The Lima Climate Talks Actually Produced Something Important: An Idea

So what should we think about the recently concluded climate talks in Lima? They were, as usual, a dog’s breakfast. Rich countries fought their usual battles with poor ones. The talks nearly foundered completely. Over the weekend the wording of the draft agreement went from “weak to weaker to weakest,” in the words of Sam Smith, chief of climate policy for the environmental group WWF. And in the end, no legally binding limits were set on greenhouse gas emission.

That sounds pretty bad. And yet, something important happened in Lima. As weak as the final language turned out, it does do one thing: it asks every country on the planet to submit a plan to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. It doesn’t mandate what the plans should be. It doesn’t require any independent review of the plans. It doesn’t set out any timetables. But it does require a plan from everyone.

This is something new. It may not be legally binding, but then, no agreement was ever likely to be. For the first time ever, though, Lima enshrines the idea that every country should have a plan to fight climate change. This is similar to Obamacare, which is flawed in dozens of ways but, for the first time in American history, enshrined in law the idea that everyone should have access to affordable health coverage. Once you do that—once you get that kind of public agreement to an idea—you can use it as a building block. Eventually Obamacare will become universal health care. In the same way, Lima may eventually be the building block that produces a universal agreement to fight climate change on a global scale.

This is a fairly rosy view of the Lima agreement, and I don’t want to oversell it. Still, the mere principle that every country on the globe should have a formal plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is important. Once the plans are in place, they become a concrete starting point for climate activists everywhere. And then they go from weakest to weaker to weak to something that’s actually meaningful. Everywhere.

It’s not enough. But it’s something.