A New Year’s Resolution of a Kind

Like so many of you, I make my list of New Year’s resolutions each year sincere in the belief that this year will be different. I will change. I will hit the gym at 6 every morning, stop eating ice cream late at night and put that extra money aside each month for the kids’ college. And for a few weeks or even months I really try. Yet long before any spring blossoms appear on any trees, I already have that nagging feeling that “this is not going to happen.” I try to assure myself that there is no need to panic yet, there are still many months in the year, but I know deep down that the resolution will reappear on next year’s list.

As I was dutifully writing up my list for 2013 I came across an article about the woes of Hurricane Sandy victims still waiting for promised assistance to reach them. It occurred to me that just like us mortals, governments all over the world follow the same pattern of making big promises than never quite get fulfilled, but instead of New Year’s, their resolutions lists come in the wake of disasters: hurricanes, tsunamis, political violence, ethnic cleansing, famines… Each crisis is followed by a parade of politicians pledging change and limitless resources to solve the problem before disaster strikes again. “This is a wake-up call… Never again…”

But not long after the camera crews have packed up and the ravenous media has re-focused its gaze on the Kardashians, the public interest fizzles and the politicians’ pledges slip away, on hiatus until disaster strikes again.

Take climate change as an example. Long marginalized as a wacky theory of a few scientists, UN bureaucrats and Al Gore, public awareness of climate change has risen (and then receded) following a string of major natural disasters: the Asian Tsunami, Hurricane Katrina and most recently Hurricane Sandy. The political speeches, grand conferences and bold resolutions followed the same pattern.

Starting with 1992’s UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC) in Rio de Janiero, world leaders have convened and reconvened, each time making long lists of commitments to tackle the problem. The Kyoto protocol, adopted in 1997, created a legally binding agreement to cut emission by over 5 % from 1990 level. In reality, developed countries increased emissions. In 2009 in Copenhagen, the European Union and nine other countries pledged roughly $30 billion in new funding through the FCCC. In reality, much of the $30 billion was recycled funding commitments and a substantial proportion never reach the intended beneficiary countries. Three years later, less than $24 billion has actually been committed and only one-fifth of the funding is reaching developing countries, the vast majority being used for mitigation efforts in rich countries. The leaders convened and made their grand pledges again last year at Rio+20, but twenty years after the original Rio conference there is no reason to believe the pledges will be any more likely to stick this time around.

What’s a better approach? First, rather than grand pronouncement, leaders might try committing to smaller, more doable steps. Just as it’s easier to aim to lose 5 pounds as a start than 50, countries should make specific, concrete pledges for this year, not 5 or 10 years down the road. Second, the climate change issue and the solutions need to be framed in more digestible, understandable ways that regular people (a.k.a. voters) can understand. Explain to me how climate change will affect my life and my livelihood and tell me what I can do to help. If ordinary people are engaged in the issue on a micro level, they will be more inclined to push their politicians to address the issue on a macro level.

The next major global gathering on climate change is planned for 2015 when a new, more expansive legal framework is slated for consideration. Let’s hope leaders show up there with some concrete progress to report, and don’t just come to recite the same New Year’s resolution list again.

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