“We’re eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked” – these were the words of Secretary of State Dean Rusk at the height of the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962.
It may be abhorrent to some, but despite the high stakes international negotiations often come down to extracting the maximum from your interlocutor.
In the case of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the stakes could not have been higher – President Kennedy had played his hand by blockading Cuba and the Soviet Union had no choice but to back down to avoid Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). Analysts have interpreted this as a classic instance of a nuclear game of “Chicken” â Khrushchev was convinced that his choice was between turning his fleet home or nuclear holocaust.
But not to worry â classical Rational Expectations scholars inform us that MAD acts as some sort of cast-iron deterrent against nuclear war. States acting rationally donât commit suicide.
This optimism is not universally shared. Several scholars, including Graham Allison, are not entirely convinced of this ârationalâ reassurance. They point to political or bureaucratic failures, breakdowns in communication, cultural and moral factors as equally important in predicting or âretrodictingâ outcomes.
For them, avoiding MAD was as much to do with good fortune as anything else; and the lesson â try not to play brinksmanship with the future of humanity.
This message, unfortunately, seems not to have been taken to heart by all of our Copenhagen interlocutors.
There are of course the good guys who have tried to bring more than narrow self-interest to the table. The EU has all but played its hand in an attempt to cajole the major players to an agreement. A unilateral 20% emissions reduction, rising to 30% on 1990 levels in the case of an international agreement, was offered by the European Commission way back in 2007, and agreed by the Council of Ministers in December 2008. The higher-level target would be within the range demanded by the science.
In the area of financing (for adaptation and mitigation of emissions in developed countries) â the only other substantive area where the EU has direct control â the EUâs blueprint is the only real offer out there.
Meanwhile Japan has put a very real offer of a -25% emissions reduction on the table; and Brazil has committed to reducing emissions by a minimum 36% by 2020, and reducing deforestation by 80%. Both these offers are seen as proactive engagements.
This leaves a long cast of villains. Although developing countries should be under no obligation to reduce absolute emissions in the period to 2020, meaningful proposals are required to reassure countries such as the US.
China has announced an objective of reducing its CO2 emissions per unit of GDP (not on an absolute basis) by 40% to 45% from 2005 to 2020. This is a classical example of holding on to your aces. These emissions targets are below what would have been achieved through already announced energy efficiency and renewables measures. Though relatively innocent historically, China now emits more than any other country and must do more to check the rise in emissions in the period to 2020. Premier Wen Jiabaom must bring more to the table.
India’s climate plan provides eight national missions in key areas. It provides several measures but only a few of them are quantified in terms of resulting emission reductions. There is no aggregate offer on the table. Jairam Ramesh, Indian Minister for State for Environment, has been castigated by the environmental movement for his unhelpful attitude to negotiations. It is perhaps time for India to poke a toe in the water.
Then there is the biggest challenge. Despite President Obamaâs undeniable commitment to the cause, he has not gone beyond a conditional offer of a 17% reduction on 2005 levels of emissions by 2020 – or 3% below 1990. This is far outside the range of comparable reduction efforts by other developed countries.
We could blame George Bush for ignoring climate change and allowing US emissions to skyrocket under his watch, making the 1990 baseline difficult for the US. We could blame Harry Reid, Senate majority leader for constantly promising to bring legislation before the Senate and consistently failing to do so, essentially hamstringing international negations. Or we could blame Tom Donohue, President of the US Chamber of Commerce for hiring 2,810 lobbyist to kill Copenhagen by whipping up opposition on Capital Hill to a proactive Bill.
So a legally binding agreement in Copenhagen is now unlikely. Time has run out. According to the Danish Prime Minister, Lars LÃ¸kke Rasmussen, a five page âpoliticalâ agreement sketching the broad dimensions of a deal is now the most likely output.
Indeed a draft document of this nature was circulated by the Danes to a few countries in the last day or so, which indicated dates for developing countries to peak emissions (circa 2025 for some).
Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh has rejected the first Danish draft which he described as “totally unacceptable,” stating that “We are never going to take on a peaking year for absolute emissions. This is not on the horizonâ.
Leaders of Brazil, South Africa, India and China are expected to present their own draft Tuesday in Copenhagen as an alternative to the Danish document.
MAD as it may seem, playing brinksmanship with the future of the planet is a game that is alive and well.
About the author:
Joseph Curtin is Senior Researcher at the IIEA with responsibility for energy and climate change policy. He is will blog on international climate negotiations, Irish climate policy and anything else that he comes across which interests or annoys him.