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Spotlight Durban: Climate Action on Multiple Scales

by Paul Baer • December 7, 2011 @ 10:00 am

The U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP17) is taking place in Durban, South Africa. The Spotlight Durban series, a joint series by Real Climate Economics  and Triple Crisis, invites experts to comment on the negotiations and the prospects for real progress  addressing climate change in the months and years ahead.

From November 28th through December 9th, the world’s nations are meeting again to discuss solutions to the urgent threat of rising  greenhouse gas emissions, this time in Durban, South Africa. This meeting, the Seventeenth Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, has been much less widely anticipated than the meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark, two years ago. At that time, expectations were high, President Obama had just taken office, and for the first time ever literally dozens of heads of state were scheduled to attend a climate convention. Yet the result – a non-binding agreement called the “Copenhagen Accord” – was widely disappointing, and since then, the prospects for strengthening that agreement have only grown more remote. Indeed, even the continuation of the Kyoto Protocol (which the US did not ratify) is in serious doubt at this point.

One of the optimistic aspects of the Copenhagen Accord was the enshrinement of a commitment – of sorts – to trying to keep global temperature increase to less than two degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial average (compared to a roughly 0.8ºC increase to date). Yet while within the mainstream scientific community this level is seen as anything but “safe”, the “realist” view of the negotiations is that even this level of ambition is nearly out of reach – a conclusion that is consistent with the recently released World Energy Outlook 2011, published by the International Energy Agency. Worse, it is plain to expert observers that the North-South conflict that has long been a primary obstacle to global cooperation is if anything growing worse, even as the traditional lines between developed and developing countries continue to blur. Given this reality, and the evident distraction of political elites in the US and Europe with domestic (or at least regional) economic problems, it is easy to argue that we might as well give up on the UNFCCC as a useful forum, and focus on “cultivating our gardens”, as it were, at local scales.

This anyway was the argument Prof. Bryan Norton of Georgia Tech’s School of Public Policy (SPP) made recently at a forum here, in  response to the alternative position advanced by Dr. Marilyn Brown (also of SPP) and her co-author Dr. Ben Sovacool of the University of Vermont in their new book, Climate Change and Global Energy Security (MIT Press, 2011). Now, Prof. Norton acknowledged that his strong argument against depending on global treaties and in favor of local action did not mean that Brown and Sovacool’s arguments for global regulation are wrong; but if global regulation is stalled, doing nothing but waiting is clearly not a good strategy. There are, as Norton asserted (even citing Brown and Sovacool’s book), plenty of examples of effective local and regional policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and build more climate-resilient societies and economies.

Yet the limits of such strategies are widely acknowledged as well; the global climate is truly a commons, and if it remains possible for nations to free ride globally and to refuse to enforce regulation on their domestic actors, local actions will ultimately be constrained. It’s worth pointing out here that, notwithstanding all the finger-pointing at China, the US remains the world’s worst free-rider. Thus to agree with Norton that we must act locally does not relieve us from arguing for the importance of global action, and trying to ensure that citizens of the US understand both the ineffective role our government has played in international negotiations and the positive role we could play in enabling global cooperation.

Brown and Sovacool call the interaction of multiple scales of governance polycentrism, and I share their view of its importance. The research of Dr. Brown and myself and our students and collaborators at the Climate and Energy Policy Laboratory at Georgia Tech is intended among other things to provide support for actors at many scales, from addressing metropolitan carbon footprints, to state and regional polices for energy efficiency and renewable energy, all the way to national and international policy analyses. Our website seeks to our research available to a widening community, and we invite commentary, communication and cooperation as well. We hope in this way to contribute to the growing awareness of the importance of, and possibilities for, a comprehensive, rapid, and – yes, polycentric – transition to a sustainable energy and climate future.

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