Every year the United Nations convenes diplomats from more than 190 nations to negotiate a climate change treaty, and in many years negotiators go home with little more than the promise of another annual meeting.
After the failure of the 18th such event earlier this month in Doha, diplomats and organizers should focus less on the UN exercise than on combing history for a more suitable model.
They might find at least three lessons from the history of arms control.
First, in the late 1950s, nuclear powers and wannabes initially bet that a single arms control negotiating process involving all nations would resolve global nuclear threats. Negotiations took place strictly at the UN. Participants refused to break down the problem into discrete issues. Governments -- unlike their citizens -- were skeptical that nuclear weapons would proliferate or pose a credible threat to global security.
Weapons negotiations proceeded under the vast, idealistic objective of general and complete disarmament. The Cuban missile crisis, the 50th anniversary of which passed in October, made the danger of a nuclear arms race immediate and grave. With new energy, governments began to discuss specific issues and identify areas on which they might find common ground.
The first result came in 1963. The Limited Test Ban Treaty prohibited nuclear testing in the atmosphere, in space, and under the seas. This ban did not solve the nuclear problem. It did mitigate the danger of radiation from tests and gave momentum to further negotiations.
Eventually, nations met in different fora and different combinations. They tried a mixture of approaches. The UN in 1961created a specialized body for disarmament-related negotiations, the Eighteen Nation Committee on Disarmament (ENCD), which formalized agreements like the Hot Line and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The NPT, the keystone effort to limit the spread of nuclear weapons, was broadly successful. In the early 1960s, experts, including President John F. Kennedy, generally believed there would be 25 to 30 nuclear powers by 2000; in fact, there were eight. It now seems unlikely there could be more than 10 as late as 2020.
Many countries have voluntarily renounced nuclear ambitions. Belarus, Kazakhstan, South Africa, and Ukraine dismantled nuclear arsenals under international supervision. Other states have ended nuclear weapons development programs. Nuclear-free zones have been established in the Southern Hemisphere by regional groups in Latin America, the South Pacific, Africa and Southeast Asia.
Second, organizations that monitor and verify national commitments have grown in importance. Their responsibilities have deepened as they demonstrated their utility, competence and fairness. Climate negotiators working on monitoring and verification should note that the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization set to work before the treaty itself went into effect. Nevertheless, CTBTO managed to build a global network of sensors. Its work helped advance additional treaty negotiations by showing that a test ban can be verified with great confidence.
Third, befitting a reality where two countries, the United States and Russia, control 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons, bilateral efforts matter at least as much as multiplayer agreements. More than a dozen agreements over 40 years established communications channels and protocols to avoid accidental nuclear war. U.S. and Soviet stocks of operational nuclear weapons were reduced from more than 30,000 each at the height of the Cold War to roughly 5,000 and 8,000 for each the U.S.and Russia today.
For climate change, the few major carbon polluters could whittle away at emissions without waiting for full unanimity by following similar routes that weapons negotiators took.
This may be starting. Ministers from 25 countries, acting independently from the formal UN process, have formed the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, to try to reduce so-called short-lived pollutants that dissipate in the atmosphere more quickly than carbon dioxide but are much more powerful greenhouse gases that contribute significantly to warming. These include soot, methane, refrigerants called hydrofluorocarbons and nitrous oxide, among others. Their intent to narrow focus to industries and regions most responsible for these emissions may facilitate accelerated progress.
Another potential coalition was suggested in a public event in Doha. German environment minister Peter Altmaier proposed a German, Chinese, Moroccan and South African discussion there could be the foundation of a “renewable energy club.” Any combination of possible partnerships and progress could be tried.
To be sure, the international community has not eliminated all nuclear weapons, and arms control and climate negotiations are not a perfect comparison. Applying an analogy first suggested for fiscal deficits, the first problem is like a wolf knocking on the front door; the second is akin to termites eating away at the foundation.
The biggest difference between them is the role of non-state interests. Arms control is straightforward in that historically governments develop, own and control nuclear weapons. Climate change is an economy-wide problem.
If storms like Sandy or droughts like the U.S.'s in 2012 prove to be wake-up calls equivalent to the Cuban missile crisis -- a big if -- then a new, nimbler, distributed climate diplomacy might arise capable of tackling this global challenge piece by piece. We hope so. Last-minute brinksmanship won’t work with climate change: Climate “war” has already begun.