Durban delegates kick the can down the road

Jim Huffman Dean Emeritus, Lewis & Clark Law School
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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.

The Durban delegates also agreed to create a $100 billion-a-year Green Climate Fund, but made no provision for funding the Fund. It is presumed that the “developed nations,” not including China by current definitions, will provide the funding. The theory is that their advanced economies caused the problem in the first place and equity requires that they provide assistance to the “developing nations.” Of course at the moment, and for the foreseeable future, the developed nations are having trouble just keeping their own governments afloat. Realistically, the Green Climate Fund is likely to exist in name only, at least for the next several years.

If the globe’s national leaders have learned nothing else from two decades of frustrated climate negotiations, they should understand from their latest effort in Durban that they have been asking the wrong question. Rather than seeking to agree on putting carbon back in the bottle, something no nation will agree to ahead of providing for the economic welfare of its citizens, climate negotiators should focus on having the institutional and infrastructure capacity to stimulate technological advances and to adapt to whatever changes may come. As Bjorn Lomborg wrote in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, “if our concern is with saving lives and helping the planet’s most vulnerable populations, then we need to focus first on how we can build more resilient, adaptable communities.”

In the meantime, don’t forget to get your tickets for Earth Summit 2012, which will be in Rio.

Jim Huffman is the dean emeritus of Lewis & Clark Law School, the co-founder of Northwest Free Press and a member of the Hoover Institution’s De Nault Task Force on Property Rights, Freedom and Prosperity.