Sustainable Development and Climate Change:
The U.S. Administration's Perspectives on Science, Global Warming and the Convention

Mark G. Hambley
U.S. Department Of State

Sustainable Development: A Concept in Search of Definition

One hears many different definitions of sustainable development -- so many, in fact, that one could conclude that the only thing sustainable about the term "sustainable development" is the number of interpretations being applied to it. The term means many things to many people depending on circumstances or situations.

This said, "sustainable development" is featured prominently in the climate convention. Indeed, in Article 2 of the convention, the concept is mentioned when discussing the convention's ultimate objective which is to achieve "...stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. Such a level should be achieved within a time-frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened, and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner."

Managing the challenge which is posed by global warming is one key aspect of this responsibility. In this context, I thought it might be appropriate to focus on two aspects of the U.S. government's perspectives on climate change:

First, I will briefly give you some of the background for international action which led to the climate convention in the first instance, and,

Second, I will then try to describe for you some U.S. perceptions about the first Conference of the Parties of the convention held in Berlin last spring and the later follow-up meetings in Geneva, the most recent one which ended last month.

(I) Background for International Action

Concern about climate change resulting from the buildup of the so-called "greenhouse gases" has existed for some time. Over the past several years, the preponderance of scientific evidence has continued to strongly suggest that our initial precaution in reducing greenhouse gas emissions was both prudent and justified. New evidence is emerging that global climate change remains a serious challenge to the international community and must be addressed with urgency and priority.

It was really the year 1988 that was the turning point in terms of our adopting a course of action to deal with the problem of climate change. That was the year of the famous "hot summer", and for whatever reason, the drought of 1988 etched an eerie image in the minds of the American public about what global warming might mean. It was perhaps no coincidence, therefore, that 1988 was also the year that the UN Environment Program and the World Meteorological Society organized the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or the IPCC.

As all of you know, the IPCC was established to assess the science, impacts, and response options for dealing with climate change. It produced its first assessment report -- totalling several hundred pages -- in August 1990. Its second assessment report -- an even longer compilation -- has just been completed and is expected to be adopted at the IPCC plenary in Rome in December.

The first IPCC report was reviewed at the Second World Climate Conference in November 1990. Its conclusions regarding the importance of addressing the problem of climate change were such that a declaration was issued from that conference calling for the negotiation of a climate change convention.

Following an intensive series of negotiations, the Framework Convention on Climate Change was opened for signature at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janiero in June 1992. Over 150 countries -- including the United States -- signed the agreement on this momentous occasion, Shortly thereafter the U.S. became the fourth country to ratify the convention and the first industrialized country to do so on October 15 1992. The convention entered into force on March 21, 1994 after being ratified by 50 countries. Some 138 countries have now done so, so the convention is truly one of international significance.

(II) The Berlin "COP" and the Follow-on Geneva Talks

The UN General Assembly decided that negotiations should continue following the adoption of the convention in order to prepare for its entry into force and to prepare for the first meeting of the Conference of the Parties, the so-called "COP." This meeting was held in Berlin between 28 March and 7 April of this year.

At this massive and often tumultuous conference, the United States had three specific key objectives:

  1. to negotiate a mandate to begin considering next steps under the climate change convention;
  2. to ensure that all Parties will be part of that process; and
  3. to establish a pilot phase for joint implementation.

We were able, in our view, to achieve all three of these objectives, and it is on this basis that we think the Berlin Conference was a success. We believe the agreement reached at Berlin moves the world another step toward protecting the global environment, through a process that allows careful consideration of options and cost-effective strategies.

The convention required that the Conference of the Parties make several decisions at its first session. Most importantly, the COP had to review the adequacy of certain convention provisions that apply to industrialized countries. In particular, the review related to the provision that industrialized countries "aim" to return their emissions of greenhouse gases their 1990 levels by the year 2000.

In Berlin, the COP agreed that these provisions were not adequate. The United States fully shared that view, believing that current convention commitments are only a first step -- but are silent on how nations should proceed after the year 2000.

The COP agreed to launch a process (informally referred to as the "Berlin Mandate") to define actions in the post-2000 period and to advance the commitments of all nations. This process is taking place through the work of an ad hoc body known as the "AGBM" (for "ad hoc working group/Berlin Mandate") which is supposed to finish its work as early as possible in 1997. As I will describe in a moment, this group just finished its second meeting in Geneva last month and will hold its third session early next year.

The process includes in its early stages an analysis and assessment to identify policies and measures to deal with climate change and should lead to agreement on actions for the period after the year 2000. The goal is to make further progress toward the convention's ultimate objective -- to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases at a level that will prevent dangerous human interference with the climate system.

This process contemplates that industrialized country Parties will adopt new commitments in the post-2000 period without specifying what these may be. By 1997 -- only two years from now - - the AGBM is to have completed its work on a proposal which will enable us to take appropriate action for the period beyond 2000, including strengthening the commitments of developed countries and reaffirming and continuing to advance the implementation of commitments by all countries, developed and developing.

While the Berlin agreement specifies that there will be no new commitments for developing country Parties, it does require elaboration of the existing commitments for developing countries. In this way, the final consensus reflects our belief that this is a global problem requiring global solutions. We firmly believe that all countries must work together to do more to guard against harmful climate changes.

The time-frame established by the Berlin Mandate for development and adoption of a protocol or other legal instrument is short and must be used efficiently. At the same time, the way forward is not obvious. Many questions will need to be addressed, and finding answers will not be an easy task. It is our view that through analysis and assessment, we will be able to come up with a proposal which will be credible and sustainable both economically and politically.

Other Berlin Decisions

The COP made decisions in a host of other areas, as well. We were pleased that the COP decided to launch a pilot program for joint implementation (JI). Under the pilot program, greenhouse gas emissions that are saved will not count toward meeting a country's commitments before the year 2000. But countries may be able to count such savings thereafter from projects begun during the pilot phase.

In addition, the Parties formally endorsed two subsidiary bodies established by the Convention to assist the COP -- the Subsidiary Body on Scientific and Technological Advice, and the Subsidiary Body on Implementation. These bodies, working in concert with the newly established AGBM, will work to continue the implementation of the convention, and to assure its appropriate advancement into the next century as it addresses the climate change problem.

The First Geneva Meetings

It was in this context that the first meetings of the AGBM and its two subsidiary bodies were held at Geneva between August 25 and September I of this year. The U.S. was generally pleased with the results of these meetings, although there were some disappointments, as well.

We were pleased that the AGBM accepted, in principle, our proposal regarding starting with analysis/assessment initially, followed by serious negotiations later on. On the downside, the AGBM did not endorse our call for the creation of a panel of experts to address global emissions trends at the AGBM's second meeting on October 30. Moreover, the group failed to agree on the composition of a Bureau to monitor and coordinate the work of the AGBM.

The meetings of the two subsidiary bodies likewise produced some uneven results. The Subsidiary Body on Implementation sped through its agenda in an orderly fashion. The Subsidiary Body on Scientific and Technological Advice (or SBSTA) was less fortunate. On the plus side, it approved a list of taskings to be discussed with the IPCC for possible investigation and future reporting. Moreover, it endorsed the concept of an NGO workshop to be held in connection with its next meeting in February to discuss non-governmental inputs into the process.

On the negative side, SBSTA was unable to find a satisfactory compromise on the question of creating two technical advisory panels which will focus on methodological and technology issues. Resolution of this issue will now be delayed until SBSTA's next meeting which is scheduled for February, although this problem was discussed on the margins of the AGBM meeting last month.

The Second Geneva Meeting

The second meeting of the AGBM started on October 30 with two "surprise" presentations. The first was our slide show presented on emissions trends. This was viewed critically by many nations and the environmental NGOs who accused the U.S. of over- emphasizing the role of developing countries in future steps and by some who questioned its "relevance."

The second surprise was the EU presentation of an outline on the features of a future protocol. This was unexpected primarily because it came at the point in the discussion when we were beginning to discuss policies and measures (and not during the appropriate agenda item on this topic).

In general, we were pleased with the results of AGBM2. Our call for new and different thinking on options for new objectives fared well. Many countries commented favorably on the value of considering new approaches, although the majority of the ideas still centered on the current world view, with a fixed annual target, a 1990 baseline year, and on the dates of 2005, 2010, and 2015.

Our proposals detailing our view that analytic work on this issue would be valuable were viewed by many as an effort to delay agreement. We countered these suggestions by cataloguing our requests for analysis/assessment and noting that, in terms of both hours of effort and cost, these were moderate and quite doable. Several of our ideas and suggestions were later adopted by the plenary, and we now feel confident that analysis and assessment is finally underway.

We were also pleased by the general reaction of the G-77 countries to our shared responsibility to advance implementation of the Convention in accordance with Article 4.1. Some countries argued strongly that any steps taken by the non- Annex I Parties (e.g., the developing economies) can be easily accommodated in the decision of the COP and ought not to be in any protocol or other legal instrument. Another large developing country continued its familiar refrain that "differentiation" means that, without significant action by Annex I parties, developing countries need not do anything. At the same time, there were several indications that the G-77 (or, at least, some of its key members) do want to move forward on national communications issues. A workshop on this topic will be held prior to next year's AGBM3 in order to explore ways of facilitating these communications.

There were some downsides to this meeting, as well, and some divisive issues remain: namely, the organization of a Bureau and the outstanding matter of the technical panels for SBSTA. Unfortunately, the effort by SBSTA Chairman Farago to find "a compromise" solution was not successful.

Conclusion

In summary, let me underscore that the Clinton Administration remains committed to the international climate change process. The science remains convincing: it is evident that the prospect of global warming is real and that we must continue to take steps to address this problem consistent with our political realities.

The climate problem will not go away if we turn our backs and ignore it. The climate convention represents the global effort to reverse this damaging trend and to preserve our planet in a way which it will continue to be habitable, stable, and economically sustainable for future generations. The United States will continue to work in support of this agreement. We need to seek ways to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases, just as we need to make sure that all countries in the world seek to reduce theirs.

Thank you very much.


U.S. Government Perspectives

Patrick Ramage
Global Legislators For a Balanced Environment (Globe USA)

I'm afraid I bring neither the eloquence nor the particular experience of my GLOBE members, the members of the U.S. Congress who are active in our Global Legislators for a Balanced Environment organization to this question. What I do share with them in common is that I am not an expert in climate policy or climate science.

What I do have is a unique vantage point on the policy process that may prove of interest to you, and some observations and questions that may be helpful as you depart from this mountaintop experience and go back to your daily lives, armed with new information and contacts that you have gathered here. I will apologize in advance for a dose of Washington cynicism that I find increasingly I bring to fora of this type.

Just a little bit about my organization. GLOBE is an international membership for legislators and parliamentarians that have an interest in international environmental issues. We have about 150 members worldwide, and are made up of four member organizations: GLOBE USA, of which I am the director, with 30 members of the U.S. Congress, both Republican and Democrat involved, GLOBE Russia, GLOBE European Union and GLOBE Japan.

We meet twice a year in what are called GLOBE international assemblies, where these legislative leaders come together and solve the world's environmental problems on paper, and then return armed with that consensus to their respective parliaments, with an eye toward implementing some of the consensus that they have achieved. Quite frankly, sometimes it works, often it doesn't. It is inevitably a profound educational experience for the legislators that are involved.

Climate change in particular and sustainable development generally have been high on our agenda since the organization's founding in late 1989. Ironically enough, we were founded by a Republican Senator from Pennsylvania, the late Senator John Heinz. We are currently led in the U.S. by Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts as our Democratic chair, and Congressman John Edward Porter of Illinois as our Republican chair.

Let me start with just a few observation on sustainable development and the climate issue. I think the concept of sustainable development exists in a state of levitation, floating like a beautiful balloon, hovering above and beyond the day-to- day concerns of most people, who have very little time to deal with these issues. I find often that these issues and our approach to them have very little grounding in reality.

In looking over the list of speakers and seeing some friends in this room, I think a lot of us in the United States who are concerned with this issue on a day-to-day basis, a lot of us, if not the majority, are here. That points up the challenge that we face.

I think it is useful to remember that whatever our fascination may be with this amorphous and remote concept of sustainable development, and whatever measure of success we or Ambassador Hambley may enjoy in advancing particular language in some obscure international forum, this has little meaning unless we can ultimately motivate the vast majority of people around the world who have never heard of the Rio earth summit, who have never heard of sustainable development, or if they have heard of it, couldn't define it adequately.

In thinking about it, if you confronted American people on the street and ask them to define IPCC, I would bet you money that the majority would say it was some kind of new-fangled computer. I will venture a guess that joint implementation would be described as a medical procedure.

We are dealing with a level of scientific literacy that is at about the ninth grade level, and a level of literacy with international fora and institutions that have been contrived to deal with these pressing issues that is even far below that. I don't mean to start off on a negative note, but I think it is useful for us to bear those realities in mind.

In light of those facts, we as people concerned with the issue need to confront a couple of key questions. In no particular order, I will list them here. First, how do we establish a common set of national and global environmental priorities against a backdrop of polarization? Those of you Washington residents are confronting this question on a daily basis at least since November of 1994, and arguably well before that.

Second, how do we communicate environmental information responsibly and accurately to this public that has a terrifically short attention span and such a deficit in terms of their own scientific background?

Third, how do we translate global problems and challenges to local populations in ways that are meaningful? We are fond of repeating the mantra," think globally, act locally." I think we heard a little bit from Arturo Sanchez in terms of the challenges that Costa Rica is confronting. In the end, it is not about billions of pounds of CO2 sometime in the next century; it is about coffee and banana plantations today, and reservoirs and human habitations, et cetera. But we who are trying to push this issue forward need to tie strings to the balloon, if you will, and be making these issues that we care about more relevant to a population that doesn't confront them on a day-to-day basis.

Fourth, how do we encourage leaders from politics, from the environmental movement, from business and other sectors to overcome the fantastic dis-incentives and distractions that keep them from addressing environmental and sustainable development issues at all, let alone generating the political will to make the hard choices that the climate issue puts before them?

In summary, how do we forge the societal consensus that will allow us to move forward together in addressing these pressing issues?

These questions are being wrestled with across our country and around the world. The answers aren't likely to come from the government in Washington, with all respect to Ambassador Hambley, or remote UN agencies in New York or elsewhere. It is far more likely that they will come out of fora and seminars such as this one, if we use them effectively.

Well, I have brought the answers to all those questions with me today, and I will quickly go over them, being sensitive to the fact that we're running a little bit late. All kidding aside, I have some answers from the perspective of an environmentalist who is working daily with environmental activists that are concerned about and trying to push this issue.

My advice falls in three or four key areas. First, I think we need to focus more -- and this is true, whatever side of this issue you're on. We have got members of Congress in GLOBE who are dealing with a whole range of issues and are being asked to develop positions on everything from acid rain to zero population growth, literally, the A to Z of issues. We have organizations driving the policy process in the NGO community that have specialists on all those issues, too. We have said since Rio that diversity is our strength. But let me suggest that it can also be an obstacle, and we ourselves need , as environmentalists, as science people,to focus more of our efforts in particular areas, focus on the climate issue in general, and focus our strategies for pushing that issue forward amongst ourselves in particular.

Second, we need to package our message better. I admit some U.S. bias on this, but our experience over the past several years, I would say, would be that the wind has somehow left the sails of the U.S. environmental movement and is beginning to shift. At least on Capitol Hill there is a sense that somehow there has been a deflation since Earth Day, 1990, since the Rio Earth Summit.I think part of that has to do with the fact that we haven't been effectively packaging our message. If you remember your Communications 101 class, they tell you in college that communication begins with the listener. It is the goal of the communicator to package the message in a way that resonates with something already inside the listener.

In the United States, we have what we call a Wise Use Movement, the so-called anti-environmentalists, who have been doing that very effectively. They are not talking about parts per billion water pollution or pounds of CO2 and distant threats to small island states. They are talking about your job. They are talking about private property rights, Constitutional issues, fundamental concerns, whereas we in the environmental community are somewhat hamstrung with a jargon and set of acronyms.

The message that we are selling right now, be it in terms of climate change or the endangered species act, where we begin to talk misty-eyed about the marbled merlet or threats to the spotted owl, does not resonate in the same way. We need to catapult up to those larger themes, like human health, like agriculture - begin to tie strings to the balloons a little bit and fill in the break between day-to-day reality and the levitated condition of the issue that we care about.

Tim Worth does that very effectively on immigration issues, he touches a nerve in the debate over immigration. He can lay out a very eloquent explanation of how threats to small island states including Haiti ultimately mean more Haitians emigrating from that change, and the links between environmental and national security. You can't do it in a sound bite, but it is an effective case that needs to be made to policy makers on Capitol Hill. Just going up and saying "the sky is falling, the sky is falling," doesn't resonate very well with this Congress in particular.

Third, we need to plug into the mainstream more. We need to engage the business community more effectively in this cause, and start using more judo than we do karate. I think we need more outreach. We have had efforts like BCSD. There are tremendous efforts that Jeremy Leggett from Greenpeace has undertaken that I assume he mentioned earlier in his remarks, reaching out to the insurance industry.

If you are familiar with another issue that emanated out of Rio, and that is the Convention on Biological Diversity, you are aware of the tremendous difficulty that the U.S. NGO community and the Clinton Administration had motivating Congressional decision makers in a Democratic Congress to pass that piece of legislation, despite some assistance from leaders in the U.S. business community. I guarantee you, if we don't get business voices on our side in this debate, it will not go any better in terms of climate change.

Related to that, I believe deep down in the importance of some kind of post-2000 understanding. But I question my friends in the environmental community who are throwing all their time and energy to that when we are in the midst of abrogating the 1990 standards that we had all hoped, at least in this country, would be reached.

Eileen Claussen from the National Security Council staff is fond of saying that we activists are needed more in Grosse Point than we are in Geneva, and I think her point is well taken.

These are some thought-provoking questions. But I really feel that unless we do what we are doing smarter, that we are in danger of our common future, as the Berlin Commission called it in 1989, being the story of our common failure.

I was struck when Ambassador Hambley was noting the comment of James Irwin, looking back from space at earth and saying, what a beautiful, warm, living object it is. It is warm, it is getting warmer, and the time to do something about that is now, and I hope we all leave this meeting with strategies for how we can each be more effective toward that end.

Go To UNEP Perspective