The Summit of the Americas in Panama this week could produce public performances worthy of an Academy Award nomination. Following recent efforts to re-establish diplomatic ties between the U.S. and Cuba, Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro may stage a carefully choreographed handshake.
This eagerly anticipated moment could usher in a new chapter of U.S.–Latin American relations, as leaders south of the Rio Grande have repeatedly called for an end to U.S. aggression against Cuba. However, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro could upset the party by criticizing recent U.S. sanctions against Venezuela, which have been unanimously rejected by the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC).
Yet beyond the theatrics, there could be very important diplomatic exchanges behind the scenes, which could prove pivotal for the world’s response to global climate change.
The United Nations climate change negotiations are headed towards a major deadline this December in Paris to create a new global agreement. The Summit of the Americas presents an ideal place for the U.S. and Latin American and Caribbean leaders to candidly and privately discuss the issue.
On Saturday, world leaders hailed a breakthrough in the latest round of UN-sponsored talks on climate change. At the summit in Cancún, Mexico, the parties reached an agreement that mandates developed countries to allocate $100 billion to help developing countries combat global warming and high emissions. Mexican President Felipe Calderón hailed the deal as the beginning of “a new era of cooperation in climate change.” But that euphoria was not shared by the Bolivian delegation—the sole voice of opposition to the measure among 193 countries.
Bolivian Ambassador to the United Nations, Pablo Solón, referred to the agreement as “hollow,” and claimed it did not go far enough in accountability for industrialized economies. Ambassador Solón saw many of his original demands unfulfilled at the talks, known as COP16. His requests included the creation of an International Court of Climatic Justice and a reduction of the target rise in global temperature for the twenty-first century to 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit—half of the agreed amount at last year’s talks. Angered on Saturday, Solón issued a warning: “[the Cancún agreement] will bear human and natural casualties.”
Ambassador Solón also lamented the lack of overall progress during COP16 in renegotiating the Kyoto Protocol, originally signed in 1997 and set to expire in 2012. The Kyoto Protocol imposes limits on greenhouse gases for 37 developed nations and the European Union. Because the Cancún accord did not address any reforms to the Kyoto Protocol, or even mention its possible extension, those core issues will presumably be discussed at COP17—to take place in South Africa in late 2011.
For the past couple of months, we've seen a one-of-a-kind rush in the media to cover stories on deforestation, climate change and carbon markets ahead of the climate conference in Copenhagen (COP15). It was about time that these issues joined the mainstream: for most Americans, the need to lower global carbon emissions had been a distant and elusive reality. Most of us have failed to consider our country's climate debt and, as individuals, we've felt powerless besides making the choice to ride our bikes to work or drive hybrid cars. Needless to say, this view doesn't even consider the growing number of Americans who are overall skeptical of the concept of climate change.
But getting back to Copenhagen: it's important to remember that the massive meeting in Denmark wasn't in and of itself the solution. A recent story on NPR put COP15's dysfunctional politicking into a clever perspective: "If you're having trouble understanding why the Copenhagen talks are making such slow progress, try imagining having 193 children in your family," the story went. "And every little decision has to be reached by consensus. You'd be lucky to get through breakfast."
The challenge of instituting a new global climate agreement for 2012 was obviously no small feat. But considering the gravity of global warming, especially for developing countries in East Asia, Africa and Latin America, it has been frustrating to witness the impasse in the negotiations from afar. After two weeks of talks, heated debates and street protests, COP15 kept the issues on the headlines but accomplished little. Instead of delivering a strong binding agreement and a commitment to reduce carbon emissions and deforestation, the participants went home over the weekend "taking note" of the need for a pact.
So what's next? Bill McKibben, founder of the activist portal 350.org, isn't optimistic. He says the meeting in Copenhagen "marked the beginning of the end of the UN. We've never taken it seriously for war and peace, and now carbon and global warming are off the table."