Tuesday 17 Jul 2018 | 19:13 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 17 Jul 2018 | 19:13 | SYDNEY

The climate 'conversation' defined

12 February 2010 15:47

Fergus Green is a climate change lawyer and co-author of the Lowy Institute's Guide to the Copenhagen Conference.

In response to my post on the post-Copenhagen 'climate conversation', John Hannoush wonders whether 'conversation' is but an empty euphemism; a poor substitute for international climate change negotiations that produce a 'major outcome'. John is right to interrogate the meaning of such buzzwords, which can bedevil international relations because they often mask a far more complex reality. But in this case I did intend a specific meaning.

For anyone else who is unsure, I urge you to read the post I wrote near the end of the Copenhagen conference, in which I suggested that:

...instead of viewing Copenhagen as the be-all-and-end-all for global climate policy, we should reconceptualise the significance of the conference in the following terms: as one line in an ongoing conversation between governments, markets and ordinary citizens; a conversation that should generate an intensification of concrete actions by each of these groups to reduce emissions.

I use the term 'conversation' as a metaphor for the interaction between the different types of actors I referred to in the quote. I am not suggesting that having a literal conversation among states should be a substitute for international negotiations that produce tangible results. I do, however, think that there is a tendency to overemphasise the importance of comprehensive international negotiations leading to the sort of 'major outcome' that many desire, and that this tends to come at the expense of focusing on domestic institutions, actors and processes, where most of the real power to implement change actually lies.

The poor domestic implementation of the Kyoto Protocol highlights this problem. Governments spent many years negotiating Kyoto, and when it was finally agreed it was indeed a 'major outcome'. Yet as a model for international cooperation on climate change, Kyoto is flawed because it is premised on the assumption that the climate can be managed in a top-down manner through targets and timetables while ignoring the challenges associated with climate policy implementation — which necessarily involves structural economic change at the domestic level. Unfortunately, most governments seem intent on replicating – in fact, magnifying – those flaws in the negotiation of a post-Kyoto international treaty.

The Kyoto experience reminds us that without domestic implementation, treaties are just words on a page. Sure, those words can be helpful in spurring action by governments, but it is only the latter that possess the power and legitimacy to respond adequately to climate change. In my view, therefore, much more intense interaction needs to occur among international institutions (ie. governments acting collectively), individual governments, the business community and citizens if we are going to achieve anything near success in prosecuting that response. That's what I mean when I say the climate conversation needs to improve.

Photo by Flickr user Susan NYC, used under a Creative Commons license.