Durban delegates kick the can down the road

Among the thousands gathered in Durban, South Africa, for the just-concluded climate confab were dozens of law students and law professors from the United States. At the risk of offending fellow environmentalist law professors, Professor Karl Coplan questioned, on Pace University’s GreenLaw, the logic of working to reduce carbon emissions by incurring the very large carbon footprint associated with dozens of round-trip flights by students and professors from the United States to Durban.

How large? According to Coplan, round-trip travel for one individual from New York to Durban results in eight tons of CO2 equivalent emissions. That’s about the same, again according to Coplan, as the emissions from a year of travel (15,000 miles) in a Lincoln Navigator, “probably the ultimate American rugged-individualist anti-environmentalist status symbol.” And it’s about twice the average annual global per-capita carbon footprint, even including drivers of Lincoln Navigators.

Coplan’s blog post led to an extended thread of discussion on an environmental law professors’ list-serv with comments ranging from “I’m sure [your blog] will prompt many of us to think twice before purchasing an airline ticket” to “all of this lashing ourselves for our own contributions to CO2 emissions is seriously lacking in perspective.” What was mostly absent from the law profs’ exchange was any serious discussion of what might actually be accomplished in Durban — probably because, as much as they wish otherwise, most of the professoriate understood that nothing much would be accomplished. And nothing much was.

Despite valiant claims to the contrary, two weeks in Durban, with all expenses paid, only kicked the can down the road, thus assuring future annual meetings in far-flung locations with carbon footprints greater than all the Lincoln Navigators that Ford will ever produce. Even The New York Times accepted that the meeting was a flop by burying its brief story on page 7.

To be fair, the Durban delegates did agree to agree later. According to a report in The Guardian, even this modest result was on the verge of failing until the language “an agreed outcome with legal force” was substituted for the language “legal outcome,” leading an E.U. lawyer to conclude that the change made it “a legally binding agreement.” Oh, to be able to think like a lawyer!

What does it mean to say a nation is legally bound to agree at a later time to unspecified terms and conditions? International law is notoriously weak even when the terms are precise. At the end of the day, each nation will do what it thinks best at the time. Although diplomatic spinmeisters will claim victory, the most that can be said for the Durban agreement is that the parties all shook hands before leaving town.