What's at Stake at Today's UN Climate Summit

It might look like just speeches and posturing, but serious matters of policy are being addressed

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The United Nations is hosting an all-day summit on climate change today. President Obama already delivered a speech this morning. The environmental threat facing the planet is monumental--but so, too, is the level of difficultly when it comes to reaching international consensus on what to do about it. Beyond the standard vows to act swiftly and statements of concern, what's going on behind the scenes, and what are the implications?

  • Economic Case for Climate Action  Tony Blair and Nicholas Stern argued that addressing climate change would carry broad economic benefits. "Although climate change is ostensibly an environmental issue, what makes it seemingly so intractable is that the questions that divide countries – and which should bring them together – are economic and go to the heart of government policy," they wrote. "However, the fact that it makes long-term economic sense to act now does not deal with the issues that most concern governments: short-term economic impacts and how they affect jobs and growth, and how the emissions reductions are to be financed, especially in the context of shrinking public budgets." Blair and Stern suggested that international cooperation would expedite the economic benefits of climate change action.
  • Obama Alone is Not Enough  TreeHugger's Matthew McDermott cautioned that, as encouraging as Obama's words may be to environmentalists and the international community, he does not necessarily reflect the political will of America. "The gap between Obama's statements and the attitude of some members of Congress and the American public is vast," he wrote.
  • European-U.S. Tension Overshadows  The Financial Times pointed out a "growing rift between the U.S. and Europe" that is "overshadowing" today's summit and "damping hopes" of serious action on climate change. The Times reported, "European Union officials have grown increasingly frustrated at the U.S. stance, saying it has fallen short on both its level of ambition to reduce emissions and on offering aid to developing nations." Europeans decry health care for taking up too much of the White House's attention, while U.S. officials claim the American system, requiring Congressional approval for action, simply operates more slowly.
  • U.S. Positioned for Major Climate Action  Jake Schmidt urged optimism, saying the U.S. is "poised for action more than at any time in the past" and will likely not repeat its refusal to join another international climate agreement, as it did with the Kyoto Accord. Schmidt cited the Supreme Court's recent decision upholding the classification of CO2 as a pollutant; global warming legislation; and clean energy  spending in the stimulus. He also noted that negotiations that appear doomed often yield surprising results, as in Bali in 2007. "Many times these negotiations only look like agreement can be reached minutes after it is actually reached."
  • China and India Will Disappoint  The Atlantic's Nicole Allan criticized the two developing nations, but gave China credit for improving. "China is putting climate change on its agenda," she wrote, even while calling President Hu's suggested reforms "a handy method of maintaining the status quo." Allan said India, still reeling from internal backlash over last year's commitments to environmental reforms, "may not even bother to make China's expected perfunctory effort."
  • Let's Remember Nature's 'Intrinsic Value'  Invoking the words of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, Matthew McDermott pointed out that beyond reasons of trade and economics, nature itself is valuable. Kagame said, "There is intrinsic value in nature, beyond the products we enjoy." McDermott lamented, "Not often do you hear a world leader making that point. You wouldn't hear [Chinese President] Hu or Obama expressing that sentiment at this sort of gathering. Perhaps that's natural, considering the relative global positions of China/US and Rwanda, but nice nonetheless."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.