Reflections from Doha: It’s never easy

As international climate summits go, Doha should be relatively straightforward.  Essentially, parties need to wrap up some old business so they can start negotiating in earnest next year toward a 2015 agreement.   So why is everything so gummed up?

Two reasons: Expectations die hard.  And however modest the formal agenda might be, the rhetorical agenda knows no bounds.

The Copenhagen debacle exploded the myth that the UNFCCC can produce a single sweeping response to climate change.  But three years later, many are still having trouble absorbing that lesson.  Rather than re-conceptualize the role of the UNFCCC – seeing it as an ongoing process that helps to gradually ratchet up national efforts – they cling fast to the holy grail of a grand binding solution driving efforts from the top down.

And with the spotlight shining on Doha, many can’t resist the opportunity to endlessly grandstand, preferring to continue playing the blame game than to reach agreement where agreement can be reached.

Naturally, much of the opprobrium is directed toward the United States. The general view is that post-election and post-Hurricane Sandy, the U.S. should be a changed nation, ready to step up its game.  (Indeed, U.S. negotiators would be able to at least talk a better game had the White House already given EPA the green light to propose rules reducing carbon emissions from existing power plants.)  But the election largely preserved the political status quo, and all Washington can seem to think about right now is avoiding the fiscal cliff.

There are really only two must-dos here in Doha: adopting a formal amendment setting second-round targets under the Kyoto Protocol for the few prepared to take them; and rationalizing the negotiating process by terminating two old negotiating tracks (dating back to 2005 and 2007), so parties can start having a coherent conversation within the single Durban Platform track launched last year.

It’s a reasonably safe bet that parties will in the end manage to do both, but not before utterly exhausting themselves and exasperating one another with do-or-die brinkmanship.

The Durban Platform talks are an opportunity to craft an agreement that – while probably not the ambitious binding treaty we yearn for – will at least provide a more balanced and durable platform for international action.  To adjust expectations for the UNFCCC is not to deny the urgency or legitimacy of the needs of vulnerable countries.  It is, rather, to acknowledge the limitations of this particular venue, so we can get on with doing the doable – in the UNFCCC, in other international forums, and at home, where it really counts.