The limits of localism in climate action

If we can’t act globally on climate change, let’s do something on our own patch. This is the mantra with momentum as we enter 2013 distraught at the gap between crazy weather and comatose UN climate negotiations.

Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI), the Governors’ Climate and Forests Task Force, the California cap-and-trade program and countless small local initiatives are striving to fill the void left by their national representatives. My own local climate action group in the UK has had far greater impact on the municipal authority’s carbon policy than various laws and regulations filtering down from the Kyoto Protocol.

Even the climate activist groups best known for their global campaigning have been directing their artillery at “subnational” targets. Bill McKibben’s gave last month’s UN climate talks in Doha a miss, concentrating instead on the final dates of its Do The Math roadshow, a US campaign to persuade university endowment funds to dump their holdings in fossil fuel companies.

It’s hard to fault this tactical focus. Boomerang Effects in Science Communication, an influential paper published in 2011 by P.Sol Hart and Erik C.Nisbet, concluded that: “public exposure to news stories discussing the impacts of climate change on other groups outside the United States is likely to amplify the partisan divide on climate mitigation policies.”

Climate change is not alone in experiencing this introspection. There was flimsy NGO representation at the biennial conference of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in Hyderabad last October.

In the UK few people have heard of the UK Post-2010 Biodiversity Framework which furthers the goals of the CBD. Yet this month’s Big Garden Birdwatch – the RSPB’s annual request to count and identify birds visiting ordinary gardens – is expected to attract a response from more than 500,000 people.

There’s one important snag with all this grassroots energy. The dynamic between richer and poorer countries that is an essential component of any strategy for stabilising global ecosystems plays no part.

How can countries which cannot afford to staff a ministry for environment be expected to implement national plans for protecting biodiversity or creating a low carbon economy? Where are the funds for sea defences or compensation to farmers wiped out by extreme weather?

Of course every gram of carbon conserved by action in Europe and North America benefits rich and poor alike. But the earth’s equilibrium cannot be restored unless all humanity is engaged in the cause.

This is a core function of the UN’s “Rio” Conventions. These legally binding treaties are founded on the Rio Principles which state that sustainable development cannot be achieved without financial transfers from richer to poorer countries or without an equitable sharing of remedial action such as reducing emissions.

As we edge towards a world in which the scramble for resources is likely to extend from minerals to essentials such as food and water, effective mechanisms to protect the interest of weaker parties will become more vital than ever. The Rio Principles should be seen as a template for stable and peaceful resolution of scarcity.

This explains why global justice campaigners have been so alarmed at the trend over recent years for some of the industrialised countries, led by the US, to dilute or airbrush the Rio Principles at every opportunity.

For example, the harshest language in global negotiations is often reserved for discussions about “equity” and “common but differentiated responsibilities,” UN terminology of disputed interpretation. There was palpable relief when the Rio Principles escaped a determined assassination attempt by certain countries at the Rio+20 summit in June last year.

Earlier this month, the US special envoy for climate change, Todd Stern, enlarged on his views on “where we stand on climate diplomacy.” In an important statement at the Foreign Affairs Policy Board Meeting, he put on record the reasons why the US is disinclined to do environmental business under UN auspices.

On the question of common but differentiated responsibilities, Stern harangued over the “ideology” that places “China is on the same side of the line as Chad because they were both classified as ‘developing’ in the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change.”

This is a fair point and one that must be tackled in the Durban Platform, the new global climate change agreement currently under negotiation. But Stern offered no response to China’s point of view that responsibilities must be differentiated as long as emissions per capita in the US remain almost triple those in China. The multiple is even higher if we take into account the carbon footprint of US consumer goods that are made in China.

The best hope for all of us is that American households can be persuaded to support policies to reduce emissions so that the per capita intersection with their Chinese counterparts occurs as soon as possible. At that point, Todd Stern’s grumble about “the North/South baggage of the past 20 years” will lose its potency and the UN process should come into its own.

Which takes us back to the strategic preferences of and its partners. Let’s get it done locally – and quickly.


Todd Stern’s speech at Secretary Clinton’s Foreign Affairs Policy Board Meeting