05/06/2014 09:08 EDT | Updated 07/06/2014 05:59 EDT

UN Climate Talks Are an Annual Exercise in Futility

The world has been gathering to discuss the imperiled environment since 1988 in Toronto when politicians and scientists concluded that "humanity is conducting an unintended, uncontrolled, globally pervasive experiment whose ultimate consequences could be second only to a global nuclear war."

Over the next 26 years, what Time magazine called "the annual exercise in futility that is the U.N. climate summit" has been staged around the world and has consistently produced daily dramatic walkouts, finger-pointing, stall tactics and peacock-like posturing. Almost 200 nations met in Doha, Qatar in late November 2012 in yet another high-profile attempt to hammer out a U.N. deal to curb global emissions of greenhouse gases by 2020.

Opinions were mixed about the wisdom of having an OPEC member like Qatar host a summit on fossil fuels and there was a furious controversy over the choice of summit president. Not only was Abdullah bin Hamad al-Attiyah Qatar's oil minister and a former president of OPEC, but he had been named the best petroleum executive in the world in 2007.

These concerns appear to have been borne out by the fact that interventions from non-governmental organizations groups during the talks were limited to a farcical 30 seconds. Al-Attiyah presented the 2012 Best Petroleum Executive in the World Award to "a very distinguished executive" Fu Chengyu, the Chairman of the Board of Directors of Chinese petro behemoth SINOPEC, "in recognition of his outstanding contributions in the oil and petroleum industry."

Ten days later, Al-Attiyah opened the Doha Climate Summit. The Economist's headline that week was "Theatre of the Absurd" and charted the complex failures of previous Summits.

"... at Durban [2011], with the obligations that Kyoto put on rich countries about to expire, countries promised more talks about talks, saying they would negotiate a new climate regime by 2015 and have one in force by 2020. The Doha meeting began that negotiation."

Canada's Environment Minister Peter Kent gave an interview to the Globe and Mail before Doha. Kent stated that Canada would not soften its hard line on Kyoto or sacrifice economic growth to cut emissions. One of U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres' three priorities for the Doha Summit was commitment of financial aid for poorer countries to fight climate change. Kent flatly rejected this measure, saying our federal government wouldn't put up new money for the fund. Kent asserted that the summit is "not a pledging conference."

His combative stance earned Canada a satirical "fossil award" from environmentalists at the summit. It marked the sixth year running that Canada has taken the dubious honour. Prominent U.K. journalist George Monbiot called Prime Minister Harper "an irresolute wimp" for his failure to keep Canada's promise to cut emissions by six per cent. Canada fell woefully short of 2012 emissions targets and in December 2011 became the first country to pull out of Kyoto, the world's only binding climate treaty.

The reaction from around the world to Canada's rejection of Kyoto was swift and unsparing: Xinhua, the official news agency of China, called the withdrawal "preposterous" and "irresponsible." The U.N.'s Christiana Figuerosa diplomatically said the decision was "regrettable" and "surprising."

Anne Applebaum is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, prolific journalist and academic. Applebaum wrote in the July 2009 issue of Slate magazine before the disappointment of the Copenhagen Climate Summit: "the truth is that carbon emissions will not be reduced by international bureaucrats, however well-meaning, sitting in a room and signing a piece of paper."

When all the posturing, drama and backroom scheming was done on December 8, 2012 the Qatar Summit closed -- as the pundits said it would -- with an extension to Kyoto but few legitimate emissions agreements. For the first time, the rich nations officially and, it is to be hoped, permanently, agreed that they should compensate developing countries for losses due to climate change.

The poor nations, of course, hailed that almost-pledge as a major breakthrough, but condemned the massive gulf between the harsh truths of the science and the political will that will have to be brought to bear to tackle climate change.

The eulogy for the latest round of ponderously slow talks about talks about the urgent need to act quickly was written by Irish Times columnist Frank McDonald whose column on December 10, 2012 ran under the headline "Doha Climate Conference Yields More Heat Than Light":

"...the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change process is governed by consensus and characterised by compromise, so what often emerges is the lowest common denominator; an agreement to move forward with which almost no one is entirely happy, but that is widely recognised as the best available at the time."


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