What do world leaders talk about when they talk about climate change? Mostly money and distant dates. Bargaining, deferral and the dodging of commitments and responsibility have been more or less what Doha, this year, was about, ending up with a “gateway” to the next meeting in 2015. The reason why leaders meet ought to be a shared sense of concern about the planet and its inhabitants, leading to decisions on how to avert the effects of global warming, especially by cutting down on harmful emissions. But what actually gets discussed and fought over are how a country might describe itself in order to get away with the least: who is developed and who is developing, and how are these labels shifting with the years, and how do these shifts affect what the countries might demand from one another or be held to? It may be asked whether the world, faced with economic and political crises of a more immediate kind, is at all worried about something as long-term as the slow effects of global warming (although for countries like Bangladesh or the Philippines, these effects are immediate and catastrophic).
It is China that seems to have made a crucial transition from ‘developing’ to ‘developed’ in the perception of the others, especially the United States of America (China and the US being the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases). So, China has to be brought to the negotiating table with the rich countries — a pressure that it is good at dodging, holding on to its ‘developing country’ status. The US is equally resistant to anything that looks like a treaty or a legal commitment. But what has been rescued, though, until 2020, is the Kyoto Protocol (though Japan, ironically, has opted out of it). But it has to be wound down to a single legal agreement on emission cuts that goes beyond the distinction between ‘developing’ and ‘developed’, creating a truly shared sense of the need for corrective action. Perhaps the only agreement made at this conference to be somewhat excited about concerns the adoption of the principle of “loss and damage” that inches towards some sort of “climate justice” by making richer countries think about compensating poorer ones (like Bangladesh, who led the move towards this agreement) for slow onset events like rising sea levels, prolonged droughts and storms.