that you couldn’t rule out the possibility of either the Democrats or the Republicans taking both houses. I think it is fair to say that whatever the outcome of the election, stronger action, whether in Congress or through EPA, will remain an uphill fight.

Given that outlook, we see two priorities. The first is to continue laying the ground for a comprehensive policy solution by working with all parties to explore the options, and by helping to strengthen public awareness and concern. The second is to find ways to make concrete progress now, piece by piece, by looking for opportunities where different interests converge, and are prepared to compromise around practical solutions. To cite just one example, we recently pulled together a group from industry, government, labor and the environmental community that worked out joint recommendations to expand enhanced oil recovery using CO2 captured from power plants and industrial facilities. It’s a plan that would reduce CO2 emissions while boosting domestic oil production. We need to find more opportunities like this, get people together, and prove that progress is possible.

I’d like to end where I began, by noting that climate change is no longer remote–it is here and now. I understand that just as Washington’s festival goers missed out on the cherry blossoms, the world’s largest ice skating rink barely made an appearance this winter. Up north, the permafrost is melting, the sea ice is shrinking, and the ancient ways of the Inuit are in danger. We can see the signs, and we have begun to take some steps. But the truth is that neither the U.S. nor Canada is yet coming to grips with the climate realities and climate risks that we face.  We are not out of time, but it is running short. There are serious choices upon us.  Let us hope we choose well.

Syndicate content