As the delegates gather in Doha for this year's climate change talks, circumstances have changed in many ways in the twenty years since the UNFCCC was initiated. Negotiators need to bear in mind both that climate change is now a reality, and that mechanisms to slow the process have had very limited success.
Arctic Ocean sea ice has receded far faster than most scientific projections had assumed. Summer heat waves in Asia in 2010 and North America this year, numerous typhoons in recent years in the Asia Pacific, and now superstorm Sandy in the United States have made it clear that climate change is a matter of the present, not a matter of the future.
Unless things change very soon, the commonly agreed target of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius will not be met. The difficult but important truth is that twenty years of discussions, the Kyoto Protocol, and plans for a successor agreement have not stopped the growth of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
The focus on short-term economic costs and benefits in the negotiations between states has been to the detriment of any long-term collective action. These competitive stances–trying to avoid short-term relative costs in the economic calculations of emissions limits, offsets, and development mechanisms in a binding treaty–preclude either longer-term thinking or more cooperative ventures.
Assuming that states can sort out all the details in a single treaty hasn't worked so far, although it remains the ideal arrangement. It is also clear that there is no magic formula that will break the many logjams in the negotiations.
Climate change touches so many facets of human activity that it may simply be too complex to be encapsulated in a single treaty arrangement between states. Governing climate change may better lie in the possibility for lots of cooperative initiatives by corporations, municipalities, and other actors.
Constraining the emissions of greenhouse gases is essential, but much new thinking is needed about how to build new forms of economy not dependent on fossil fuels. While a binding treaty remains an important goal, it is now crucial to stimulate cooperative ventures that work to reduce emissions rather than merely offsetting them. The issue is now simply too urgent to wait for a perfect treaty.