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Confronting the Change in Climate

Author: Toni Johnson
August 25, 2010

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While Pakistan continues to face the aftermath of devastating floods and the Indus River remains a swollen danger, the disaster has fed debate on whether the extreme weather is part of a new normal. Is it just a seasonal anomaly or another signal that the world's vulnerable spots should expect a surge in such radical climate episodes? A recent study says it is tenuous to link specific natural disasters to climate change (NYT), yet several experts contend climate change is certainly a factor in Pakistan's flood crisis (Wired). "The present situation in Pakistan reconfirms our extreme vulnerability to the adverse impacts of climate change," Foreign Minister Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Qureshi told the UN General Assembly on August 20.

Adaptation to the consequences of climate change remains an underdeveloped issue. Though an August 13 U.S. government study found no substantive relationship between Russia's 2010 summer heat wave and global warming, it argues the need for a clear understanding of the incident to help inform decision-makers on whether they need to do more on climate adaptation because projected changes could "produce heat waves materially more severe than the 2010 event."

Despite the weather worries, the effort to galvanize international action on climate policy remains troubled. The latest round of international climate talks, which concluded in early August in Bonn, Germany, produced progress on the first ever UN-financed, developing-country adaptation projects (Reuters) to tackle such issues as sea-level rise, flooding from melting glacial lakes, and water resource management. But the rest of the meeting was largely considered a disappointment (UNDispatch) as delegates reconsidered issues settled in the previous rounds, and rifts left unsettled were reopened. Methods and protocols for emissions monitoring is still up for debate, and developing countries continue to push for mandatory emissions targets for developed countries similar to the current Kyoto Protocol even though it is clear United States is unlikely to agree. The Copenhagen Accord, a legally nonbinding, interim agreement from December 2009's UN climate meeting, allows for voluntary commitments for everyone.

"The new climate change treaty under negotiation for the past two and a half years begins with a brief document called 'A Shared Vision,'" writes the AP's Arthur Max. "The problem is, there isn't one." Several UN negotiators are pessimistic that the high-level, global talks scheduled in December in Cancun, Mexico, will fare much better.

U.S. negotiators say President Barack Obama's pledge to reduce greenhouse gases 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 has not changed, but neither has the situation in Congress. Potential new climate law has floundered as Democratic lawmakers, once confident they could push through a bill, have been unable to build necessary coalitions in an election year, and prospects for a bill going forward are unclear. CFR's Michael Levi says the Senate leadership's decision to shelve a cap-and-trade bill in July weakens the U.S. bargaining position in world climate diplomacy, and he argues the best bet for the United States is to "shore up its diplomatic position on delivering financing for developing nations' climate change measures."

More Analysis

In the CFR Working Paper, Joshua Busby argues the Copenhagen conference in 2009 set the stage for ambitious action, but, moving forward, countries must diversify the institutions and instruments they use to pursue effective climate governance.

In the New York Times, Thomas Homer-Dixon, a professor of global systems at Canada's Balsillie School of International Affairs, says policymakers "need to accept that societies won't make drastic changes to address climate change" until a major crisis hits.

In the Philadelphia Inquirer, Marshall Saunders, president of Citizens Climate Lobby, says extreme weather abounds while Congress continues to dither on climate change.

Background

This CFR interactive looks at the international policy regime for climate change.

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