Time for a rethink

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Let's face it: the global climate change regime is stuck in a rut. It is unlikely that things will change dramatically at the forthcoming conference of the parties (CoP-9) of the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC). Of course, it is possible that Russia could surprise everyone by deciding to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. It is possible, but not probable.

Conceivably, the nations that have already ratified the Kyoto Protocol could discover uncharacteristic boldness and decide to put the provisions of the Protocol to test, with or without the Russians. The technicality that now gives the Russians the deciding vote was entirely arbitrary to begin with. There is nothing stopping the countries that have ratified the Protocol from launching an accelerated program of implementation without allowing the erstwhile cold warriors -- the Americans and Russians -- to hold the Protocol hostage.

Unfortunately, the odds are stacked against anything so dramatic coming out of Milan. Global change of a very different is thick in the air. The scepter of violence and war looms large. Multilateralism is in retreat. The US remains adamant in its opposition to the very idea of the Kyoto Protocol. Developing countries are resistant to mandatory obligations being thrust down their throat. Even the Europeans are reluctant supporters of the Protocol. And upcoming elections in the US mean that most parties would rather wait until next year and would have preferred if the meeting were not being held at all.

This is a pity. Even as climate change becomes more urgent with each new study, the momentum for action is fast disappearing. Instead of simply rehashing old arguments and battered positions, CoP-9 should seriously rethink the process and re-align to the original intent and aspirations of the UNFCCC. This would require climate negotiators to build upon three key realisations.

Crisis of Imagination: First, the problems of the climate regime are not just political pathologies of expediency but also a crisis of imagination. Ironically, the one global problem that is most clearly long-term has elicited the most short-term policy reactions. Making decadal commitments can lead into blind alleys of short term compliance that preempt the century long strategies needed to actually meet the goal of protecting the climate system and promoting human well-being. The climate regime needs to take a bold and imaginative stance to determine not only the cost of action today but also the cost of inaction tomorrow. It is mistaken to believe that a series of well-meaning but poorly thought-out interim measures will ultimately lead us to a safe stabilisation of atmospheric greenhouse gases. It would be more prudent to start from a conception of where we eventually want to be and work backwards to what we need to do today to get there.

Malady of