Sunday, September 2, 2012

PF 2012 Climate Change The Obligation Framework

For part 1 of this topic analysis click here.
For more on Public Forum topics, click here.

More On Definitions, Scope and Intent
Firstly, I draw your attention to the following document on the website of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. A multi-national convention will be convened in Qatar in November for the purpose of addressing this NFL resolution. Well not really, but a convention has been assembled to discuss mitigating climate change and hopefully enact specific measures and gain commitments from the member countries.  This document nicely defines the problem, the terminology and the scope of the problem.

"Acknowledging that change in the Earth's climate and its adverse effects are a common concern of humankind,

Concerned that human activities have been substantially increasing the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, that these increases enhance the natural greenhouse effect, and that this will result on average in an additional warming of the Earth's surface and atmosphere and may adversely affect natural ecosystems and humankind,

Noting that the largest share of historical and current global emissions of greenhouse gases has originated in developed countries, that per capita emissions in developing countries are still relatively low and that the share of global emissions originating in developing countries will grow to meet their social and development needs,"

While the document conveniently provides a list of developing and developed countries (Annex I & II) realize that many prominent countries remain unlisted, such as China, Pakistan, Brazil and India.

Helpful definitions in the paper -

For the purposes of this Convention:
1. "Adverse effects of climate change" means changes in the physical environment or biota resulting from climate change which have significant deleterious effects on the composition, resilience or productivity of natural and managed ecosystems or on the operation of socio-economic systems or on human health and welfare.
2. "Climate change" means a change of climate which is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods.
3. "Climate system" means the totality of the atmosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere and geosphere and their interactions.
4. "Emissions" means the release of greenhouse gases and/or their precursors into the atmosphere over a specified area and period of time.
5. "Greenhouse gases" means those gaseous constituents of the atmosphere, both natural and anthropogenic, that absorb and re-emit infrared radiation.
6. "Regional economic integration organization" means an organization constituted by sovereign States of a given region which has competence in respect of matters governed by this Convention or its protocols and has been duly authorized, in accordance with its internal procedures, to sign, ratify, accept, approve or accede to the instruments concerned.
7. "Reservoir" means a component or components of the climate system where a greenhouse gas or a precursor of a greenhouse gas is stored.
8. "Sink" means any process, activity or mechanism which removes a greenhouse gas, an aerosol or a precursor of a greenhouse gas from the atmosphere.
9. "Source" means any process or activity which releases a greenhouse gas, an aerosol or a precursor of a greenhouse gas into the atmosphere

A position paper of the Council on Foreign Relations, Global Governance Monitor frames the seriousness of the issue in no uncertain terms:

"Climate change is one of the most significant threats facing the world today. According to the American Meteorological Society, there is a 90 percent probability that global temperatures will rise by 3.5 to 7.4 degrees Celsius (6.3 to 13.3 degrees Fahrenheit) in less than one hundred years, with even greater increases over land and the poles. These seemingly minor shifts in temperature could trigger widespread disasters in the form of rising sea levels, violent and volatile weather patterns, desertification, famine, water shortages, and other secondary effects including conflict. In November 2011, the International Energy Agency warned that the world may be fast approaching a tipping point concerning climate change, and suggested that the next five years will be crucial for greenhouse gas reduction efforts."

The Status Quo
The current major efforts to address the growing problem are embodied in the United nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the first significant initiative was the Kyoto Protocol (text: The principle signers of the Kyoto Protocol were the developed countries as well as transitional countries which are moving from centrally controlled to market based economies.  China, India, Brazil and Pakistan are not on the list.  The United States did not ratify the treaty.  Russia signed in 1999, but did not ratify until 2004.  In 2011, the treaty was extended through 2015.  Recently Canada has announced it has withdrawn from the agreement citing economic issues and lack of cooperation from leading nations (i.e the U.S.).

"At the most basic level, countries disagree over climate monitoring and financing stipulations in the Kyoto Protocol or other potential legally binding emissions accords. Climate frameworks struggle to effectively monitor greenhouse gas outputs, especially in developing countries. Many countries lack the domestic capacity to audit their total emissions; even if they are able to monitor national levels, some fear that reporting such numbers would encourage international pressure to cap their emissions. Others, like China, argue that an international monitoring system represents an infringement on national sovereignty and that developing states should be afforded some leniency in emissions as they are currently in critical stages of economic development."

The CFR paper reports that most of the nations which signed the Kyoto accord are on track to meet their emission reduction targets, and China, India and Brazil have agreed to voluntary reductions.  Nevertheless, despite these efforts and successes, it seems the efforts are far from sufficient to mitigate global warming.

"the existing climate regime remains grossly inadequate when it comes to stabilizing greenhouse gas levels; moreover, regulations that have already passed or which are about to go into effect, like the EU airplane tax, continue to stir significant political controversy. Additionally, while the December 2011 Durban Platform may have committed UNFCCC parties to establish a more universal post-Kyoto accord with "legal force," it is unclear what shape such an agreement would ultimately take and if it would actually be legally binding."

It should be plain to see, that gaining any kind of multilateral cooperation to meet global problems is not easy and it becomes even more problematic when nations need to make financial commitments to not only provide their own solutions but help finance the efforts of developing countries which do not have financial resources sufficient to meet the needs.  Further, given the kinds of commitments, these developed countries must make, the idea of making them legally binding introduces major controversy since very few nations are willing to hand over national sovereignty to an international authority.  Given these realities, it seems fitting the NFL resolution could avoid some of these difficulties by framing the debate as a moral obligation rather than a legal obligation.

The Obligation of States
I suppose, there is an argument to be made, that if evidence exists that a country which emits copious amounts of greenhouse gases is in fact contributing to climate change to the detriment of other nations, for example, island nations or others which are sensitive to changing weather patterns then perhaps the offending nation has an obligation to at least help those nations being damaged to adapt or survive.  I mean, if I plan on flooding your land, I should at least help you build your house on stilts or maybe help you build a new house at a higher elevation.  Especially, when the only reason I would release the waters which flood your land is for my own personal benefit.  Of course, this resolution may claim I should reduce the amount of water I release, not only help my neighbor erect higher stilts which would be mitigating the effects but not the cause.

There are U.N. resolutions to address such obligations:

"Recalling the provisions of General Assembly resolution 44/228 of 22 December 1989 on the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, and resolutions 43/53 of 6 December 1988, 44/207 of 22 December 1989, 45/212 of 21 December 1990 and 46/169 of 19 December 1991 on protection of global climate for present and future generations of mankind,

Recalling also the provisions of General Assembly resolution 44/206 of 22 December 1989 on the possible adverse effects of sea-level rise on islands and coastal areas, particularly low-lying coastal areas and the pertinent provisions of General Assembly resolution 44/172 of 19 December 1989 on the implementation of the Plan of Action to Combat Desertification,"

It would, therefore, appear, the major nations of the world recognize that protection the earth's climate for the benefit of all is the right thing to do and even if global warming can not be stopped at least try to slow it down and afford time for the nations and species most affected to adapt to the changes.  Look at these statements from world leaders including President Barack Obama who said:

"I don't think I have to emphasize that climate change is one of the defining challenges of our time. The science is clear and conclusive, and the impacts can no longer be ignored. Ice sheets are melting. Sea levels are rising. Our oceans are becoming more acidic. And we've already seen its effects on weather patterns, our food and water sources, our health and our habitats. Every nation on this planet is at risk, and just as no one nation is responsible for climate change, no one nation can address it alone.”(src:

But, like the drowning child scenario, perhaps despite the moral obligation, it is not prudent to act.  In a footnote of a paper written by Freeman Guzman and  for the Columbia Law Review, U.S. Senator Inhofe is quoted:

"[I]f you believe that manmade gas is a major cause of climate change, what good would it do for us unilaterally in the United States to impose a financial hardship . . . on people in the United States, when all that would do logically is cause our manufacturing base to further erode and to go to countries such as China and India and Mexico, other countries that have no emission restrictions at all. It would be a $300 billion tax on us every year, and it would have the effect of increasing the net amount of emissions worldwide."

A link to the Pro side of the debate.

Sources used:

Andrew T. Guzman and Jody Freeman. "Climate Change and U.S. Interests" Columbia Law Review 109 (2009): 1532-1601

Council on Foreign Relations
The Global Climate Change Regime, Issue Brief
Publisher: Council on Foreign Relations
Release Date Last Updated: July 5, 2012

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
August 2012

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