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Cautious Optimism at the Climate Discussions in Durban

By Dr. Orr Karassin

DURBAN, South Africa (Dec. 9, 2011) — The Durban Conference enters its final stretch, and with the start of speeches by senior country representatives, there is reason for cautious optimism. The European Union, via Climate Commissioner Connie Hildegard, announced its wish to renew the Kyoto Protocol.


The Kyoto Protocol is the only legal document ever included at the climate conference, and tools of enforcement, control and supervision accompany it. The Protocol is set to expire in 2012 and parties will be left with no binding legal framework to reduce emissions. For the past four years, conference participants have tried to form an alternative protocol that will extend beyond developed countries to include developing countries. Negotiations nearly reached a halt because of resistance from the United States to commit to any legal agreement until 2020. Despite this and an equal expression of non-commitment from China, the European Union declaration may help drive negotiations forward. The European Union, in a move of goodwill, announced that it is willing to extend the expiration date of the Kyoto Protocol for a renewed commitment period even without the accession of countries like Japan and Australia, which are opposed to re-signing their commitments. However, with this one-sided commitment, the European Union has requested a clearly outlined roadmap to achieving a committed agreement from all parties in the near future.


The European Union’s leap forward may indicate a new approach for negotiations. It shows a willingness to commit individually without multilateral commitment ahead of time. Without a doubt, the European Union’s ability to significantly commit to reducing emissions without equivalent commitment from other developing countries is attributed to widespread support among the European public to fight climate change.


Results of recent surveys in Europe show that a majority people — about 90 percent — believe that global warming is a proven phenomenon that is caused by humans and that the government must take serious action to stop global warming. In comparing this data to that of the US, the source of differences between the two becomes apparent. There is widespread resistance in the United States against taking steps to reduce emissions and fight global warming. A report recently published by Yale University showed that only 53 percent of Republicans think there should be some action taken to fight climate change, and among Tea Party supporters, support was even lower, at 34 percent. Among Democrats, support is much higher (78 percent), but still does not reach the level of support in Europe.


For these reasons, we can understand why European politician are willing to enter one-sided agreements to continue reducing emissions, while the United States refuses any legally binding agreement over the next decade. Although public support plays an important and central role in convincing governments to take significant action against climate change, so does the private sector. European industrial lobbyists disclosed in closed talks at the convention that they are willing and preparing to significantly reduce emissions further beyond 2012 and that they believe that in the long run this will benefit the economy and European industries. This might surprise most, given the Euro-zone crisis and fear of another downturn in the European economy. However, it is not the first time it has been stated. The Greek minister of energy, on his recent visit to Israel, said that he’s interested in developing alternative energy as a way to open opportunities for new businesses and to promote green economic growth.


Israel ought to adopt similar long-term visions. The Europeans understand now what others will understand later. Emission reduction in Europe will eventually lead to the growth of a new sector and will open the door to new job creation and income sources. The European Union’s commitment will accelerate the transition of European countries to a green economy and sustainable development that depends on renewable resources. Doing so will ensure that European countries will not be energy dependent on oil-producing countries. Whoever is giving on Europe today might find that this is the step that will dig Europe out of its economic mud and will ensure healthy and sustainable growth. Israel would benefit if it were to follow this path and think about long-term economic sustainability that will reduce emissions while also promising green growth.


In the United States we are finding that a significant portion of the population thinks that global warming is, at best, an urban legend or a malicious invention by scientists. Naturally, this type of approach leads to a lack of clear support to spur a change in American consumer culture and government policy.




Dr. Orr Karassin is a former Green Zionist Alliance representative to the board of directors of Jewish National Fund in Israel, and an advisory-board member of Aytzim: Ecological Judaism.





Orr's other dispatches from Durban are available here:


United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Durban



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