At UN Climate Negotiations, U.S. Continues ‘Too Little, Too Late’ Mandate

The president of COP18, the 18th convening of the United Nations climate change negotiations, bangs his gavel against the table, signaling consensus of the hundreds of diplomats from around the world. Gathered in Doha to set the stage for a binding treaty in 2015, sleep-deprived activists and diplomats turn a bleary eye to the front of the plenary as they witness the culminating moments of a tense and frustrated negotiation process.

Shoulders curled over my keyboard as I lean forward to catch the whispered fragments falling from the mouths of negotiators, I stare at the U.S. delegation sitting in front of me. Jovial, exchanging snacks and easy banter, they look at ease after securing a climate deal that requires virtually nothing of the United States. No increased ambition to mitigate carbon emissions, no financial pledges to help fund mitigation and adaptation efforts, and only voluntary guidelines to help countries coping with loss and damages from the plethora of climate-related events already taking place. When asked to write about what this deal, dubbed the Doha Gateway Deal, means for the United States, I shrug my shoulders. It means nothing. We have succeeded in blocking any meaningful action and once again ducked the mantle of leadership, begging the question of how long we will stand in the way between what needs to be done and those attempting to do it.

Operating under the constrictions of a conflicted Congress and a mandate that shies away from anything perceived as impinging on national sovereignty, the U.S. negotiators pushed for weak language focused on vague deliverables rather than specific targets. Citing a struggling economy and political gridlock at home, the U.S. sidestepped all efforts to get it to commit to specific financial pledges or increase ambition beyond the 17% reduction commitment made in 2009.

Despite the fact that both President Obama and Secretary Clinton pledged 100 billion dollars nearly three years ago to help developing countries deal with a problem they are not responsible for, this deal has no mid-term target for finance, no scaling up of public finance, and offers no work plan on equity. The irony of this unfolding as President Obama requested 60.4 billion in federal aid to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy was not lost on anyone in Doha.

Climate change is going to be expensive and dealing with the aftermath, as we have seen, is far more expensive than taking measures to proactively address the problem. In spite of the slough of natural disasters that hit the U.S. (not to mention the rest of the world) in the past six months, the economic impacts splaying across multiple industries (the outdoor and ski industries included), and the imminent threat to our food and water systems, little is being done on the international scene to effectively address climate change. This task falls on the shoulders of individuals and local communities, desperately pushing their sluggish governments to act responsibly.

The Doha Climate Gateway allows the U.S. to continue to play lip service to climate action without taking strong steps to act on equity, ambition, and finance. While the deal contains language that could potentially open up to more concrete action, it requires nothing new of the U.S. and is a frustrating continuation of the “too little, too late” mandate the U.S. employs at home and abroad. If Obama is hoping to make climate action his legacy, he needs to act now before our narrow window of opportunity to act slams shut.

By Nikki Hodgson