Thirty years ago there was hope that a warming world could clean up its act.
The United States helped forge two historic agreements to curb climate change then torpedoed both when new political administrations took over. Rich and poor nations squabbled about who should do what. During that time Earth warmed even faster.
Hope melted, along with 36 trillion tons of ice, scientists calculate.
Since 1992, when world leaders first came together to address global warming, humanity has spewed more than a trillion tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide from fossil fuels into the air. The world got 1.1 degrees (0.6 degrees Celsius) hotter.
As climate negotiators gather in Egypt to try to limit future warming to just a few more tenths of a degree long-time officials and historians see recurring themes in past efforts that still echo today. Those themes involve the outsized footprint of the United States and the tug-of-war between nations that got rich thanks to fossil fuels and yet-to-develop countries that feel disproportionate pain from climate change and are being told not to develop much coal, oil and natural gas.
“The U.S. has been the absolute dominant force throughout all of this,” said climate negotiations historian Joanna Depledge of the University of Cambridge in England. “I’m afraid the U.S. has been both the best and the worst thing, really, about negotiations.”
It started on a high note. In 1992, five years after a historic environmental agreement to ban ozone-munching chemicals, world leaders signed a treaty in Rio de Janeiro at the “Earth Summit. ” It started the formal United Nations process to negotiate dial back carbon emissions. The world recognized that climate change “is going to affect us all and we all have to deal with it,” recalled the first UN climate secretary, Michael Zammit Cutajar.
Oren Lyons, faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Onondaga Nation in New York, decades later called it the greatest meeting he attended: “There was a huge feeling of well-being, of being able to do something … There was a lot of hope there.”
Inger Andersen, a young United Nations development official at the time, said the summit got three different programs going and nothing was going to stop them.
“I mean this was it. We fixed it,” recalled Andersen, now the executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme. “I mean that was it. It was amazing, right?”
The Cold War had just ended and “the global environment was seen as a way of bringing previously warring countries together,” said Depledge. “It was seen as a kind of benign, you know motherhood-and-apple-pie way of cooperating.”
“Yes it was naïve, but it could have been done,” Depledge said. “Such innovative, exciting proposals were put forward in the early years, which if they had been implemented, we would be in a so much better situation.”
That included an insurance fund for mass disaster idea that would have been just ideal for Pakistan’s devastating flood this summer that put one-third of the nation under water, Depledge said.
Running through negotiations was the idea of differentiated responsibilities, with developed countries taking the lead. The key country that had to accept this was the No. 1 emitter at the time: The United States.
“When I look back on that now, not just then but beyond then I see the negotiation very much as an effort to bring the U.S. on board and keep it on board, right through,” Cutajar said.
In 1997 in Kyoto, Japan, the United States negotiated a deal that would have developed nations reduce their heat-trapping gas emissions to 1990 levels and below. Cutajar had the most hope of his career. It was a step in the right direction that would be followed by even more steps, he figured.
“The flexibility that defines the Kyoto Protocol was very much designed in the USA,” he said.
“That optimism lasted for quite a long time … the real hammer blow to it all, was the decision by President (George) W. Bush” to scuttle the Kyoto deal, Depledge said. “It really did sound the very slow death knell of that all important legally binding treaty, which we had thought would be the beginning — the beginning of a long lasting solution to climate change.’
The Kyoto deal limped along, Cutajar said. Finally a new non-binding deal, where every country came up with its own emission targets, was forged in Paris in 2015, after a side agreement between the United States and China. Again, the U.S. took a leadership role. The Paris deal was delicately worded so that the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate wouldn’t need to ratify it.
Negotiators literally danced in celebration.
Again, a new Republican administration, this time the president was Donald Trump, pulled out of the deal. Then Joe Biden put the U.S. back in again and negotiations resume with the United States now balking about the idea of paying for the damage done to poorer countries that didn’t spew much carbon pollution, like Pakistan.
“U.S. continues to be a difficult but essential partner,” Cutajar said.
Longtime climate change activist Bill McKibben said “the one thing I couldn’t have predicted was how little our society would react when faced with a clear warning from scientists about the greatest danger we ever faced, that we would conspire to do almost nothing for 30 years. Chalk it up to the extraordinary work of the fossil fuel industry.”
Extensive academic and other research has credited the fossil fuel industry with slowing or stopping climate change fighting efforts, particularly in the United States.
Cutajar, long retired and living in Switzerland, no longer has that hope that blossomed in the 1990s.
“I can’t say I’m optimistic,” Cutajar said in an interview with The Associated Press. “The human race is not going to be wiped out, but there’s going to be displacement — movement of people — on a historical scale. There already is. There will be more.”
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