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The Durban Climate Deal and Cognitive Dissonance

By Keith Kloor
Dec 14, 2011 1:45 AMNov 20, 2019 12:43 AM


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There's something remarkable happening this week in the climatesphere. People who routinely thunder that we are on the verge of climate doom have mostly shrugged at the lackluster outcome of the recent climate summit in South Africa. I'm wondering if they've self-medicated themselves with sedatives. Consider that, last week Grist's David Roberts wrote (his emphasis):

If there is to be any hope of avoiding civilization-threatening climate disruption, the U.S. and other nations must act immediately and aggressively on an unprecedented scale. That means moving to emergency footing. War footing.

Yesterday, a more muted Roberts was waxing on about the importance of "symbolism" while chiding greens for holding to the "illusion that an international treaty could compel national decision makers to cut emissions faster their their domestic populations are willing." So I'm curious to hear what mechanism he believes will compel the world to get on that "war footing." Because I'm kinda thinking that "a plan about a plan," with "holes big enough to drive a hummer through," as Andy Revkin notes, and which, whatever it ends up being, doesn't go into effect until 2020, is not anything to pin one's hopes on. Then there is Mr. Hell and High Water. Nobody consistently shouts louder from the climate doom mountaintop than Joe Romm. And nobody else relentlessly berates the media for failing to shout with him from the mountaintop. Like Roberts, Romm often argues that the urgency of global warming is at hand, and that continued dawdling will ensure climate catastrophe on a wide scale. Yet, seemingly determined to make lemonade out of lemons, Romm hailed the Durban agreement as a

a pretty big success, committing the entire world "” not just rich countries "” to develop a roadmap for reductions.

True, he also said that

from the perspective of what is needed to avert catastrophic climate change, the agreement was, sadly, lacking.

Which makes me wonder, according to the brutal logic of climate change, how Romm will define "success" going forward. For as Fred Pearce observes in the New Scientist, the Durban deal

is a post-dated check. It won't do anything to help the climate in the next decade "“ a decade that scientists say is critical to arresting global warming and turning the world's energy infrastructure towards low-carbon sources.

So I'm still struggling to reconcile the feverish rhetoric and dire warnings with the cold reality of climate diplomacy. Stripped to its essence, what has the Durban agreement truly yielded? Eugene Robinson, in his Washinton Post column, pretty much nails it:

Durban's real accomplishment was to keep the slow, torturous process of climate negotiations alive "” with the biggest carbon emitters now involved. This buys time for real solutions to emerge.

I think he's right about the first part, that the process is still alive, but more like a death row candidate buying time with legal appeals. Exactly how much time climate negotiators can buy for the climate is anyone's guess, except those who laud the results of the process while saying time has already run out.

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