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'Organized Hypocrisy' at Durban Climate Talks

“Organized hypocrisy” saved the recent UN climate talks in Durban South Africa. The phrase refers to a common feature of diplomacy. Statesmen often tacitly agree to pretend to believe each other’s duplicities. The fiction saves all involved from the inconveniences that would result were the lack of agreement to break into the open.

Thus, in the accord reached at the talks, the so-called Durban Platform, each of the major players achieved its most prized goal. Success was possible, though, only because the Platform strictly avoided mandating costly steps to lower the output of greenhouse gases.

Instead, countries agreed:

“To launch a process to develop a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties, through a subsidiary body under the Convention hereby established and to be known as the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action.”

That so much verbal sludge was needed even to describe the form of the hoped for future deal, speaks volumes about the discord that lurks beneath the surface.

Putting a happy face on the outcome, some reports claim that China and India have now pledged to begin to cut their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. What happens, though, if concord fails to appear by 2015? China and India face no threat more dire than, perhaps, having to take part in yet further rounds of climate talks.

Further, the Platform is silent on the question of the baseline or standard against which GHG cuts would be measured. That silence opens a huge loophole. China and India have already adopted intensity standards. With such a standard, emissions may go on rising forever as long as the rate at which they do so is less than the rate of economic growth. China and India, then, seem to have done very well in preserving their future freedom of action.

The United States, too, gained its main point. It won the right to do no more than whatever the Asian powers might accept. In future, the United States, in rejecting demands that it make GHG cuts, will be better able to defend itself by pointing to the derelictions of China and India. That the process did not collapse before the 2012 vote also spared President Obama what would have been an awkward problem.

For the EU, the prospect is less happy. Europeans are already bearing some of the costs of GHG control. Their costs will fall only if the EU could somehow persuade other countries to subject themselves to equal handicaps.

That outcome was, of course, never in the cards. By and large, China and India are wise to rely on economic development to counter the risks of climate change. The United States has a deep and diverse capital base and a temperate climate. As such it is already well-positioned to adapt to climate change. For oil exporters, GHG controls would bring economic disaster. Then too, none of these states must cater to a green movement as politically strong and virulent as that of Europe.

Even so, the Europeans found a silver lining. They did so by putting the bravest possible face on the Durban outcome. Their statesmen seized on the mere prospect of further talks as proof that hope remained for global GHG controls. The pretense postpones the day at which EU voters grasp that their costly climate policies are not a highway to global accord but instead a cul-de-sac.

Thus, at Durban, all governments chose to preserve the fiction of a shared resolve on GHG control. The preaching of EU and a few island states could not, of course, force China, India, and the United States to act against their common national interests. Yet, had the impasse become too open, both the Europeans and President Obama would have suffered political embarrassment at home. No government would have gained from fully exposing the discord. Organized hypocrisy saved the day. Yet it would be foolish indeed to read the result as signaling an emerging consensus on GHG control.

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