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United Nations

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An Old American Tradition

It’s not just Donald Trump. The United States has a long record of negotiating international agreements and then running away from them. The rest of the world has an equally long record of heaving a sigh of regret, telling the Americans it will be happy to have them back when they get over it, and carrying on without them. It will do it again over the Paris accord on climate change.

We have had many expressions of synthetic shock since Trump finally announced that he was abandoning the climate accord last Thursday, after wringing every last drop of drama out of his totally predictable decision. Then we had the equally predictable affirmations from everybody else that they would carry on regardless. It’s all as stylised and traditional as a Noh play.

The tradition actually dates back to the early 20th century, when the United States was the prime mover in creating a new international institution to prevent war, the League of Nations, at the end of the First World War – and then refused to join it. The League could probably not have avoided the Second World War even if the US had been a member, but its absence certainly didn’t help.

Then came a longish period, from the foundation of the United Nations in 1945 to the arms control agreements of the 1960s and 70s, when American leadership actually did make the world a safer place. But by thirty years ago it was back to the bad old ways, with the United States not signing (or signing and then “unsigning”) the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the International Criminal Court, and the Kyoto Accord on Climate Change.

In each case, the rest of the world just went ahead and put the treaty into effect anyway – and in no case did the American defection destroy the deal. It’s already clear that Trump’s decision will not sabotage this deal either. The other major powers will all stick with the commitments they made in Paris eighteen months ago, because they are all really frightened by what will happen if they don’t.

“We need the Paris agreement to protect all of creation,” said Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel. Then she, President Emmanuel Macron of France and Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni of Italy issued a joint statement saying “We firmly believe that the Paris agreement cannot be renegotiated since it is a vital instrument for our planet, societies and economies.”

“As far as the Paris accord is concerned… our government is committed, irrespective of the stand of anyone, anywhere in the world,” said Japan’s Finance Minister, Taro Aso. “I’m not just disappointed, but also feel anger.” And China’s President Xi Jinping modestly explained that his country has only become the world’s leader on climate change by default. “It’s because the original front-runners suddenly fell back and pushed China to the front.”

The absence of the US government will not derail the project. The commitments of American states, cities, organisations and individuals on reducing US greenhouse gas emissions will continue to provide at least half of the cuts promised by ex-president Barack Obama. Since those promised cuts were to be spread over ten years, the damage may be even less if Trump turns out to be a one-term president.

The commitments made at Paris in 2015 were voluntary national promises. There were no negotiations about how big the contributions of various countries should actually be: Trump only talks about “renegotiating” the deal because he never actually read it.

The sad fact is that all the cuts promised by all the countries at the Paris conference were not enough to keep global warming from going past the never-exceed level of plus 2 degrees C. When the United Nations added the numbers up, the world was still heading for plus 2.7 degrees.

Take all the promised American cuts out of the equation and the world will be heading for around plus 3.0 degrees instead, but it doesn’t make a huge difference. Either way, we cross the threshold and tumble into runaway, irreversible warming.

However, the world still has twenty years or so before we pass through plus 2 degrees. Everybody at the Paris talks understood that they would have to hold another conference in around five years’ time and come up with bigger cuts then. It’s salami tactics, which is bad science but good politics, and it could still deliver the goods.

By five years from now, Trump may no longer be a problem. Even if he’s not impeached or dead, he might lose the 2020 election. He might even choose not to run again; he’s already complaining about how hard the job is.

So the US might rejoin the rest of the world in 2020 – or it might not, but the rest of the world still has to go on trying to save itself even if the United States chooses to be a free rider.

The other hundred and ninety-odd governments of the planet understand how very bad it will for everybody if we break through the two-degree boundary. They are obliged to act with or without the United States.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“We need…front”)

COP21: Cheering and Fearing

The climate deal that almost 200 countries agreed to in Paris on Saturday was far better than most insiders dared to hope even one month ago.

The biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, China and the United States, are finally on board. There is real money on the table to help poor countries cut their emissions and cope with warming. They have even adopted a target of holding the warming to only +1.5 degrees C, instead of the limit of +2 degrees that was the goal when the conference opened.

So the thousands of delegates who spent two weeks dickering over the details of the deal in a drafty exhibition hall north of Paris felt fully justified in cheering and congratulating one another on a job well done. Given all that, it’s a pity that the deal won’t actually stop the warming.

The plus-two limit was always too high. It began as a scientific estimate of when natural feedbacks, triggered by the warming that human beings had caused, take over and started driving the temperature much, much higher. It was actually quite a fuzzy number: at somewhere between +1.75 C and +2.25 C, the feedbacks will kick in and it will be Game
Over.

So +2.0 C, for political purposes, became the limit. Beyond that, governments told us, we would have “dangerous warming”. Nonsense. We are having dangerous warming now – bigger storms, worse floods, longer droughts – and we are only at +1.0 C.

At plus-two or thereabouts, what we get is catastrophe: runaway warming that can no longer be halted just by stopping human emissions of carbon dioxide. Nature will take over, and we will be trapped on a one-way escalator that is taking us up to +3, +4, +5, even +6 degrees. Hundreds of millions or even billions of people would die as large parts of the planet ceased to be habitable by human beings.

If you don’t want to risk unleashing that, then you don’t want to go anywhere near +2, so the official adoption by the world’s governments of +1.5 degrees as the never-exceed limit is a major step forward. But note that they have only pledged “to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5C,” not to succeed. The hard-and-fast promise is still not to go past +2 – and there is not even any guarantee that that will be achieved.

In order to avoid a debacle like the one at the last climate summit in Copenhagen six years ago, nobody even tried to put enforceable limits on national carbon dioxide emissions this time. Each country was just invited to submit the emission cuts that it is willing to make. The sum of all those promised cuts (if the promises are kept) is what we will get by way of global emission cuts in the next five years.

United Nations experts did the math, and concluded that these emission cuts fall far short of what is needed. If this is all that is done, then we are headed for at least +2.7 degrees C – or rather, for a lot more, because of the feedbacks.

None of the negotiations at the Paris conference changed those numbers, or even tried to. So are we doomed to runaway warming? Not necessarily.

Most of the negotiators know that the cuts which are politically impossible now may become quite possible in five or ten years if the cost of renewable energy goes on dropping, if techniques like carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) become economically viable – and if people are sufficiently frightened by a climate that is getting wilder and less predictable by the year.

So there is a review process built into the treaty. Every five years, starting in 2018, there will be a “stock-taking” exercise in which everybody’s progress in cutting their emissions will be reviewed, and everybody will be encouraged to increase their commitments and speed up their cuts.

Whether they will actually do that depends on political, economic and technological factors that cannot yet be calculated, but fear is a great incentive, and there is no government on the planet that is not frightened by the prospect of major climate change. In fact, most of them would have gone a lot further in Paris if they were not nervous about getting too far ahead of public opinion at home.

Public opinion will eventually change, because there is going to be a very large amount of damage and suffering in the world as we move past +1.0 and head up towards +1.5. Will it change fast enough to allow governments to act decisively and in time? Nobody knows.

Will new green technologies simply sweep the field, making fossil fuels uneconomic and government intervention unnecessary? Nobody knows that either, although many people pin their hopes on it.

We are not out of the woods yet, but we are probably heading in the right direction – and it would be right at this point to put in a good word for that much maligned organisation, the United Nations. It is the only arena in which global negotiations like this can be conducted, and its skills, traditions and people were indispensable in leading them to a more or less successful conclusion.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 13, 14 and 15. (“Whether…it”)

Kosovo: Sauce for the Goose…

23 July 2010

Kosovo: Sauce for the Goose…

By Gwynne Dyer

Just before Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008, Vuk Jeremic, the Serbian foreign minister, warned that in Africa alone “there are about fifty Kosovos waiting to happen.” The fifty African wannabes can take heart, as the International Court of Justice has just ruled that Kosovo’s action was not illegal, as international law contains no “prohibition on declarations of independence.”

The International Court of Justice is a conservative body whose judges are almost evenly split between those whose home countries have recognised Kosovo’s independence and those that have not, but ten of the fourteen judges on the panel voted for the ruling. The ruling does not oblige other countries to recognise Kosovo’s independence – but it definitely shifts the balance in favour of secession.

What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander: minorities seeking independence anywhere will be encouraged by the court’s ruling. Five of the European Union’s 27 members refuse to recognise Kosovo precisely because they fear that their own minorities might use its independence as a precedent: Cyprus (Turkish Cypriots), Greece (Macedonian Turks), Slovakia (Hungarians), Romania (also Hungarians), and Spain (Catalans and Basques).

Further afield, China worries about Tibet and Xinjiang and Russia frets about all sorts of potential secessionist movements (20 percent of Russia’s population are minorities), so both countries sternly condemn Kosovo’s secession from Serbia. In fact, only 69 countries have recognised Kosovo. Countries with restive minorities of their own have not, and it is therefore still not a member of the United Nations.

There is an old legal adage that “hard cases make bad law,” and that is certainly at work in Kosovo. The Kosovars, who were 90 percent of the population before the 1999 war and now account for 95 percent, are Albanian-speaking Muslims who were mercilessly oppressed by the ultra-nationalist Serbian regime of Slobodan Milosevic.

Milosevic abolished the autonomy that Kosovo had enjoyed in the former Yugoslavia, and by the late 1990s his troops and police were regularly beating, jailing and killing Kosovars whom they suspected of seeking its restoration. He drove some Kosovars into a guerilla war against the Serbian regime, and then killed around 10,000 people in an indiscriminate attempt to terrorise the Kosovars into submission.

The Kosovars were not saints in all this, but they obviously owe no allegiance to a state that treated them in such a vile manner. In the end, in 1999, the United States and the European members of NATO decided that Serbian behaviour was intolerable, and waged an eleven-week war of aerial bombardment to force Serbian troops to evacuate Kosovo. Then they occupied it – and started looking for a way to leave.

The only way to get out was to create a sovereign Kosovo state, with protection for the rights of the remaining Serbian minority (now just 120,000 out of two million). When Serbia steadfastly refused to accept the independence of a province it sees as the cradle of the nation – “our Jerusalem,” in Vuk Jeremic’s words – the US and the major European countries told the Kosovars that they could declare their independence unilaterally.

Kosovo could not reasonably be expected to stay in Serbia after all that has happened, but it is a hard case, and it makes bad law. Or at least, it changes the law in ways that we may regret.

The International Court of Justice is right: international law does not ban declarations of independence. But the deal that underlies the creation of the United Nations, and that has spared us from great-power wars (and probably quite a few smaller wars) over the past sixty-five years, does forbid any changes in the borders of UN members that are imposed by force.

That deal is embedded in the UN Charter: thou shalt not change a border by force. What they really intended in 1945 – quite understandably, given what they had just been through – was to stop cross-border wars of aggression. In practice, however, the Charter has also been used to delegitimise unilateral declarations of independence all over the world.

Once upon a time, a breakaway province could establish its independence simply by demonstrating that it controlled all of its territory and had established a viable government. That is no longer true. The UN has become a trade union of the existing sovereign states, operating as a closed shop and refusing to recognise secessions even after they have succeeded in fact.

It was a largely unintended side effect of the UN Charter, and although it has suppressed violence in some places, it also helped to perpetuate terrible injustices in many others. The decision of the International Court of Justice undermines this interpretation of the Charter, and probably means that more secessions actually succeed in the end.

Whether that is a good thing or not depends on which side of the fence you are on, but it probably means more violence, at least in the short term.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 12. (“The International…secession”; and “Once…fact”)

Real World Politics

9 December 2009

 Real World Politics

By Gwynne Dyer

Copenhagen is turning into exactly the sort of shambles everybody feared it would be. The only official text still has almost two thousand square brackets indicating points of disagreement, although there is less than two weeks to go. And now all the rival, unofficial texts are starting to emerge.

The first to be leaked was a Danish proposal that was backed by a number of other industrialised countries. It would simply scrap the Kyoto protocol, the only legally binding treaty in existence that makes countries reduce emissions, and ditch the measures it contains on financial assistance and technology transfer to poor countries. A new treaty would be constructed on a green-field site, with everything up for grabs.

The developing countries, needless to say, were furious – but in the next few days the BASIC group (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) will release its own proposed text. The least developed countries, the African bloc and the overall G77/China grouping are also expected to present their own texts, as are the small island states.

The last group, unsurprisingly, is threatening to veto any outcome that does not create a legally binding treaty, because it contains a number of small island countries that are likely to disappear entirely if the sea level rises even a metre. Yet it is very hard to believe that a binding treaty can be negotiated in the next seven or eight days – the conference ends on 18 December – and in the end the island states will probably be bribed and bullied into accepting something less.

One hundred and ten heads of state will show up for the final couple of days, so SOMETHING will have to emerge that can be represented as a success. But it is likely to be merely a ringing statement of principles that steers around all the unresolved disputes, and then everyone will go home leaving the job half-done.

But cheer up. “Last chances” are rarely what they seem. The job of removing all the square brackets from the text will probably be resumed early next year, with the goal of bringing something closer to a final draft back to another Conference of the Parties as soon as possible. (This is COP 15, and COP 16 is already scheduled for Mexico City next summer).

So what does this process remind you of? If it were all happening within one country, and the blocs of states manoeuvring at Copenhagen were just local interest groups defending their turf, then you would recognise it instantly. It is the normal political process we are all familiar with, transposed to the global scale. And that is new.

It is hard to celebrate a process as clumsy, and occasionally as ugly, as the horse-trading and arm-twisting going on at Copenhagen, but that is how human politics works. We may all recognise that there is a global emergency, but every government still has its own interests to protect. Nevertheless, we have come a long way.

Seventy-five years ago there were only about fifty independent countries in the world, and more than half of the human race lived in somebody else’s empire. The one existing international organisation with any pretensions to global authority, the League of Nations, had collapsed, and we were entering the worst war in the history of mankind.

Forty years ago, there was a new, more ambitious global organisation, the United Nations, created mainly to prevent more such wars, and in particular a nuclear war. There were a hundred independent countries, many of them dictatorships, but they did represent the interests of their people better than the empires. The world was divided ideologically between East and West and economically between North and South, but the realisation was dawning that in some sense we were all in the same boat – and in the end we did avoid nuclear war.

Now there are 192 governments at the Copenhagen conference, most of them democratic, and they KNOW that we are all in the same boat. That’s why they are there. So now, for the first time in history, we have real global politics. It is as messy and incoherent as politics at any other level, but it is better than what we had before.

There are those on the right who think that climate change is a left-wing plot to impose a world government on everybody, but nothing of the sort is remotely likely. Those who built the first atomic bombs were not plotting to create the United Nations, nor did the scientists who first detected global warming have the Copenhagen conference as their ultimate goal.

We are all just dealing as best we can with threats that require a global response. We bring our old political habits with us, because there is no better model available. And yes, if we succeed, the world will be more politically integrated than ever before. Not because it is desirable – on that there are many possible views – but because it is necessary.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 4. (“The last…less”)

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.