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Disproving the Tragedy of the Commons: Rio+20 Sustainable Development Commitments
July 24th, 2012


by Jennifer Barnette

When Garrett Hardin wrote his famous essay The Tragedy of the Commons in 1968, he used the example of herdsman grazing their animals in a common pasture to exemplify the “tragedy” that results when multiple actors, acting independently and “rationally” (in the economic self-interest sense), will deplete a shared finite resource, even when it is in no one’s long-term best interest. Many have likened this phenomenon to the failures of global multilateral action to address climate change: everyone agrees in theory that global warming is bad in the long-run, but no one is willing to forego their own high carbon development to halt it. At least so the theory goes.

Supporters of this theory cite the failure of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) conferences to establish a global action plan for emissions reductions. The largest overall emitters, the U.S. and China, refuse to commit to low-carbon growth without strict guarantees from the other. Developing countries like Bolivia blame industrialized countries for contributing the lion’s share of historic emissions, and demand payment for climate debt. And thus it seems like the weak document that emerged from the recent Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development is just another in a line of failed multilateral negotiations regarding climate change and sustainable growth.

For sustainability advocates, the news out of Rio was depressing. While more than 50,000 people descended upon the Brazilian coastal city for the 20-year anniversary of the Earth Summit, hoping to make significant strides towards a sustainable future, most left sorely disappointed. Major heads of state were missing (read: President Obama) and the major outcome of Rio, a  53-page document entitled “The Future We Want,” did little more than reaffirm the goals and commitments that were espoused 20 years ago at the first UN conference on sustainability.

But there are signs that our climate has not been written off as a tragedy of the commons quite yet. The hope from Rio lies in the more than 700 voluntary commitments that were made by governments, multinational corporations, financial institutions, universities, NGOs, and other members of civil society, and the initiative to monitor and track the implementation of these commitments. According to the Rio+20 Secretariat, “collectively, these tangible commitments mobilize more than $500 billion in actions towards sustainable development.”

A few examples:

  • Australia will establish the world’s largest and most comprehensive network of marine reserves by placing more than 1 million square miles of Australia’s oceans under conservation management.
  • Germany announced its commitment to achieve 80% electricity production from renewable energy sources by 2050.
  • The United States committed to create and fund the U.S.-Africa Clean Energy Finance Initiative (US-ACEF), in order to catalyze much-needed private sector investment in clean energy projects in Africa.
  • Microsoft has committed to achieve carbon neutrality by the end of 2013.
  • Bank of America has set a goal to commit $50 billion over ten years to finance energy efficiency, renewable energy and energy access, and other activities that advance the low-carbon economy.
  • Coca-Cola set a global water stewardship goal to safely return to nature and to communities an amount of water equivalent to what it uses in all its beverages and their production by 2020.
  • Five major stock exchanges, collectively listing more than 4,600 companies, committed to promoting long-term, sustainable investment in their marketplaces.

Many of these commitments are being monitored by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) on their newly created Cloud of Commitments website. “Launched at the Rio+20 Earth Summit, the Cloud aggregates and tracks commitments to take specific actions which contribute to the rapid transition to a low-carbon green economy. The Cloud is a first step in creating a global platform to record, encourage and hold accountable all of hundreds of initiatives being brought to Rio by governments at all levels, business, and civil society groups.”

It is a positive sign to see public and private entities alike committing to more sustainable practices. And it is even more encouraging that civil society is going to hold them to their word. This is exactly the type of communal pressure that Elinor Ostrom, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics for “her analysis of economic governance,” suggests can overcome the tragedy of the commons dilemma: in essence, climate governance from below. Ostram writes, “Global and national environmental policy frequently ignores community-based governance and traditional tools, such as informal communication and sanctioning, but these tools can have significant impact.” Bottom-up accountability mechanisms can overcome the ineffectiveness and inefficiency of the nation-state framework in combating global issues like climate change by allowing citizen, non-governmental, and even corporate activists to take the leadership reins in transitioning to sustainable global development. Informal sanctions, like  a thumbs-up (or thumbs-down) from watch-dog NGOs like the NRDC, and broad approval (or disapproval) from activists and engaged citizens around the world, might be enough to get the commitment-makers to follow through.

Many of you will be quick to point out that these commitments are only voluntary, and that watchdog organizations have very little leverage in holding corporations and governments accountable. Others will argue that even if the commitments are all reached, it is still far too little too late to have any tangible impact on reducing GHG emissions without binding commitments from nation-states. And I agree that voluntary commitments are insufficient on their own, but they do represent a citizen-driven strategy towards progress in the face of political standstill at the United Nations level. While still a far cry from a solution to the colossal challenge of climate change, Rio+20 commitments and the accountability mechanisms developed alongside them do represent an alternative to overcoming the tragedy of the commons mentality in the context of global warming.


Jennifer Barnette  is a legal intern at CRS, she can be reached at jbarnette [at]

Guest Post: New Federal Report Spotlights Global Deforestation, Importance of Domestic Action
January 25th, 2012

by Anton Chiono

Forest conversion and loss hasn’t rated very high on the U.S. political agenda since federal climate legislation stalled in 2010. But that doesn’t mean deforestation—nor its climate damage—has stopped.

We’re still losing about 90,000 acres of forestland, along with its capacity to safely absorb and store greenhouse gases, every day around the world (Source: FAO). Here at home, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates more than 57 million acres of U.S. forests will be converted to other uses by 2030 (Source: USDA).

Which is why it’s encouraging to see that the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has released a report detailing the potential of forests to combat global climate change.

Entitled Deforestation and Greenhouse Gases, the report assesses the climate role of forests and identifies the challenges facing policymakers in more fully harnessing forests in the fight against global climate change.

The report was compiled at the request of Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and a co-author of the last attempt at a federal climate bill in 2010. He should be applauded for his commitment to this issue, says Pacific Forest Trust Board Secretary Andrea Tuttle, Ph.D., the former director of the California Department of Forestry. A global forest and climate consultant, Tuttle attends the negotiating sessions of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change as an observer for PFT.

“It’s great to see this issue back in the Congressional spotlight,” Tuttle said. “One of the bright spots in the UN climate negotiations has been the progress in setting the standards for measuring and slowing the global rate of deforestation. There’s a key role for the U.S. and other developed countries to play by incentivizing forest protection through well-designed markets for the climate benefits of forests.”

Unlike most other sectors, forests are unique in their capacity to act as either a net source of carbon sequestration OR a net source of the carbon emissions fueling climate change. When conserved and healthy, forests are a climate defense, absorbing and storing far more carbon dioxide than they emit. When cleared or degraded, forests become net emitters of greenhouse gases. Currently, forests hold about 760 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide globally—or more than 100 times all U.S. emissions in 2009. Despite the impressive magnitude of this carbon storage, however, deforestation and degradation continue to undermine global forest carbon sinks at an alarming rate. During the 1990s, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimated that forest loss was responsible for 20% of global GHG emissions in terms of warming impact. While this number fell to about 12% during 2000 to 2005, this decline was due to drastic increases in fossil fuel consumption—not any great reductions in deforestation.

The considerable carbon storage capacity of forests and the emissions associated with their loss make forests a central concern in addressing global climate change. In its assessment, the CBO recognizes the great potential of forests in climate change, but identifies several challenges that first must be overcome before this potential can be more fully realized. For instance, unlike many other emissions sources—where GHGs can be tracked at the end of a smokestack—quantifying emissions and sequestration from forests is much more challenging.

Generally, this requires monitoring changes in forest carbon storage from year to year, and converting gains and losses in wood volumes to GHG equivalents. However, with 95% of forest-based emissions arising from only 25 countries, most of which are developing nations in the tropics, existing forest inventory data are often inaccurate at best—or nonexistent at worst.

Further, the CBO notes that designing policies to reduce emissions through avoided deforestation can pose substantial challenges. For instance, when deforestation is halted in one location, demand for the goods that would have been produced may simply displace deforestation to another location. As a result, unless policies can find ways to prevent this demand-driven “leakage,” avoiding deforestation in one location may, in actuality, do little to reduce atmospheric GHG concentrations. Finally, even if these challenges can be overcome, governance issues in developing countries may complicate the implementation of policies to reduce forest loss.

Although attempting to address governance issues in developing nations may be challenging, the CBO notes that cultivating technical expertise, policy solutions, and strong markets for emissions reductions are all important ways in which developed nations can work toward reducing global deforestation.

California’s climate program, along with the development of other state and regional climate programs, also are important steps to addressing deforestation abroad, Tuttle notes.”Many states and provinces already offer examples of pro-climate forest policies. Certainly California is known for its programs, but forest landowners in New England, the Southeast and Northwest are also taking advantage of forest carbon protocols and markets.”

Low-density housing developments like this one in Maryland account for much of the 1.7 million acres of U.S. forestland that are converted each year.

While the challenges of reducing global deforestation may be considerable, the actions developed nations have taken to confront these issues internally are important first steps to addressing them internationally. Though deforestation in the U.S. pales in magnitude when compared to losses in the tropics, the technical expertise, markets, and policy approaches being developed here at home can have great applicability abroad. The CBO’s Deforestation and Greenhouse Gases report is an important reminder that the development of policies to address deforestation and emissions at home is a critical part of also doing so abroad.

Learn more about the Pacific Forest Trust’s work to pioneer forest and climate policy solutions here at home on their Working Forests, Winning Climate page.

You can read Andrea Tuttle’s analysis of the forest and climate progress made at international negotiations in Durban, South Africa, on the PFT blog.

This post is a re-post from the Pacific Forest Trust blog entry from January 18, 2012. Read the original here.

Anton Chiono is a policy Analyst at Pacific Forest Trust

Is That a Fact? The Case for Abandoning Climate Change Deniers
August 9th, 2011

by Jeff Swenerton

Environmentalists spend a lot of time discussing the best way to change the minds of the 82% of Americans who do not consider themselves green. The most-discussed techniques are those that focus on adapting the language and arguments to what the audience cares about the most. If you start with the Dark Green environmentalists and gradually fade to the light greens, the messaging shifts from treehugging to babyhugging, though the takeaway is the same—make lifestyle changes that reduce your use of fossil fuels, or else.

We learned years ago not to use the words “global warming” because a warming planet is a far-off concern for most people, whose interests radiate outward from the hot center like concentric circles, starting with themselves in the middle and growing outward to encompass family, job, house, neighborhood, extended family, “future generations,” others in their socioeconomic cohort, gas prices, retail prices, national security, interest rates, when Mad Men is going to start again, and then, possibly, the environment—but only if environmental action doesn’t cost more or require a separate trip. In fact, while nearly a third of people say environmental factors are important when weighing which products to buy, retailers and marketing execs have long known that people will choose green products only if they cost exactly the same and don’t require bending over to find them. And even then, green products account for a slimming sliver of sales.

Communications people, and to a lesser extent journalists, are always talking about ways of making environmentalism sexy to an increasingly bored and skeptical public. Despite our increasing efforts, the number of people who believe that climate change is happening has actually dropped over the last few years, from 72% in 2008 to 58% in 2010. So what has changed? Countless studies have been released that enumerate in grim detail our morphing planet, and first-time-in-recorded-history weather patterns would seem to reinforce this longstanding consensus in the scientific community. And yet, the ranks of skeptics has bloomed. (They’re especially skeptical of climate change during cold weather—recent record snowstorms caused respondents in a Yale survey to question the reality of climate change based on what they saw out their window.)

But do we need these climate-change deniers on our side at all? If you place a red apple in a man’s hand, and he continues to insist his hand is empty, how much effort do you expend convincing him? In my line of work, we appeal to facts. But I am told that a reliance on facts to form opinions is not the way many people think, and those who live comfortably with their beliefs do not feel the logical strain of placing their full faith in science on the one hand (pharmaceuticals, GPS, voyages to the moon, iPads) while deftly excising the inconvenient parts (climate change, dwindling fossil fuels, toxic pollution) from their belief system. Decision-making isn’t about weighing the facts to find truth or trusting the experts—instead truth is “truth,” a complex amalgam of cultural biases, linguistic differences, swooning narratives, and frames of reference.

As non-scientists, we can be much more confident in our beliefs in part because they are so rarely challenged. We listen to talk radio that we agree with, watch TV shows that reinforce our beliefs, and have friends that share our interests, background, and rough socioeconomic level. The advantage of having a thousand channels at our fingertips is that we can avoid alternate perspectives so completely that eventually, like the tree falling in the forest, we may forget they exist. And so we speak often of certainties and absolutes, something scientists do not. This is where we run into trouble. I am as certain of climate change as I am of evolution or gravity, and yet both are referred to as theories by scientists. Maddeningly, scientists continue to speak of likelihoods, not certainties. Ranges of probabilities, not absolutes. Because of this perceived uncertainty, laypeople act like terminal patients who have just been given a month to live, wildly overestimating the margin of error and grasping at small discrepancies in the data that scientists freely admit to and refuse to completely discount. We cling to this rounding error and declare the issue still debatable. When the scientists have gone back to work, we are left with our own interpretations and “points of view.”

But my point of view is irrelevant. I have absolutely no scientific background or training, so I bristle a bit when asked to make up my own mind about climate change. I am not a scientist, which is why I defer to experts on matters of science. I will gladly offer my opinion about chocolate vs. vanilla, but since I have never taken a core sample of paleolithic ice in Antarctica or measured albedo in higher-latitude forests myself, I defer to the scientific establishment, which, say what you will about the practical drawbacks of peer review, does not suffer from a lack of rigor. Incorrect conclusions don’t stay uncorrected for long. Scientists tend to keep each other accurate and apolitical.

Who’s to blame? Ourselves first, for choosing to bury ourselves in a warm cocoon of ideology that acts as a kind of sensory-deprivation chamber, insulating us from the harsh and ever-shifting winds of data whistling ominously around and under us. But the press must also assume some responsibility, for reporting loudly on minor, and often routine, disagreements among scientists in an effort to appear balanced. The result is a windfall for marginal views trying to be heard. If three percent of researchers disagree with the other ninety-seven percent (as is the case in climate science), they often get the headline and half the coverage—an arrangement that draws eyeballs, perhaps, but is ultimately dishonest. Journalism is hard, but the profession has no licensing program. And with no way left to pay for itself, we are left with decimated newsrooms emptied of reporters who once successfully navigated ethical minefields, and thousands of allaboutme.blogspot.commers who show up routinely in news aggregators, much to their own delight. (And yet the vast majority of twittered links [requisite mention of social media, check] are to traditional media.)

And so I ask, should we keep trying to convince the unbelievers? A survey from Public Agenda found that over half of Americans couldn’t correctly identify a renewable energy source like wind or solar and 39 percent couldn’t name a fossil fuel. Never mind the renewable energy—over a third of Americans scratched their heads, thought for a moment, and still couldn’t answer “gas”? If so many Americans are unaware that petroleum products power their lives and bring them every single object they eat, sit on, wear, drive, or watch, it might be too much to teach them why we need alternatives to this magical mystery fuel. I am fully committed to abandoning the losing fight of trying to “re-frame the science” or “tell the story” in a way that appeals to this unreachable minority. Imagine all the time we’ll save if we can stop spinning the importance of clean energy and reduced fossil fuel use into personalized just-for-you narratives that resemble nothing more than patronizing versions of Mad Libs: “If you care about your family and its health, you should buy renewable energy and ride a bike because your neighbor is doing it too!” Focusing on solving problems is a much better use of our time, and it will eliminate the scattershot and ultimately futile approach to finding Messaging That Works.

This does not mean we stop educating people about the importance of environmental action—in fact we have barely begun that task. I’m proposing instead abandoning those who have seen the evidence, know the issues exist, but still deny that climate change is happening and that we are the cause. Those without a scientific background who say they do not “believe” in something accepted as fact in the scientific community deserve to be left at a windswept crossroads with their hunched forebears still carrying on about geocentrism, phrenology, astrology, and the flat earth. I imagine it is a lonely place, and am amazed that each generation produces willing representatives of the pseudoscientific fringe to send there, but once again, here we are. They may say whatever they wish, but science is always right in the end. And it brings pictures.

There will always be those with entrenched views, who through ideology or inertia can’t or won’t see the story in the numbers. Instead of expending our energy trying to get them to see the apple in their hand, I propose we abandon them to their beliefs, and instead focus on advancing the science about our effect on the planet, and the technological and policy solutions that can bring us back into alignment. It’s important not just for the planet, after all, but for the health and financial well-being of you, your family, and future generations.


Jeff Swenerton is the communications director at CRS, and has flown 11,457 miles so far in 2011, effectively negating all the commuting to work by bicycle he has done since 1997.

Carbon Dioxide is Killing Coral: How Rising Ocean Acidification Damages Marine Ecosystems
July 11th, 2011
Reefscape by Chuck Savall
“Reefscape” by Chuck Savall


by J.P. Rose

While many Americans have heard that carbon dioxide emissions are a major cause of climate change, carbon dioxide also contributes to a lesser-known but similarly serious problem. That problem is ocean acidification, and it threatens not only the vibrant beauty and biodiversity of Earth’s coral reefs, but also the livelihoods of millions of people. A new report by an international panel of scientists warns that the health of the oceans—and particularly of corals—is slipping faster than even pessimists had earlier predicted, and that mass extinctions of fish and coral may occur unless humans take action.[1]

I first became aware of the threats facing coral reefs after discovering the addictive sport of snorkeling. Over the past five years, I have found opportunities to snorkel in the Bahamas, Caribbean, and Mediterranean. During my underwater adventures, I have witnessed some colorful coral reefs that are bursting with hundreds of different fish species, and other less fortunate reefs that are grayish white and home to only a few species.

The grayish white of these less fortunate reefs reflects bleaching, which is caused by ocean acidification and increased water temperatures from climate change. Ocean acidification is the term used for declining levels of pH in the upper layers of the ocean due to the absorption of increased levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide.[2] The oceans are actually a huge carbon “sink” that absorb about forty percent of the carbon dioxide emitted by human activities.[3] Yet, allowing the oceans to continue to act as a huge sponge for human-caused carbon dioxide emissions is unsustainable. When carbon dioxide dissolves in the ocean, it changes into carbonic acid, which lowers the pH and increases the acidity of the ocean.[4] Heightened ocean acidity dissolves carbonate minerals such as aragonite that are essential to the growth of coral skeletons, a process known as calcification.[5][2]

Scientists at the Carnegie Institute for Science predict that this process will make 98% percent of present-day reefs unable to grow by 2050, if current carbon dioxide emission trends continue.[5] Unlike climate change forecasts, which do involve some degree of uncertainty, researchers have already verified and documented the process of ocean acidification due to absorption of anthropogenic (human-caused) carbon dioxide.[6] Unless humans substantially curb their carbon dioxide emissions, entire ecosystems including coral reefs may be gone within a generation.[1]

The decline of coral reefs profoundly impacts ocean ecosystems and the people who depend upon them.[7] Known as the “rainforests of the sea,” coral reefs are home to thousands of fish species, and act as a nursery for juveniles.[8] Areas with degrading coral are already experiencing reduced numbers of fish as well as reduced biodiversity, such as in Papua New Guinea, where approximately half of all fish species studied declined by over fifty percent.[9] Moreover, half a billion people depend on coral reefs to some degree for their food, income, or coastal protection while thirty million people are entirely dependent upon coral reefs for their livelihood.[10] In addition, the natural beauty of coral reefs and their colorful inhabitants lures many people (myself included) to countries surrounded by coral reefs, which these countries’ economies rely upon for tourism.

Notwithstanding the protestations of a few organizations funded by the oil industry [11] and the slanted reporting by some media sources [12], there is scientific consensus that atmospheric carbon dioxide is causing ocean acidification [13] as well as climate change.[14]  Even though predicting the exact amount of damage to reef ecosystems and the broader ocean is impossible, the weight of the evidence indicates we should utilize the precautionary principle and work together to reduce carbon dioxide emissions (for example, through switching to clean energy sources as a nation and individually). As the richest and most powerful nation on Earth, the United States has a moral imperative to take the lead in preserving the natural resources and technicolor biodiversity of the oceans.


J.P. Rose is a legal intern at CRS and a rising third-year student at Santa Clara University School of Law.



[1] Michael McCarthy, “Oceans on brink of catastrophe.” The Independent, 20 June 2011, available at

[2] Glenn De’ath, et al. “Declining Coral Calcification on the Great Barrier Reef.” Science Magazine, 2 Jan. 2009, available with free sign up at

[3] Yale University. “Oceans absorbing carbon dioxide more slowly, scientist finds.” ScienceDaily, 27 Nov. 2009, available at

[4] University of California/San Diego. “Global Scientists Draw Attention To Threat Of Ocean Acidification.” ScienceDaily, 5 Feb. 2009, available at

[5]Carnegie Institute for Science, “Coral Reefs Unlikely to Survive in Acid Oceans.”, 13 Dec. 2007, available at

[6] Scott C. Doney, et al., “Ocean Acidification: The Other CO2 Problem.” Annual Review of American Science, 2009. 1:169–92, 170, available at

[7] “Ocean Acidification and Coral Reefs.”, 2 June 2001, available at

[8] Shaun Wilson, “Climate change and coral reef habitat: implications for fish.” A Changing Climate: Western Australia in Focus, 27 March 2009, available at

[9] Geoffrey P. Jones, “Coral decline threatens fish biodiversity in marine reserves.” 25 May 2004, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of American, available at

[10] National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “How many people are dependent upon coral reefs?,” available at

[11] Union of Concerned Scientists, “Scientists’ Report Documents ExxonMobil’s Tobacco-like Disinformation Campaign on Global Warming Science.”

[12] Media Matters, “Climate Science Takes Another Spin Through The Fox Cycle.” 21 June 2011, available at

[13] Ocean, Carbon and Biochemistry, “A special introductory guide for policy advisers and decision makers.” Available at

[14] Union of Concerned Scientists, “Scientific Consensus on Global Warming.” 7 March 2011, available at

Understanding the Limitations of the UNFCCC
December 17th, 2010




The author with former U.N. climate chief Yvo de Boer in Bonn, Germany.


by Todd Jones

Hey, guess what? “The beacon of hope has been reignited and faith in the multilateral climate change process has been restored?” I bet you didn’t know that. In fact, I bet that even if you had heard that the 16th Conference of the Parties (COP 16) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations ended on December 10 (or even began in the first place the week before) this wouldn’t have been your conclusion.

The meetings in Cancún produced the “Cancún Agreements,” the legal status of which is yet to be determined, and the broad effect of which is merely to “bring the main Copenhagen outcomes formally under the UNFCCC.”[1] The two-track negotiating process which began in Bali and which was supposed to finish up in Copenhagen last year was extended again. There was no clear signal on whether or not the Kyoto Protocol will continue into a second commitment period, and there is no new agreement with mitigation obligations to replace it. We do now have a shared vision for long-term cooperative action, which can “guide the policies and actions of all Parties,” and agrees to “work towards identifying a global goal for substantially reducing global emissions by 2050,” as well as the formal recognition of mitigation pledges of several developed and developing countries (which unfortunately, even if they are met, will not alone bring about the shared vision). There were other concrete outcomes as well: a NAMAs registry, a Green Climate Fund, a Technology Mechanism, a Cancún Adaptation Framework, and a clear signal on REDD+.

Still, Cancún’s greatest success is that negotiations didn’t disintegrate completely—that any agreement was reached at all through the existing procedural infrastructure. Cancún represents a middle ground between the high of Bali and the low of Copenhagen. This doesn’t sound like the “beacon of hope” that UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christina Figueres describes. So why would she make such a declaration?

For an answer, I reference my own experiences at these negotiations. In 2008, I attended two weeks of intercessional meetings of subsidiary bodies in Bonn, Germany, as well as the COP 14 meetings in Poznan, Poland as a member of “civil society,” a representative of my school’s own NGO.

Of the many things I learned, I consider the most important to be this: even the most distinguished, high-level representative from the most powerful Party or Group will literally run you down to get to free food.

But the second most important thing I learned is more relevant here, and it is this: semantics are everything. On first thought, I was frustrated by this. These negotiations did not appear to be about climate change mitigation and adaptation at all; they appeared to be about the Parties, and power. The Parties simply didn’t want to agree, and the extent to which going through the motions of these meetings was helping in that respect seemed insignificant.

On second thought, however, the importance of semantics in international negotiations on climate change seems to represent something more complicated. Semantics reveal, instead of obfuscate, the character of international climate change mitigation and adaptation. Annelise Riles, though she wrote 10 years earlier, shared many of my observations on international meetings on global issues. In her fantastic 1998 article entitled “Infinity Within the Brackets,”[2] she suggests that the “meaning” in international meetings is only revealed as patterns, when the entire body of work is assembled and can be considered at once, and that this is the unavoidable result of attempts in international negotiations and documents to “make visible” a vast heterogeneity of perspectives and localities. She interpreted the singular focus on semantics and technicality as an implicit practice, as an abstraction from reality that mirrors the abstraction embodied by a “global” negotiation or document. The “matter of concern,” climate change, is not lost as I first thought, rather it is distinct from individual meetings and documents; it doesn’t exist as a whole.

In other words, in international negotiations, the point is not to find an effective solution to climate change, but to find a solution in which everyone is ‘visible.’ This explains the tedious technicality of these meetings; it is the result of serving the vast heterogeneity of perspectives with a single solution. Though climate change is often described as a global problem, the issue of climate change cannot be accessed at the global level, and therefore progress or action on climate change cannot be the purpose of these meetings. As Ms. Riles suggests, it is the purpose of these meetings to build something (internationally) that can be taken apart later (locally), and it is only at this point that progress or meaning becomes concrete. This “progress” or level of action on the issue was implicit from the start. As a result, the lack of progress is often blamed on localities, on implementation, rather than the international process itself.

This also might explain why Figueres regarded these negotiations to be such a success.

Though this understanding of the international process perhaps helps us to appreciate the importance of semantics, it nevertheless leads to a similar conclusion regarding the matter of concern—the international process is unlikely to yield the results needed to address climate change and other “global” problems. This is precisely because it establishes ideals of “local,” “national,” and “global,” which are all constructed based on assumptions made at a self-contained international level, a plane separated from any real time or place. This is evidenced, for example, in the distinction made between developed (Annex I) and developing nations (non-Annex I), and the ongoing challenges surrounding this distinction. Perhaps these assumptions demand criticism along with the negotiations necessitated by them.

Bottom line? Both the frustrated citizen that can only see semantics and the thoughtful student of Annelise Riles can agree that the international level is not the level for action, and the distance between these negotiations and action on climate change is implicit and permanent.

Todd Jones is the manager of Green-e Climate, a certification program for carbon offset products. He can be reached at todd [at] resource-solutions [dot] org.

[1] Akanle, T. et al. (2010). “Summary of the Cancún Climate Change Conference: 29 November – 11 December 2010.” Earth Negotiations Bulletin, COP 16 Final, Vol. 12, No. 498, 13 December 2010. Published by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD). Pp.29.

[2] Riles, Annelise. (1998). “Infinity within the Brackets.” American Ethnologist 25(3): 378-398

Renewable Energy As An Adaptation Opportunity for Caribbean Islands
August 17th, 2010

Eda MacSween is a survivor of Hurricane Ivan in 2004 and a Grenada native. Photo Courtesy

Dateline: St. Georges, Grenada. Peering down, I marvel at the scant distance between the lapping waters of the Caribbean sea and the bustling waterfront of this capital of Grenada and think, “this isn’t good.” Caribbean island nations are all too familiar with natural disasters. Ninety percent of Grenada’s buildings were damaged by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. Rising sea levels and more intense storms due to climate change will make the problem much worse.

I was on a one-week whirlwind trip to four eastern Caribbean islands nations, visiting St. Lucia, Barbados, St. Vincent and Grenada in six days. The U.S. State Department’s Strategic Speaker Initiative invited me on this tour for the purpose of discussing climate change impacts that Caribbean islands should expect, and options for adaptation and ways they might contribute to helping to contain the problem of climate change. It was exhausting but rejuvenating at the same time, a great reminder that while averting a climate catastrophe is itself reason enough for action, climate and clean energy solutions offer rewards on multiple levels.

Renewable energy offers both adaptation and pollution reduction benefits. Renewable energy provides electricity without producing heat trapping air emissions. It also can help build a society that is less vulnerable to external shocks (supply disruptions or price spikes) and an economy that will perform better as the pollution costs of fossil fuels are increasingly recognized and reflected in their price.

Adaptation is ultimately about making people less vulnerable and improving their quality of life. Viewed this way, renewable energy seems an obvious choice and a more hopeful one than “start building your sea walls,” though more purely defensive measures such as sea walls also have a role to play. More specific to the situation faced by island communities, sea level rise is a serious issue because valuable buildings and infrastructure are clustered near the coast.

My message that renewable energy is an excellent option was very well received. These islands are dependent on diesel fuel imports to generate electricity, a costly option. As a result the islands have some of the highest electricity rates in the world, a good competitive terrain for renewable energy. The reliance on diesel fuel also produces import dependence. The insecurity this creates is felt especially keenly on such small island nations, making very attractive the idea of price stability from free domestic fuels like the wind and the sun.

The eastern Caribbean nations have abundant wind, solar, and geothermal energy options. Trade winds are reliable in this area, and that abundant sunshine is available is obvious. That many of the Caribbean islands are the tops of undersea volcanoes explains the potential for geothermal development. A few days after my return a US company announced plans to build a geothermal facility in St. Lucia. Correlation is not causation, though no one is discouraged from connecting my visit to progress on geothermal power production in St. Lucia.

The reality is that there has been little clean energy development in the places I visited. Solar water heating has been helped along by tax credits in Barbados and St. Lucia. Also, a desalination plant being built in St. Vincent will be partially wind powered. High energy prices have also encouraged energy efficient practices on these Caribbean islands. There are lots of fluorescent lights, though there is still more to that could be done in the realm of efficiency and conservation.

The challenge is always getting money to fund projects. These are what might be thought of as middle income countries, with annual incomes in the $10,000-$20,000 per capita income range. Though not poor, they have many pressing needs.

I profiled the variety of international finance options that might support such projects. These include private sector options, like the Clean Development Mechanism, which has supported development five projects on Caribbean islands. However, such funding has slowed with the lack of progress on a new international climate treaty.

I discussed other multilateral or bilateral funding options, focusing on two recent US initiatives. One is U.S. Department of Energy funding for “Low carbon communities of the Americas,” which supports the emergence of model climate friendly examples. This program has paid for the installation of wind turbines on the Caribbean island of Dominica. Also, as part of the U.S.’s Copenhagen commitments, the U.S. Embassy in Barbados is dispersing $5 million this year to support adaptation and mitigation projects.

Looming in the background of any U.S. foray into international aspects of climate change is the fact that the US is the biggest per capita polluter in the world. While acknowledging the reality—the U.S. needs to get its own house in order—I also made the point that everyone can be part of the solution. I observed that small island states have played a powerful role in international negotiations for a strong global treaty and that their voice would only be strengthened if they were also showing the way to a low carbon, high-quality lifestyle.

Then I went to the beach for more research.

Chris Busch is CRS’s Policy Director. He can be reached at chris [at]

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