Richard Gowan |Monday, Dec. 14, 2015
The climate change agreement hammered out at the COP21 conference in Paris this weekend inspires a cocktail of contradictory emotions: relief, cynicism, awe and melancholy. It is hard not to be relieved that world leaders have finally agreed on an ambitious agenda to limit global warming. It is equally difficult not to read their pledges with some skepticism.
|French President Francois Hollande, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius|
and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the the United Nations
conference on climate change, Le Bourget, France.
While the Paris deal was bolder than many had predicted, aiming to stop global temperatures rising by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, many crucial parts of the deal are not legally binding. The package only has a chance of success if major economies stick to their pledges to curb carbon emissions. Even if they remain honest, scientists doubt that it will be enough to keep temperatures under control.
Supporters of the bargain have largely adopted a Churchillian argument. This is not the beginning of the end of the fight against climate change, but it may be the end of the beginning: There is now at least an agreed framework for cutting carbon emissions.
After two decades of negotiations and the failure of the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit, it seemed possible that the process would be bogged down in diplomatic wrangling forever. The negotiators in Paris have created some momentum for global reforms.
The sheer diplomatic effort and strategizing required to get to this point is in itself awe-inspiring. The French hosts of the Paris talks pulled off a masterpiece of multilateral process management, coordinating with their allies to work on recalcitrant governments. U.S. President Barack Obama kept up pressure on his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel got Russia’s Vladimir Putin onside. European Union members lined up with African, Caribbean and Latin American states to insist on regular five-year reviews of countries’ pledges, overcoming Chinese opposition.
This was United Nations conference diplomacy on steroids. After the disastrous Copenhagen summit, many analysts argued that such large-scale negotiating processes were a thing of the past. Big deals would instead be carved out in select groups such as the G-20, or in “plurilateral” talks involving coalitions of like-minded countries. Yet in recent years, diplomats have defied these pessimistic predictions to carve out a series of bargains involving the whole U.N. membership, including the Arms Trade Treaty and this year’s gigantic package of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
There are obvious flaws in the current generation of U.N. agreements. They tend to be sprawling but shallow, involving numerous laudable targets but few serious enforcement mechanisms. It is not clear whether the proposed five-year reviews of the Paris agreement, for example, will really inspire states to honor their commitments or simply fudge their reporting. The nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is subject to five-year reviews, but these have become ugly and counterproductive affairs. The latest NPT meeting this summer could not even agree on a final outcome document. It is sadly possible that, two or three decades from now, climate change review summits will have become equally futile affairs.
It is also possible that the climate change deal, while impressive in itself, marks the end of an era—that of post-Cold War multilateral diplomacy, which will be hard to repeat. The negotiations in Paris were strikingly old-fashioned in some ways. While there was a strong focus on China and India’s positions, the U.S. and Europeans were ultimately in control of the process. The Obama administration gave the talks strategic credibility by pressing big powers, especially China, to make a deal. EU members, dismayed by the failure in Copenhagen, put their weight behind France’s skillful management of the final negotiations. This was not solely a success for the West: Countries such as South Africa have been credited for reinvigorating climate diplomacy after Copenhagen. But the U.S. and its allies guided the agreement home.
Despite this success, it is improbable that Washington and its partners will guide any equally ambitious global deals to fruition in the foreseeable future. Even as U.N. negotiators have hammered away on climate change and the SDGs, the prophets of plurilateralism have been proved correct on other fronts. In the trade field, the Obama administration has focused on forging deals with its allies in the Pacific and Europe. In the realm of security, the president’s early talk of fostering nuclear disarmament has been replaced by harder-headed efforts to contain Russia and China. The chances of a major summit to set out new global limits on cyberweapons or address other looming problems, such as military conflicts in outer space, remain remote.
A broader survey of the 195 governments represented in Paris would also have found a general shift away from globalism. In Africa and the Arab world, leaders are increasingly aiming to handle security problems through regional organizations and coalitions, rather than deferring to U.N. processes. Even in Europe, where officials like to say that multilateralism is “in our DNA,” governments are currently far more focused on regional and internal threats than on the health of the international system.
The world has not fallen apart quite yet, but the diplomatic bonds that tie it together are ever more tenuous. This is why the Paris deal stirs up a certain sense of melancholy: It stands for a form of global cooperation that is now inherently fragile. If global tensions worsen significantly in the years ahead, the negotiation in Paris may soon be forgotten.
It is equally possible that the new framework for fighting climate change may replicate the enduring success of the NPT: A bargain that was cut between enemies in the Cold War and has often been abused since but which, despite all its shortcomings, is still a key element of international security cooperation. That would be a success to celebrate.
Richard Gowan is an associate fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and nonresident fellow at NYU’s Center on International Cooperation, where he was previously research director. He also teaches at Columbia University. His weekly WPR column, Diplomatic Fallout, appears every Monday.