Well, the Cancun Conference of the Parties (called COP for short) is upon us, where everyone will sit down and accomplish pretty much nothing on a global climate change agreement.  There is real concern circulating in the diplomatic world that this meeting could see the fracturing of the push for a global agreement such that it never happens – at least from this framework.  This outcome is problematic in all sorts of ways, not least of which in the chaos it will unleash in the development world, where a huge amount of money was slated to be used for adaptation to climate change under what amounted to a glorified memorandum of understanding coming out of Copenhagen.  If the whole process bites the dust, it isn’t very clear what happens to that money or the programs and projects under development to use it.

That said, if it all goes totally bad in Cancun it doesn’t mean that we are beyond creating meaningful paths toward a lower-emissions future that might be manageable.  Indeed, one might argue that the death of the global framework might be the only way forward.  States like California, and cities like New York, are now starting to implement policies and programs to cut their own emissions without a national mandate.  They are creating locally-appropriate policies that maximize environmental benefit while minimizing the local “pain” of the new policies.  This is all well and good for these cities, but what I find interesting is that there is some evidence – however loose- that this city-by-city, state-by-state approach might actually be more efficient at achieving our climate goals than a global agreement.

I was part of the Scenarios Working Group for the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment – my group was tasked with running four future scenarios for ecosystem services (the goods and processes we get from ecosystems) under different future political, economic and social conditions.  Once we got our baselines and assumptions for each scenario in place, a team of modelers ran the scenarios for various issues (temperature change, water availability, etc.) and then we attempted to link the model runs to meaningful statements about how ecosystems might fare under each scenario.

This is relevant here because, interestingly, we had a “global orchestration” scenario that, to some extent, looks like what the world was going for with Copenhagen and Cancun.  We also had another scenario called “adapting mosaic”, which assumes decentralized control and adaptive management of environmental resources.  Neither scenario was a clear winner – each had strengths and weaknesses.  An “adapting mosaic” approach is great at managing new and emerging environmental challenges, whether from climate change or other issues.  It might also serve as the very legitimate basis of a bottom-up approach to an eventual global accord on climate change.  However, this approach risks ignoring global commons like fisheries, which often leads to the loss of that resource through overuse.  There is a real risk that inequality will go unaddressed, at least across countries and at the global scale, but at the same time economic growth will not be as robust as under other scenarios.  Global orchestration is good at maximizing income.  While I dissented from this view*, the group argued that under global orchestration a Kuznets Greening Curve would kick in (as people get wealthier, they pay more attention to the environment – thus, economic growth and consumption can result in better environmental quality), and we would have strong global coordination on everything from trade to environmental issues.  However, this approach is much more reactive, and focused on the global scale – thus it is not very good at dealing with local surprises.  In my opinion, adapting mosaic looks better, over the long run, than global coordination (especially if you factor in my concerns about the Kuznets Curve assumption).

In short, in the efforts of California and New York we are seeing the emergence of a de facto adapting mosaic as the global orchestration efforts of Cancun and Copenhagen fall by the wayside.  This actually might be a good thing.

In uncertainty, there is hope.

*the Kuznets curve rests on a key assumption – that with enough wealth, we can undo the damage we do while building wealth to the point that we start caring about the environment.  Kuznets has no answer for extinction (a huge problem at the moment), as that is gone forever.  Further, the Chinese are starting to provide an object lesson in how to blow up the Kuznets curve by damaging one’s environment so badly that the costs associated with fixing the problem become overwhelming – and those are the fixable problems.  Basically, assuming a Kuznets Greening Curve allowed those framing these scenarios to put an overly-happy face on the global orchestration scenario for political reasons – they wanted to provide support for a global effort on climate change.  A more honest reading of the data, in my opinion, would have made adapting mosaic look much better.