What's wrong with global climate treaties?

May 7, 2012

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For nearly 20 years, the nations of the world have been discussing ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But from Kyoto to Copenhagen, the results have been limited.

The conversation in recent years typically goes something like this: Europeans blast the Americans for not signing on. The U.S. points the finger at China and India for not doing more. And relatively poorer nations point the finger back at the wealthier ones.

As the clock continues to tick on global climate change concerns, the resulting stalemates have significantly limited progress on reducing harmful emissions.

"Countries aspired to do little, agreed to do less and accomplished very little," write Eric Posner and David Weisbach of the University of Chicago Law School in their book, Climate Change Justice.

According to Posner and Weisbach, that's because the international community's approach to the problem is fundamentally flawed.

They argue, in short, that ongoing attempts to link emissions reductions with economic and environmental justice are doing little to further the cause of each - and may actually prove counterproductive to both. 

By way of background, most of the global conversations to date have attempted to place a greater burden on wealther, developed nations, like the United States. Since the U.S. has generated a disproportionate global share of greenhouse gas emissions to date, so the argument goes, it should assume a greater burden in reducing global emissions going forward.   And since climate change is likely to adversely affect poorer nations along the equator, many believe wealthier ones like the U.S. are ethically obligated to do more to relieve the burden on these poorer, low polluting nations. 

While that may seem logicial - and indeed, even ethical - on its face, Posner and Weisbach argue that the reality is far more complicated.  And they assert that in order for the serious problems of climate change to be addressed effectively, nations will need to set aside their differences over past emissions amounts and current wealth disparities.