The Politics of World Climate

May 6, 1996
By Michael Glantz

Fragilecologies By Michael GlantzIn 1979 the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), which is in Geneva, Switzerland, convened the first World Climate Conference. The idea for this developed out of concern on the part of industrialized countries for the need to improve our scientific understanding of atmospheric processes. At that time, I recall that there was a new-found, albeit small, interest in climate and its impacts on agriculture, water resources, and energy. I would argue that, although this Conference came out of the scientific community, politics was involved in various aspects of the Conference (especially the Cold War rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union).

A decade later, in 1990, a Second World Climate Conference was convened. It was centered for the most part on issues related to science and climate change. I would argue that this conference was in part a response to bureaucracy and to politics. With respect to bureaucracy, the first conference had been considered a success by all observers, and it seemed to have been a good thing (it was a high-visibility activity for the United Nations, the WMO, and the scientific community) to continue on a decadal basis well into the next century.

With regard to politics, in the late 1980s the climate change issue was wending its way up to the front of the line of environmental concerns of a global nature. European countries, the US, Canada, the Soviet Union, and Japan were among the major political actors.

There is now talk of preparing for a third World Climate Conference. This one will surely be much different from both the first and second.

Today, governments are much more savvy about the importance of climate variability and climate change in their attempts at sustainable development in their countries. They are also aware that climate science (physical, social, and biological) can provide important insights into how atmospheric processes affect human activities in positive as well as negative ways. Such information, at least in theory, should help guide policy-makers in developing tactics and strategies to mitigate, adapt to, or capitalize on those impacts.

But governments around the globe are also aware of the costs that might be associated with trying to prevent human-induced changes in atmospheric processes. This Conference comes at a time when even the rich, industrialized countries claim to be "poor." No one seems to be blinking at the negotiating table, lest they be asked (if not forced) to give up their hopes for achieving their development goals.

A key phrase that is now appearing in the discussions about what governments might do about climate change is that all countries have a "common but differentiated responsibility" to stabilize the global climate regime. "Common" refers to the fact that global climate change will affect everyone, like it or not, and in yet-to-be-identified ways, for good or for bad.

"Differentiated" means that not all countries will have the same responsibility to fix the problem. Developing countries point to the industrialized ones as having caused the problem. So, they feel that it is the primary responsibility of those countries to clean it up. Yet, the industrialized countries say that the costs are too high or too painful for them to "go it alone."

The climate change issue is filled with factions and with opposing interests at all levels of government. Some are worried about climate change; others are not. Some want to take action, even precautionary action; others do not.

Just as there are opposing views on climate change in the US and other industrialized countries, so too are there opposing views in the developing world (for example, oil-rich Saudi Arabia wants the global community to do absolutely nothing, whereas the small island states in the Pacific, in fear of sea-level rise, want action now).

The discussions that emerge with regard to the third World Climate Conference will likely be much different from those that emerged at the first two. As all eyes focus on the reactions of developing countries to proposals for dealing with climate change, it might be wise for the Third World to convene a Third World Climate Conference of their own in preparation for the Third World WMO Climate Conference that is sure to take place at the end of the century.

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