UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The climate scientists have been telling us for almost 200 years that the Earth depends on its atmosphere, change the atmosphere chemistry and we’re gonna change the climate. Change the atmosphere chemistry a lot, by burning coal, oil, and gas, and we’ll change the climate a lot and we’ll threaten our own well-being and the well-being even the survival of millions of other species.
Well it’s taken a long time for that warning to be heard, and it was in recent decades when the climate science became clearer and clearer that humanity at least began to take note. We need to do something. This growing world population and expanding world economy pressing against the planetary boundaries is a threat to human well-being. I want to review how we have gotten to our current circumstance today, a circumstance were the climate risk is understood, where we have a legal framework to do something about it, and yet where we have been unable to take the deep actions that we are going to need to take to head off the grave dangers that we ourselves are causing.
An absolutely critical point in that story is the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change or the UNFCCC. This is the legally binding framework that the world’s governments agreed to in 1992 to confront the challenge of human-induced climate change. You’ll be reading the UNFCCC – I always wonder if I get the right number of C’s in there. There are three of them – the Convention on Climate Change. You’ll be reading this document and really I hope marveling at the insight, the precedence, the clarity that this important treaty reflects, but one of the deep questions for us to ponder this semester is why is it that, twenty-two years after adopting the Framework Convention, we feel a bit paralyzed.
Here we have an international law. It makes sense. We have a framework for action and yet we have not acted. So now I want to understand how we got to that framework, what it has meant, and then we will carry on to understand better what its limitations have been. I think our story in modern times really does start in 1972. It starts for me then. I was a freshman in college. Actually the first book in economics that I was assigned was Limits to Growth, which is a book very much of its time produced by the Club of Rome which said that we would have a collision of the growing world economy on a finite planet. Unfortunately, perhaps typically, many of my economics teachers said ‘don’t worry so much about that; that’s not so realistic.
But the fact of the matter is it too was a precient warning. Well 1972 was the year that the world’s governments first came together on an environmental summit to recognize the fact that we have a global scale problem. This was a famous conference on the environment in Stockholm, Sweden. It did get the global environmental movement off the ground. That summit plus Limits to Growth, opened the eyes of the world to the problems that we face all around that planetary boundary circle. Well back in 1979 was the first time that experts got together globally to analyze the climate crisis, which by now was becoming established science, still not quantified, still too early to demonstrate in actual experience in many places, but there was growing evidence that humanity was indeed warming the planet and changing the climate.
And 1979 marked the first the world climate conference. In the nineteen eighties, attention shifted to another global planetary boundary and that is the fragile ozone level, the O3 molecules in the stratosphere, and by chance by brilliance of scientists like Paul Crutzen and by chance that Crutzen and other great scientists began to study the problem they realized almost accidentally that some industrial chemicals, the chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs which were thought to be safe, inert compounds used for aerosol cans and used as refrigerants would actually not be so inert when they entered the upper atmosphere, the stratosphere, and these great scientists realized that these chlorofluorocarbons would dissociate and the chlorine atom in these compounds would actually have an atmospheric chemical effect of destroying ozone. And as the chlorine interacted with the O3 and destroyed the ozone, there would be a decline of the ozone concentrations in the atmosphere.
Well the producers of these chlorofluorocarbons, the big companies said that’s another hoax science. That’s generally what they always say when confronted with the problem. But then NASA used satellite imagery to suddenly show the world we have a big hole in the ozone level over Antarctica and suddenly this chemistry was shown to be real and this change of the atmospheric chemistry quickly led to an agreement called the Montreal Protocol to phase out these chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs. I mention this in the context of climate change because it is the vivid example of understanding that human caused change of atmospheric chemistry could threaten humanity and could require us to have a global agreement to stop the human-induced change of atmospheric chemistry. And in this case it worked because the companies that made the chlorofluorocarbons came up with alternatives that were not perfectly safe but we’re safer than the CFC’s. And they and the United States government and others said okay let’s get together and phase out the CFC’s. It’s a bit of a model, not a perfect one but it’s a bit of a precedent for what we need to do now.
The only problem is that CFC’s, the chlorofluorocarbons, were used in aerosol cans and as refrigerants, whereas fossil fuels – coal, oil, and gas – they’re used in everything. The whole world economy depends on them; so phasing them out, we’re gonna see, is a much more complicated challenge. Well I think that this realization about the fragility of the atmospheric chemistry and direct scientific linkages indeed between CFCs and greenhouse gases intensified the scientific search for understanding human-induced climate change and a very very important scientific process was created called the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. IPCC and you’re going to be reading the fifth assessment round (AR5) of the IPCC, which is being published during this very year. Now the IPCC is a careful process of the world scientists to assess and summarize for policymakers what is known about human-induced climate change.
The IPCC started in 1988. It issued its first assessment round reports in 1990. They were rather striking because they said this is real, it’s serious, we need to do something about it. So when the 20th anniversary of the Stockholm conference came around, there was the next global environmental summit in Rio de Janeiro. We know it as the Earth Summit, the 1992 Earth Summit. In many ways it was a glorious occasion. In fact up until now, one would say that it was the very apex of the world environmental movement because world leaders from all over the world assembled in Rio in 1992 to take on several absolutely crucial questions of planetary boundaries and the core of those were 3. First, climate change.
Building on the IPCC’s report. Second, biological diversity. Building on the growing realization that human-induced climate change, pollution, deforestation, ocean acidification, and other human-caused factors were threatening the survival of other species. And the third, which also was a response to human devastation of droughts in Africa in the 1980’s, was the challenge of the spreading deserts in the world as dry land regions became less and less hospitable in many places in the world and that is the challenge of combating desertification. Well here you see a platform of some of the world leaders who assembled in June 1992 in Rio. And Rio produced three great treaties. It produced the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, UNFCCC, it produced the convention on biological diversity, or CBD, and it produced the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. Three really quite remarkable documents. Of course our focus is on the Framework Convention on Climate Change.
The Framework Convention on Climate Change was agreed in the spring of 1992. It was endorsed at the Rio Earth Summit a couple months after the formal draft had been agreed. And then as is true of UN conventions, it was sent out to member states for ratification and when enough adopted it, it went into force in 1994. Now what is the purpose of the UNFCCC? As you see here the ultimate objective is to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere quote, “At a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference in the climate system.” Hmm. What does that mean? First greenhouse gases. I’ve talked a lot about carbon dioxide, now it’s time to let you in on another fact, which of course many have you know. It’s not only carbon dioxide. It’s not only carbon dioxide and water vapor, which I’ve mentioned briefly. It’s a number of other human-caused chemical changes in the atmosphere that also have the greenhouse or the warning affect.
This includes methane; it includes nitrous oxide; and it includes a number of flourine based chemical gases that are used in industry also for refrigerants like the CFC’s have been used. So, what the UNFCCC said was because science tells us as the greenhouse gas concentrations rise we warm the planet, and that warming is dangerous, we have to stop the increasing concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. We have to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in order to prevent dangerous anthropogenic – anthropose: human, genic: caused – and other words dangerous human-caused interference in the climate system. Interestingly they didn’t say to stop global warming because that’s just one part up human-induced climate change. Climate change includes changes in storm patterns; it includes changes in drought frequency, flood frequency; it includes other changes such as rising ocean levels or changes in the chemistry of the oceans that are also extremely dangerous for humanity. So the UN Framework Convention talks more generally about dangerous anthropogenic interference in the climate system. Now this is a complicated task; indeed our whole semester will be discussing how we can meet this standard.
How can we meet it technologically and how can we meet it fairly, especially when the world’s countries, world’s economies are in such different circumstances. Some are super-rich like the United States using vast amounts of coal, oil, and gas, putting huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And others are just as poor as can be where people can’t afford an automobile so they don’t use petroleum and burn\ petroleum they don’t even have access to electricity in a gas-fired power generation plant. And so there’s some countries that use almost no fossil fuels and yet they suffer the consequences of climate change. Other countries perhaps use vast amounts of fossil fuels and don’t have so much direct impact or are able to buffer themselves at least for a while against human induced climate change because they’re so rich. And so one of the challenges of the Framework Convention was how to make this fair.
How to make the human response fair. How to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in a way that was not only effective, not only efficient in terms of trying to keep the costs of action to the minimum, but also fair in distributing the burdens across the world especially between the rich and poor countries. And as will be seeing in the UNFCC the answer was, ‘let the rich countries take the first steps,’ and the rich countries in this agreement are called, because of the way that an annex is attached to the document, Annex 1 countries. The Annex 1 countries are basically the rich countries and the post-communist countries of Central Europe and the former Soviet Union. And the treaty said, ‘you guys go first. Let the poor countries have more time for adjustment. Let the rich countries, which bear the historical responsibility for raising the co2 levels and have the wealth and the technology take the lead.’ And the standard that was applied is called CBDR. That’s a another one of these acronyms of global diplomacy. Common But Differentiated Responsibilities. Common in that the whole world has to have a responsibility but differentiated because countries differ by their income levels by their circumstances by their vulnerability and by their capacities and therefore their responsibilities also differ. Now this UN Framework Convention also said rich countries would help poor countries to face the challenge of climate change and that countries should give regular reports. It’s a hugely important treaty. It was signed by the United States and just about every other country in the world almost immediately after the Earth Summit.
The US Senate ratified this treaty in October 1992, just a few months after the Rio Earth Summit. And then what happened? Well then the country that at the time was the number one burner of fossil fuel, the United States, the country that still has the biggest historical responsibility, looking back at which country has most changed the global chemistry, the United States said Uh uh. We’re not doing more.
The US Senate in a resolution passed in 1997, called the Byrd-Hagel Resolution, passed by 95 to nothing, said, ‘Nope. We don’t accept Annex 1 responsibility the way that we actually ratified in this treaty. We won’t move until some the developing countries – China very much on the mind of the Senate – moves. And I will just quote. It says, ‘The United States should not be a signatory to any protocol or to any other agreement regarding the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change of 1992 at negotiations in Kyoto or elsewhere, which would mandate new commitments to limit or reduce greenhouse gases unless the protocol also mandates new specific scheduled commitments for developing country parties.’ In other words, the Senate said we don’t quite accept this common but differentiated responsibility built into the treaty, where the Annex 1 countries, of which the United States was top of the list, would move first.
This Senate said we will only move together with other developing countries. Now what is this language about protocols and Kyoto and so forth. This is very important for us to understand The UNFCCC is a convention. A convention is a treaty but a treaty has to be implemented and in the UN parlance a convention is implemented by a protocol. When it came to ozone, we had a convention called the Vienna Convention. It was implemented by the Montreal Protocol. When it comes to climate change we have a convention, the UN Framework Convention to Combat Climate Change but we need a protocol to implement. And the first attempt at such a protocol was the Kyoto Protocol sign in 1997. You see, after the Framework Convention was adopted, the parties to the Convention would meet every year. These are called the Conference of the Parties or COP. And the Paris negotiations in December 2015 will be the twenty first such meeting or COP21. The first of these meetings was COP1 in Berlin in 1995. The third such meeting was in Kyoto. The idea of the Kyoto COP3 was to adopt a protocol, hence the Kyoto Protocol in which the Annex 1 countries would take responsibility to implement the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Now the United States signed it but President Clinton, president at the time, never submitted it to the US Senate because the Senate said don’t even come close.
We’re not going to adopt this protocol. And then in 2001 when President George W. Bush became president, President Bush formally took the United States out of the Kyoto Protocol, said I’m never going to submit it to the Senate. We’re just not going to be party to it. So this is the rather grim start of implementation of the UN Framework Convention signed in 1992, quickly ratified, hailed the world over as the world getting its act together. Three great treaties coming out of the Rio Earth Summit, ratified by the United States Senate, the Framework Convention. By the way to Senate never even ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity, but by 1997 the Senate said no way. The protocol to implement the Convention was adopted. The United States wanted to have nothing to do with it. When we move forward we’re going to look at what the Kyoto Protocol did and didn’t do and how it has brought us to our current situation.