A record-breaking build-up of greenhouse gases is reported on eve of latest international climate treaty negotiations. Forecast calls for lots of empty talk, as usual.

Some big news on the climate front will be depressing to those already plenty concerned about global warming. People who work at the nexus of climate politics and policy really should wrap their minds around the first three paragraphs of this Associated Press story by Seth Borenstein:

The global output of heat-trapping carbon dioxide jumped by the biggest amount on record, the U.S. Department of Energy calculated, a sign of how feeble the world’s efforts are at slowing man-made global warming.

The new figures for 2010 mean that levels of greenhouse gases are higher than the worst case scenario outlined by climate experts just four years ago.

“The more we talk about the need to control emissions, the more they are growing,” said John Reilly, co-director of MIT’s Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change.


But more talk is exactly what the world will be doing later this month in South Africa, at the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP 17) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. In recent years, many observers have noted a Groundhog Day feel to these annual gatherings. Indeed, a certain ritualistic custom has become familiar.

In the run-up to these big meetings, grave announcements are issued, warning of dire consequences if no CO2 emission reductions agreement is forged. After two weeks of theater and much finger pointing, everyone goes home, with the world no closer to a climate treaty than it was the year before. This year’s script promises to be no different.

As if these empty results weren’t proof enough of a faulty approach, there is impressive evidence from a scholar who has applied game theory to the U.N.-sponsored treaty talks. Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, a political scientist at New York University, was profiled last year in this Scientific American article, which summed up his argument:

Governments probably won’t conclude a major international treaty to reduce atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, ever. And even if they do, any such treaty won’t actually work.

As he wrote in his 2009 book, The Predictioneer’s Game: Using the Logic of Brazen Self-Interest to See and Shape the Future:

When an agreement is demanding, lots of signatories cheat. When it is not demanding, there is lots of compliance with what little is asked for — but then there is also little, if any, beneficial effect.

Sacrificing self-interest for the greater good just doesn’t happen very often. Governments don’t throw themselves on hand grenades.

That’s why, as the old saying goes, “talk is cheap.” Sure, it can also sometimes be worthwhile, especially in this case, by at least keeping the global dialogue on climate change open. But it’s a good thing all that hot air generated from years of climate negotiations doesn’t get trapped in the atmosphere.

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.