By Allie Goldstein

This past week, my master’s project team attended the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Doha, Qatar. By most accounts, the week was a huge success. We presented a poster at Forest Day, represented Michigan at our booth, made scores of professional connections, and were praised by one organization as being “the most employable people at the conference”—a compliment that went immediately to our heads and into the “W” column against Yale and Duke. I left the conference feeling invigorated, with a stack of business cards in my suitcase and (offset) carbon in my wake. It wasn’t until after I arrived back in Ann Arbor on December 3rd and went for a run outside in shorts and a tank top that I realized our metrics of ‘success’ for attending the conference might have been a bit distorted.

After all, the supposed goal of the UNFCCC negotiations is to limit global temperature rise to the 2 degrees Celsius mark past which “dangerous” climate change would ensue. Having already warmed the planet 0.8 degrees, our best models indicate that we can collectively release approximately 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by 2050—and no more than 200 more gigatons by 2020—if we are to reach this 2-degree target. Logically, then, the climate change negotiations might be centered around allocating these gigatons to countries according to the well-recognized principle of their common but differentiated responsibility to curtail emissions. The ‘success’ of the conference for all attendees might therefore be measured in terms of progress towards this politically difficult but scientifically straightforward goal.

However, actually attending COP18 left me with the impression that few of the 17,000 or so people there—myself included—came with that goal in mind. At the conference, I participated in sessions on topics as diverse as educating girls about carbon capture and storage technology and modeling deforestation in Colombia, but few connected clearly with what was happening in the closed-doors negotiating rooms. During one panel discussion at Forest Day, an audience member asked whether the 700 attendees of this side event should alter their agenda for the day towards influencing key forests issues in the negotiations; the panelists dodged the question.

The actual negotiations are similarly unfocused. There are now seven negotiating tracks, only one of which is tasked with coming up with a post-2012 legally binding climate agreement. I attended a roundtable discussion of this negotiating track—the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP)—last Friday, and got a glimpse of just how quickly we may be catapulting ourselves past 565 gigatons. Out of 11 countries who made statements during this session, the United States and Russia were the only two that argued for a “bottom-up” approach to emissions reductions, which Jonathan Pershing, the U.S. Deputy Special Envoy for Climate Change, defined as being “self-determined” mitigation activities. Pershing emphasized two characteristics of fairness that he sees as key to the success of the negotiations: (1) that countries aren’t forced into doing something they don’t feel capable of doing and (2) that countries feel that their level of commitment is comparable to that of similar countries.

In case anyone was confused about what a “bottom-up” approach might mean, Russia’s delegate cleared things up (sort of): “We would urge countries not to be too extreme in expectations and not too extreme in ambitions that may deter countries from being part of the international treaty,” he said, adding that, “I do not necessarily mean to say that we shouldn’t strive to achieve ambitious targets.” Then, in what he dubbed a “PPS to my lengthy remarks,” the negotiator added that Russia is not comfortable with an outcome with legal force.

A “bottom-up” approach therefore seems to simply be a euphemism for the idea that all countries—including ones that have made their fortune at the expense of the global atmosphere—should decide on their own emissions levels rather than having these targets set by a top-down international, legally-binding treaty. A “bottom-up” approach is about as unambitious as you can get: it’s exactly what we have now.

The United States’ and Russia’s advocacy of a “bottom-up” approach at the roundtable indicates that, with the Cold War over, we are now intent on waging a hot one. Hearing these statements in juxtaposition with those of other countries made them especially unconscionable. Directly following Russia, Bangladesh’s delegate emphasized their willingness to commit to mitigation targets—a truly ambitious pledge given that some parts of their country are underwater for half the year. Following Pershing’s remarks, Barbados’s delegate emphasized the need for a resilient future with or without an agreement under ADP. He suggested a new metric against which to measure the ‘success’ of the UN process: “We hope that the survival and vulnerability of states and other entities will be considered an essential benchmark on the effectiveness of the negotiations.”

Taking a step back, a world in which countries have agreed that a 2-degree Celsius temperature rise is the upper limit for the continued existence of thriving human and natural societies and yet have also agreed that legally binding emissions reductions can wait until 2020 is an eerily irrational one. On the shuttle from the conference center, I met a young Chinese TV journalist who asked me if I thought climate change was really as big a deal as everyone was making it out to be. Though this is a question that has been answered definitively by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and others, given the disconnect between the magnitude of the risk and the magnitude of the mitigation action, it is a reasonable one. If the future of our planet really were at stake, wouldn’t we be doing more about it, and quickly?

Though I expected the negotiations to be frustrating and lethargic, I was unprepared for the sense of charade among the negotiators and the apparent complacency of the thousands of observers. After going through the motions year after year, many attendees seem to have given up hope on the substance of the negotiations and now attend COP for other reasons. A group of Tanzanian delegates I spoke with told me they had no expectations for international outcomes but came to Doha to work on mitigation and adaptation activities with other Africans. Similarly, though the dozens of side events put on by non-governmental organizations are incredible opportunities for collaboration and learning, very few of them are directly geared towards influencing the outcome of the negotiations. Rather than tracking tangible emissions reductions, we have come to measure our ‘success’ at the conference by different rulers. Though these more achievable metrics protect us from embarrassment or perhaps from recognition of our own insanity (Einstein’s definition of the latter was doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results), they do not insulate us from the effects of climate change, which have already surged through the streets of not only Bangladesh, but also Manhattan.

Though many people (including me) like to point out that there many inspiring and often effective sub-international emissions reduction and adaptation activities being implemented around the world, there is little evidence that a bottom-up approach will be able to reach the scale we need to limit global temperature rise to two degrees. This is presumably why thousands of people fly around the world year after year to talk about a top-down climate agreement. Determining how the UN climate change conference has turned into a game of Limbo, with the bar being set lower and lower each year, is an infuriating but utterly important task. Our survival—and our sanity—may depend on it.

In addition, we are grateful to the Coultrap International Experience Fund, The Erb Institute, and the School of Natural Resources and Environment for providing financial support that made this trip possible.