Next month, the curtain rises on the next round of international talks on global warming. Never before has diplomacy on this important topic been in a worse state. There are dozens of exciting new ideas for how governments could tackle the dangers of warming, but no idea and no government is clearly dominant. Outside of Europe, no major world economy is actually doing much to control its emissions. Even worse, most of the world’s biggest firms have lost faith that governments will do much in the near future and have scaled back investments on needed new low-emission technologies.

Fixing this problem requires rewiring the political forces that, to date, have made it impossible for governments to make real progress. Serious efforts to cut emissions are like drinking castor oil – painful at first but beneficial, perhaps, if sustained over a long period of time. Few governments are good at that.

In recent years, the most important rewiring has come by linking global warming to energy security. Much of what is needed to cut warming gases can also help countries cut their dependence on foreign sources of energy. China, for example, is sharply slowing the growth of its energy appetite and emissions of warming gases that come from burning fossil fuels by adopting some of the world’s most aggressive energy efficiency measures.

Some governments are investing more in nuclear power, such as Abu Dhabi. In the US, the revolution in producing natural gas from shale has forced gas prices to their lowest levels in years. Cheap gas has led electric companies to switch from coal to gas. This has also cut emissions sharply, since gas plants are more efficient and, as a fuel, gas contains a lot less carbon. US emissions this year will be about 450 million tonnes lower than they would be otherwise – a number that is about twice the global impact of the Kiyoto treaty on all countries.

None of these activities are like drinking castor oil. All are scalable to a degree. They won’t stop global warming – for that, much more expensive efforts are needed so that worldwide emissions are cut in half. But they are a start and will help build credibility.

Taking this idea seriously has huge implications for the next rounds of climate change diplomacy. One is that diplomats need to find more flexible agreements. The Kyoto treaty has failed to have much impact because it was rigid and based on top-down emission targets that are castor oil for most governments.

A second implication is that the pace of global warming diplomacy must reflect the speed at which governments can alter their energy systems. For the last two decades, global warming diplomats have largely ignored the real world of energy systems and planned their efforts around abstract goals for stopping warming. For example, they have agreed that warming should halt at 2°C above pre-industrial levels. Some now think 1.5°C would be better; a few aim at just 1°C. But the reality is that all the inertia built into the climate and energy system make it impossible to stop at 2°C.

A fresh start must set more realistic goals; people must realize that serious goals don’t come from the imagination of diplomats, but from the practical realities of what governments are willing and able to implement. One practical implication of this perspective is that international climate talks must also get a lot more serious about adaptation since higher sea levels, possibly more extreme storms and other effects of warming are unavoidable. To date, diplomats have agreed to set up international adaptation funds, but there is no serious plan for where the money will come from or how it will be spent.

Third, this new approach to climate change politics is based on the realization that industrial interests will drive governments to cut emissions. Companies must see a clear incentive to act, and they must be able to source the best technologies from around the world. An open trading and investment climate are essential; thus, it is worrisome that the US and China are now locked in a trade battle over solar cells and soon wind technology – technologies that could be vital to a low-emission future.

And many other trade battles are brewing as well. Cutting emissions will require that governments adjust their trade rules to reflect the emissions that are embodied in traded goods such as steel and aluminium; it will also require that governments focus on preserving the core wisdom that an open world economy is a more capable and flexible one.

It is sobering to realize that the world has been holding diplomatic talks on the warming problem for two decades now. So far, almost nothing has been achieved. A smarter, politically savvy policy strategy is needed. Along the way, it is also essential that governments set more realistic goals for progress.

Author: David G. Victor is Professor of International Relations at the University of California, San Diego, and also Vice-Chairman of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Energy Security. He wrote the Forum’s white paper on energy security and global warming, released this week, from which this essay is drawn.

 Image: A chimney billows smoke from a coal-burning power station behind a workman riding a bicycle. REUTERS/David Gray