Kelly Rigg: US adaptation promises mustn’t replace binding targets

Working against internationally binding CO2 reduction targets, the US pivots to climate change adaptation

Source: Flickr/South Dakota

Source: Flickr/South Dakota

By Kelly Rigg

Just before George H.W. Bush signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Rio in 1992, he famously said “the American way of life is not up for negotiation.”

True to his word, the climate convention was just that – a framework, with no actual commitments or timetables to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And each successive Administration since then has upheld his promise.

Clinton Administration negotiators worked diligently to weaken the Kyoto Protocol, followed by the George W. Bush Administration which pulled the US out of Kyoto altogether.

When President Obama took charge, there was a brief glimmer of hope that the US would finally help forge a fair, ambitious and legally binding international agreement to reduce CO2 emissions on a par with what scientists said was needed.

But as we know, that didn’t happen.


Just last month, speaking at Chatham House in London, US climate envoy Todd Stern set out the US position for the next round of negotiations meant to achieve a new climate agreement in 2015. To no one’s surprise, he called for a “flexible” approach.

He said that “rather than negotiated targets and timetables, we support a structure of nationally determined mitigation commitments, which allow countries to ‘self-differentiate’ by determining the right kind and level of commitment, consistent with their own circumstances and capabilities.”

In other words, the American way of life is not up for negotiation.

The ironic thing is that climate change itself is changing the American way of life. Extreme weather events such as heat waves and heavy storms, combined with rising sea levels which threaten low-lying coastal cities are costing taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars, driving up the price of insurance for homeowners and exposing Americans to hikes in the cost of staple foods like corn.

Binding action to address climate change, in the knowledge that other countries are bound to do so as well, would more effectively protect American well being than the inadequate, voluntary commitments they’ve made so far.


And even more ironically, the US is now pivoting to adaptation in recognition that efforts to reduce CO2 have not been sufficient. According to the New York Times on 1 November, “The White House is expected to take new steps on Friday to help society adapt to global warming, an acknowledgment that worldwide efforts to control emissions will be inadequate to head off big climatic shifts.”

Yes indeed, those worldwide efforts to adequately control emissions which the US has effectively sabotaged for more than 20 years.

Don’t get me wrong, I applaud the Obama Administration for helping vulnerable communities increase their resilience and adapt to climate change. I would applaud them even more if those measures were extended to countries which contributed the least to the problem and lack the resources to protect their people.

But in 2007 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change pointed out that emissions reductions by countries such as the United States needed to be in the range of 25-40% below 1990 levels just to have a 50-50 chance of keeping temperature rise below the catastrophic threshold of 2°C.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, US emissions of greenhouse gases increased by 10% between 1990 and 2010.

So much for a “flexible” approach.

Kelly Rigg is the Executive Director of GCCA. She has been leading international campaigns for 30 years on climate, energy, oceans, Antarctica and other issues. Follow her on Twitter @kellyrigg

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