The Green in the Machine

March 4, 2010 Topics: EnvironmentGlobal CommonsGlobal Governance Regions: Americas Tags: Undefined

The Green in the Machine

Mini Teaser: As the debate over global warming gets vicious yet again, climate expert David Victor explains the real unknowns and real solutions.

by Author(s): David G. Victor

Glass also reminds us that serious deal making must address a second problem: Who is in charge? The issue that occupies most of this fictional new president's time is the question of who speaks for Beijing. Deals are made by one faction and then rejected by another. Bargaining of both the explicit and tacit varieties is plagued by wrong and misread signals. Not only is it hard to know who is the true Chinese agent, but China's interests also deviate radically from those of most Western countries; the president struggles to understand what could really clinch a deal. For the Chinese, says Glass, survival of the party is everything. And the ugly outcome reveals just how far they will let things go until extinction looms.

The final deal, interestingly, is a hard-nosed plan to make painful, deep cuts in emissions. Not a page of this book is devoted to the question that occupied nearly all of the talks in Copenhagen: financial transfers from rich countries to poorer nations that are more reluctant to spend their own money on global problems. It is hard to see, in the real world, how Western countries will agree to transfer large amounts of money and technology to their economic competitors, such as China. (Transfers to the poorest nations, especially to help them adapt to climate change, are a different matter-if a scheme can be devised to make them actually useful. But in the no-nonsense geopolitics that are needed to solve global warming, those transfers are a lot less important than the great-power ultimatums that occupy Glass.)


IF ANYTHING was learned in Copenhagen it was that the sprawling UN system is not the best way to craft global climate policy. Smaller and more flexible groups are needed. There is no shortage of candidates. The G8, the G8+5, the G20, the Asia Pacific Partnership, the Major Economies Forum and others are all toiling away. The real problem is that no major government has actually done much in any of these forums except host meetings and issue declarations. We cannot avoid the conclusion that most of the world actually has no interest in spending resources to slow warming even though the political benefits from cheap solutions are huge. Thus the outcome is symbolic politics: bold goals such as limiting warming to 2 degrees and empty plans for actually meeting those goals.

The Copenhagen conference has opened a vacuum in governance on the important issue of reducing global warming. Filling it will require new policies in the biggest emitter states, practical strategies for international cooperation and a lot of political elbow grease. So far, none of that is evident. And even once it begins, gases will still accumulate in the atmosphere and the climate will change. The world is in for a lot of warming. Unfortunately, the grim look at what could happen is now easy to find on both the nonfiction and fiction shelves of the bookstore.


David G. Victor is a professor at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at the University of California, San Diego, where he directs the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation.

Essay Types: Book Review