It is getting to be a pretty familiar routine by now. Thousands of people from around the world gather to negotiate and influence global climate policy. Rhetoric flies for a week or two, negotiators bargain long into the night, and a modest, unenforceable agreement is finally brought up for a vote. At this point, it is pretty obvious that the United Nations climate negotiation process may serve as a useful agenda-setting mechanism, but it is no way to make global public policy. For all but a small number of trade, environmental and security issues, it is impossible to formulate meaningful global public policy.
Unfortunately, climate change is not one of the issues amenable to global agreement.
To understand why these talks are not succeeding, it is useful to think about the evolution of environmental policy and its gradual movement from the fringe of the policy agenda to its center. When the environmental movement begins in the early 20th century it was characterized by a concern for wilderness preservation and identified with naturalists like Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir. The environment was a spiritual quest associated with nostalgia for a pre-industrial America. Protecting the environment was a nice, but not particularly essential task for the political and economic elites running America. This culminates in the 1960's and 1970's with enactment of laws regulating air, water and waste. At this point the environmental policy issue might be thought of something akin to keeping your house neat and presentable for visitors. It was embarrassing when Cleveland's Cuyahoga River caught fire. When Apollo 8 showed us those incredible pictures of the entire fragile blue planet from outer space, it all became codified: Nice people took care of their home planet.
In the late 1970's, the Love Canal toxic waste dump crisis taught America about the issue of hazardous waste. We learned about the connection of air pollution to cancer and other illnesses. In the 1980's the environment evolved into an issue of public health. It wasn't just that nice people tried to make sure they kept the planet looking pretty, but environmental pollution was poison that could make you sick or even kill you. With the emergence of this health dimension in the last two decades of the 20th century, the environmental issue moved a little off the fringes of the policy agenda, a little bit closer to the place where important public policy is made.
If we fast forward to today, in the second decade of the 21st century, the environmental issue has morphed into the issue of economic and environmental sustainability. The environment has assumed a new place at the center of community, corporate, and national policymaking. It is no longer a second-tier issue relegated to those "environmental types," but a key issue affecting profits, economic growth and political power. The U.N. climate policy process was designed when the environment was not yet a central issue to the power elite. The very fact that the U.N. was able to take the lead on this process is an indication that it was not considered a central issue by the world's political and economic powers. As the implications of global climate policy for nations and industry became clearer, the U.N. decision making venue became increasingly irrelevant. Unfortunately, no other venue has been developed to replace it.
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Photo: Protesters shout as they demonstrate inside the building where the UN climate change conference is taking place in Durban, South Africa, Friday. (Schalk van Zuydam / Associated Press)