Politics and Climate Change: A Game of COPs and Robbers

February 25, 2000
By Michael Glantz

Fragilecologies By Michael GlantzDuring each year of the 1990s new temperature or rainfall or snowfall or El Niño or hurricane records were being set somewhere on the globe. Yet, record-setting events happen every year and we do not know for sure whether there are significantly more of them than might be expected, given the climate history of the recent decades. Nevertheless, many of those record-setting droughts, floods, heat waves, tornadoes, typhoons, hurricanes and El Niño events have been associated by one scientist or another with a human-induced global warming of the atmosphere.

As important as shifting climate patterns, there is an even greater concern about the possibility of a sharp rise in the level of the world's oceans, as glaciers and Antarctic ice sheets melt and as the water in the oceans warm and expand. Small island nations and people living in low-lying coastal areas around the globe take this possibility very seriously, as many of these areas are close to sea level in elevation. They would likely disappear under the ocean's surface.

The mounting evidence that human activities (mainly the increasing emissions into the atmosphere of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and as a result of tropical deforestation) are enhancing the naturally occurring greenhouse effect of the atmosphere has generated concern even among some of the previous skeptics such as politically influential corporations e.g., oil and coal extraction, processing, shipping and trading companies, the auto industry. For those who had been skeptical of the scientific basis of global warming, the issue has moved increasingly from being viewed as one discussed at cocktail parties and coffee breaks to being viewed as a serious environmental and economic problem. Many corporations have begun to work together to search for ways to best address the "climate change problem."

While scientific uncertainty remains, there is a growing interest in applying the "precautionary principle", that is, to avoid taking actions that might harm people and the atmosphere.

What is the problem?

Societies, rich and poor, rely on the use of fossil fuels for industrial activities and for their economic development. As a Peruvian in the 1960s once said about air pollution in Lima, "once our air is as polluted as it is in Los Angeles, we will be as developed as Los Angeles". Wrong.

Wrong, because more energy and more material use and the resulting pollution does not equate with development, and wrong because atmospheric pollution can generate other types of social ills as well as affecting human health and ecosystems.

The burning of fossil fuels emits carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. CO2 tends to allow short-wave radiation to enter the Earth's atmosphere but traps the longer-wave radiation as it seeks to escape into outer space. This gas, along with other human-made GHGs (methane, nitrous oxides, chlorofluorocarbons, etc.), causes the atmosphere to act as the proverbial greenhouse, and serves to heat up the lower atmosphere. Tropical and other deforestation also add CO2 to the atmosphere as trees are cut down. Trees are no available to pull carbon dioxide out of the air and hold on to (i.e., sequester) the carbon but, instead, release it to the atmosphere.

Scientists using mathematical theories, equations, and computer models have simulated what happens to the global climate system with an increase in greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. What happens is that the atmosphere (and in turn the oceans) heats up by a couple of degrees Celsius.

The scenarios of climate change impacts around the globe are scary, not because they definitely will happen, but because they are plausible, despite the scientific uncertainties that continue to surround the output of climate models. For example, several model scenarios show that the North American Great Plains (the US Midwest and the Canadian Prairie Provinces) dry out with global warming. There is a lot of educated guessing and speculation about what environmental changes might accompany global warming: fish populations would tend to migrate poleward, as would the northern (boreal) forests; extreme events such as droughts and floods would become more frequent; forecasting climate variability from season to season and year to year would become less accurate with the advent of a new and unknown global climate regime; coral reef dieback would increase as ocean temperatures warmed; and so on. A key concern is that the rate of ecological change resulting from global warming would be faster than ecosystems and societies can adjust.

Conference of the Parties (COPs)

Ever since the development of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), there have been several meetings of national representatives of the countries that signed, ratified and acceded to the Convention. Sessions of these meetings, referred to as the Conference of the Parties, have dealt with the political, economic, technological, and methodological issues related to global warming. For the most part, these meetings have centered on how nations might stabilize or reduce the national emissions of greenhouses gases, especially fossil fuels. For industrialized and "transition" countries, one of the touchiest issues is allowing some of the developing countries to increase their emissions.

Obviously, politically opposed views on the issue have led to the formation of opposing political camps. Some of the issues that have arisen, for example, relate to "who pays" to stop these emissions, whether from fossil fuel use, fertilizer use, land use or deforestation. The developing country representatives argue that the industrialized countries saturated the atmosphere with such gases in their drive toward industrialization. They caused the problem and, therefore, they should fix it (i.e., invoking the "polluter pays" principle). The industrialized countries claim that the developing ones are less efficient in fuel burning and that, in the 21st century, they will produce the lion's share of GHGs. Oil- producing countries also oppose any actions that might limit fuel consumption or deny them compensation for holding back on either production or consumption. China, for example, has large coal reserves that it must use, in the absence of access to cleaner energy sources, in order to pursue its economic development strategies. Which industrialized country is prepared to give (not sell) China clean technology? And then there are the problems of irreversible damage to a country where the losses would be permanent because of global warming. These are the types of concerns that are being discussed in the COPs.

After many discussions and planning sessions, the Framework Convention was adopted at the Earth Summit in 1992 and opened for signatures and then for ratification by a number of countries over the next couple of years.

  • COP 1 was held in Berlin in March-April 1995 to address the "adequacy of national commitments" and produced a "mandate" to launch a process toward the taking of appropriate action to reduce GHGs.
  • COP 2 was convened in Geneva in July 1996. It called for legally binding objectives and significant reductions in greenhouse gases.
  • COP 3 was held in Kyoto in December 1997 with the intention of establishing and setting up a timetable for national reduction targets for GHG emissions. This Protocol was so contentious that it was not ratified at COP 3.
  • COP 4 met in Buenos Aires in November 1998 for the purpose of seeking national commitments proposed in the Kyoto Protocol produced at COP 3. It produced the Buenos Aires Plan of Action, which established deadlines for finalizing the unresolved Kyoto Protocol issues by 2002.
  • COP 5 was held in Bonn in October-November 1999. It produced a timetable for completing the outstanding details of the Kyoto Protocol by November 2000, the time of the next COP.
  • COP 6 has been scheduled for November 2000 in the Hague, The Netherlands.

There is a strong desire on the part of some governments to seek ratification of the Kyoto Protocol in time for the tenth anniversary of the Earth Summit that had been held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992. Thus, it will not be until 2002 that the proposals set out in Kyoto are likely to be accepted, if then.


Everyone around the globe is familiar with banks. If you want to borrow money, you go to the bank and take out a loan. The banker and the borrower expect that the loan will have to be repaid at some agreed-upon time in the future. Even if it is an interest-free loan, it will have to be repaid. If one looks at the natural world as a bank, one might be able to get some resolution to the highly politically charged issues facing the COP representatives.

Nature's bank consists of a quantitative and finite amount of natural resources: trees, soils, water, fish, minerals, etc. It consists of qualitative resources as well: a pristine rainforest versus a clear-cut one; fertile soils or soils depleted of nutrients because of overuse, clean versus polluted water, abundant fish populations or decimated ones as a result of overfishing; and so on.

Using the banking system as an analogy, one could argue that the industrialized countries have not only drawn on Nature's quantitative abundance to attain their high levels of economic development but have drawn on its qualitative abundance as well. Since they sullied the atmosphere with GHGs as a result of fossil fuel burning and CFC use various industrial and domestic purposes, isn't it right for them to pay back Nature's bank, in this instance to restore the environmental quality that they "borrowed" in order to develop? This would enable the poorer countries seeking economic development to "use" the natural environment's qualitative aspect without producing a net increase in the amount of pollution (in this instance, the amount of "unnatural" GHGs produced as a result of human activities).

To get a loan from a bank (the financial institution) without expecting to repay it would be a form of robbery. By analogy, to rob Nature's bank of its quality with no intention of paying it back would also be a form of robbery.

In this situation, shouldn't the industrialized countries do the right thing and pay back to Nature's bank its borrowed quality?

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