Lima and the complexity of scorekeeping

By Martin Edwards
[Crossposted from the Permanent Observer.]

This morning the news is abuzz with details of the newly brokered Lima Call for Climate Action. There will doubtless be numerous news analyses of the winners and losers from the deal in the coming days. A tweet from last night, though, reminds us of the urgent need for more nuance in our summary discussions of this accord. It further underscores the need for the academic community to frame our discussions of international treaties and IOs to better inform public opinion. Given that there are now 36 treaties awaiting ratification by the US Senate, and given that the recent US continuing resolution offered no new monies for IMF governance reform, the stakes are high indeed.

The crux of the matter was in a tweet last night by Ian Bremmer, who described the climate summit as “largely a failure.” While 140 characters does not leave room for nuance, this tweet raises more questions than it answers. Calling something a failure or a success raises the natural question of a baseline for comparison.  In every curt dismissal, we need to ask questions about the yardstick used to make the assessment in the first place. An academic assessment of this nature would invite lots of questions about measurement and method. Our public policy writings on this front should strive for a similar standard.

Two facts are worth noting about the global politics of climate change.

1) The Lima accord is not the last word. The Lima meetings were a preview of the discussions to be concluded in the Fall in Paris. So while it can be easy to look to what wasn’t discussed, this is obviously a work in progress. We know that negotiators often defer agenda items in the interest of making headway on other fronts.

2) The problem is a very difficult one. Climate change is tricky because it has with it both problems of enforcement and distribution. With most treaties, the danger of countries cheating on their commitments is a real one, and this issue is no different. Kyoto’s performance can be certainly thought of as mixed on this front. But in addition to the problem of monitoring and enforcement (which has now been more complicated by expanding climate change action to all countries), there is a distributional dimension. Combatting climate change has an important financial component: How can developing countries afford to switch from coal to other energy sources? How will small island states keep the sea at bay?  Many developing countries want more aid, and many developed countries do not wish to augment their commitments. We often think of these two problems as discrete ones, but all of the international climate change summits have had to address both of them simultaneously.

Given both points, we need to acknowledge the difficulty of the problem in our appraisals of our progress. No one thought that Lima was going to produce an accord that resolved all of these challenges. That is just simply an untenable goal. Multilateral diplomacy is by its very nature a challenging enterprise. The complex nature of this specific global problem makes progress difficult. As the world now shifts attention to the Paris meetings in the fall, we need more refined assessments of how to make headway in strengthening both accountability as well as participation. We can leave the dismissive statements to members of the US Congress.

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