Call the COPs: Neville Chamberlain only went to Munich once

Simon Johnson discusses the Durban UNFCCC international climate negotiations through the historic lens of the Second World War and the Rio 1992 Earth Summit.

In a very considered comment at Hot Topic yesterday, David Lewis questions whether the Durban UNFCCC international climate negotiations can come up with a binding treaty that effectively reduces greenhouse concentrations, given the existing public will.

“I don’t see how negotiations on an international climate treaty can proceed to an agreement that would actually stabilise the composition of the atmosphere at a level that would not cause [dangerous anthropogenic interference] without more demand for such an agreement coming from the global population”

Lewis compares the public world-wide demand for action in the international climate change negotiations with the changing British attitudes to ‘Total War’ with Hitler’s Germany in 1940. Lewis implies that in the climate change negotiations, each government is “trapped in a circumstance where it can’t generate the national will that’s necessary”.

In terms of the purposes served by international climate change negotiations, I would go a step further than that thoughtful comment from David Lewis. I say that the negotiations have never had the goal of producing a binding treaty to reduce greenhouse gas concentrations. Governments instead use the negotiations as one of their reasons for not reducing emissions of greenhouse gases and for continuing with ‘business-as-usual’.

Let me summarise my contention using another reference to the Second World War.

Q. Whats the difference between Neville Chamberlain’s negotiations in 1938 with Hitler in Munich that lead to the annexation of Czechoslovakia and the UNFCCC international climate change negotiations?

A. Neville Chamberlain only went to Munich once.

In making this argument I am influenced by a paper my late father Robin Johnson wrote in 1992 about the political-economy of the Rio Earth Summit. Robin uses the term “political-economy” to indicate he is considering the various groups with interests in the Earth Summit and asking what interests were served by the outcomes.

He noted that the expected outcomes of the Rio Earth Summit were binding signed international conventions on climate change and biological diversity. However, the actual outcome was a “framework convention…full of resounding phraseology and generalities”.

Robin says the reason for this outcome was the fundamental split between the ‘North’ (developed countries) and South (developing country) blocs. Neither bloc was was willing to put global interest ahead of national interests. Instead, the outcome of the Earth Summit consisted of “non-binding language … adopted to get all major nations to sign”.

No agreement except on non-binding rhetorical statements! Sound familiar, doesn’t it? Isn’t that whats happened with all the subsequent climate change talks?

Robin’s paper uncannily predicts much of the next 19 years of inconclusive negotiations. He wrote “Prior to meeting in Rio, some governments expressed concern that the Earth Summit would become a “pledging conference” where world leaders would be expected to step to the podium and announce their country’s contribution.” Copenhagen 2009, anyone?

He concluded “The challenge for those seeking action will be to channel the outcomes of Rio into concrete action by member states”. Substitute “Bali 2007” or “Copenhagen 2009” or “Cancun 2010” for “Rio”, and we can re-use that conclusion for all subsequent international climate change negotiations.

So, from a political economy point of view, the climate change negotiations have had the effect of ensuring that international opinion stays “behind the demand curve” for decisive action. After all, that is the function they have served in the 19 years since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.

We need to let go of the idea that the negotiations as they are currently constituted and conducted will make any useful contribution to the kind of decisive international action that is required. We need to accept that the negotiations are just another forum for business and politics as usual.

19 thoughts on “Call the COPs: Neville Chamberlain only went to Munich once”

  1. On the spot Mr. February! It is tragic that it would seem that like Europe slithered into a this fateful war, Humanity is at a similar juncture today. Only this time the stakes are so much higher, in fact this time we not only bet the fate of the nation, this time we bet it all: the planet.

    This is not about national pride and the building of enterprises, this about whether we will have a future as such. If matters run the course climate science predicts we will see dramatic reductions in the base that provides sustenance to us today. The resulting wars and the global struggle for survival will be all encompassing.

  2. Even our own, very green NZ, signed up for the agreement and immiediatly our CO2 output increases by 25% and we start an ambitious program of mining coal. Do these politicians not know what is happening? What is going on in the World?

  3. Having reviewed the bunch of jerks just elected here and what is on offer around the world I fear Humanity is getting the politicians we deserve. Our best hope is for some truly awful climate disasters that will scare the bejeezers out of even the thickos up at Fort Fumble and/or Sydney, Washington, London, Paris, Moscow, etc etc.

    Why is that little pink birdy up in the tree going “OINK!”

    1. I’ve thought similar things myself, but if the multiple world-wide instances of flooding we’ve had since the onset of the La Nina – and the associated death-toll – isn’t enough, you have to wonder what ever will be.

      Say a super El Nino develops in 2012, meaning ’98, ’05 and ’10 are clearly left in the (abundant) dust.

      Traditionally this would only inaugurate the start of ‘cooling since 2012’ meme, but conditions persist, and 2013 is second only to the new record, while 2014 creeps higher again, and drought-related starvation causes a massive death toll in Africa.

      Let’s not be naive; because it would be happening to brown people this would be generally ignored in the civilized West, but massive drought-related crop failures have crippled the agricultural economies of the US, Australia, and Russia, and shot the price of food through the roof, such that even the newly-depauperate former first-world nations – Italy and Greece (and perhaps Britain? 😉 ) – are struggling to feed themselves.

      Simultaneously footage of miles and miles of empty black ocean beamed around the world make it blatantly obvious to even the most dedicated moron – pick your own favourite name – that the Arctic has indeed entered a death-spiral and will be entirely sans the chilly white solid stuff in summer, probably as of 2017; 2020 at the latest. And sans the pretty white bears shortly after. Awww.

      Lord Monckton and the GWPF refuse to acknowledge any of this, of course, but that joke suddenly isn’t so funny anymore, as the new pastime in the that-much-safer (polar-bear-free) soon-to-be-post-tundra regions is flaring the many, many jets of the net of methane plumes that has erupted across the top of the world…

      Of course, at this stage, no amount of regulation, re-discovering the actual function of journalism, or even long-overdue waves of ignoring / arresting / or prosecuting certain persons – as-appropriate – is going to make much difference, but be sure there’ll be fevered calls to shut the stable door and heart-rending cries of ‘why weren’t we told?’…

      1. Perhaps Hollywood is required to create a preview of 2075 to make people react decisively today. Where are the writers when you need them? We shovel $millions at Tolkien’s mystic stories while we should perhaps better spend a couple of hours in a 2075 simulator, 3D, surround sound and all….

  4. During WW2 the Allies expended thousands of lives in the thousand bomber raids night after night over Germany. The reason? As any aspiring military officer will explain after a Staff Officers’ Course – to bring about a reduction in “National Power”, a catch all to describe the total infrastructure of a country. The Dam Busters concentrated on the Hydro installations for instance. We have just voted in a govt that intends to sell off NZ’s National Power to the highest bidder! Thereby reducing NZer’s capacity to control their destination. Hitler, would never have considered such a thing. Had the power stations been owned by Britons they could have simply pulled the plug. (Yes I know that in the case of war the power stations would have been taken over by Germany with no recompense to the owners) The point is – by selling off Strategic Assets we severely hamper our ability to respond appropriately to the impending crisis.

    1. While the thought of selling off parts of the family jewels scares me, I’m terrified of the huge discrepancy between what it costs to run this country and what we are earning. And what we are borrowing to fill the gap, a process that seems to involve using Visa to pay Mastercard, then Mastercard to pay Visa. It all seems predicated on allowing inflation to shrink the amount we will ultimately have to pay back, but since my hoard was somewhat abated by multiple baskets of eggs being trashed in the Financial meltdown, I’m dependent on the OAP and am not confident it will be around for long.

      I was not pleased to hear Jim et al on the Nat Prog cracking jokes about the Euro going belly up. No laughing matter.

  5. Here’s a bit of news trivia that seems to have so far slipped under the NZ media radar. But not on Al Jazeera, where I saw it first, they never miss anything.

    Mexico support a majority voting system. At the moment all delegates need to agree which seems absurd to me. Imagine if the Beehive had to operate under such a system, nothing would ever get passed.

  6. If we were serious about international climate change talks, would we set up the process with consensus decision making?

    In July I saw the Scottish lawyer Polly Higgins give a talk in Wellington. She advocates ‘ecocide’ as a crime within international law.

    Higgins observed that UNFCCC’s consensus decision making, where one vote (USA , Saudi Arabia, Canada etc) can prevent a decision, was not necessarily the norm in international law. And that she deliberately chose a pathway to establish ecocide that did not involve consensus. I think she suggested that add a fifth crime against peace only required a simple majority.

  7. I have been wondering if there was any “punishment” for not fulfilling one’s commitment under the Kyoto Protocol? If not, then it is no surprise that it has been an unsuccessful exercise. When are the governments of the world going to wake up to the fact that we are all in this together?

  8. Carol,

    From the UNFCCC website,

    “…where the enforcement branch has determined that the emissions of a Party have exceeded its assigned amount, it must declare that that Party is in non-compliance and require the Party to make up the difference between its emissions and its assigned amount during the second commitment period, plus an additional deduction of 30%” (my emphasis).

    If there’s no second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol, then there’s no enforceable penalty. So Canada has an incentive to derail negotiations.

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