Reading assessments of the recent Durban conference by leading climate wonks, many of them argue that the issue of a binding treaty — to eventually take the place of the Kyoto Protocol — must be viewed against a broader backdrop. In other words, the push to eventually enact global obligations for emission cuts is a fraught endeavor, and other tracks are just as importa nt.

Which raises interesting general questions about treaties as a focus of multilateral effort and public hopes. Are binding treaties always good litmus tests of seriousness in addressing international problems? Are there cases in which the quest to codify and ratify is Quixotic, when the best is truly enemy of the good?

Treaties not ends unto themselves

Not that I have anything against treaties; some of my best advocacy has been around treaties. For some issues they’re essential — last year’s New START agreement on strategic nuclear arms, for one. It’s important, however, to remember that international accords are not ends unto themselves, but instead are means to address real-world problems. The essence of multilateral cooperation is to induce sovereign governments to take steps on behalf of the common good that they’d shirk if left completely to their own devices. It’s like the idea that no one is an island, but then, some nations actually are islands, and they’re the ones most threatened by global warming.

The Durban meeting of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) drove home the points that a) treaties are not the only way to spur this kind of virtuous dynamic, but beyond that b) they can actually backfire. The Council on Foreign Relations’ Michael Levi explained the perverse incentives in a pre-Durban Financial Times piece, looking back at the progress achieved at the last two UN climate conferences in Copenhagen and Cancun:

Countries enter binding international agreements with an eye to ensuring that they will be able to comply with their commitments. The legally binding nature of an international deal can thus deter national ambition in the first place. It is near-certain, for example, that China would not have pledged in Copenhagen to cut its emissions intensity to well below current levels had it been required to embed that in a treaty. The same is true for the absolute emissions’ cuts pledged by the US. It is similarly unlikely that India, China and others would have accepted formal international scrutiny of their emissions cutting efforts had that been made part of a system for enforcing legal obligations.

The question of committing to a timeline for reaching some sort of binding global agreement was the subject of intense diplomatic brinksmanship in Durban and almost tore the process apart, the Europeans having pressed the issue as an ultimatum. As Michael explained in a post-conference piece over at, the resolution was a classic fudge that leaves itself open to multiple interpretations and hardly supports claims about putting the UNFCCC on a clear path to a treaty.

Looking at it another way, the conference’s success wasn’t setting a glidepath to a Kyoto follow-on agreement, but building on earlier successes and keeping the entire enterprise from disintegrating. Here’s how Joe Romm of Center for American Progress put it in a post on CAP’s Climate Progress blog:

It’s worth noting that the alternative was not a binding agreement to stabilize at 2°C ( 3.6°F) warming, but a complete collapse of the international negotiating process.

The Climate Progress team have offered a comprehensive overview of international cooperation on climate, including in other settings than the UNFCC. Perhaps the most important track within the UN process, though, is “climate financing,” funds to aid developing countries as they struggle with the challenges and consequences of global warming. This financial commitment from industrial powers like the US is a key test of their credibility and a sensitive issue for poorer nations likely to be affected by climate change. Indeed, as extreme weather intensifies, it’s inevitable that those countries will say don’t push us when we’re hot.

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