Tuesday, June 5, 2007


Crooked Timber, posted by John Quiggen: Zugzwang… is a term from chess meaning compulsion to the move. Most of the time, it’s an advantage to have the next move, but there are situations, particularly in the endgame when you’d much rather it was the other player’s turn.

So it has been with climate change, at least for some players in the game. The big divide in the negotiations for the Kyoto protocol was between the more developed countries, which had created the problem and continued to produce most emissions of greenhouse gases, and the less developed, which were the main source of likely future growth. The agreement reached was that the developed countries would make the first round of cuts, reducing emissions below 1990 levels* by 2012, after which a more comprehensive agreement would require contributions from everyone.

As soon as the Bush Administration was elected though, it denounced this as unfair and said the US would do nothing unless China and India moved first. The Howard government, until then a fairly enthusiastic proponent of Kyoto, immediately echoed the Bush line. Meanwhile, not surprisingly, China and India stuck to the agreement they’d signed and ratified.

The resulting standoff suited lots of people. Most obviously, while the Bushies were denouncing the unfair advantages given to China and India, they were also pushing as hard as they could to ensure that they and other developing countries did nothing that would facilitate a post-Kyoto agreement. And of course plenty of people in China and India were happy enough not to have to take any hard decisions on the topic.

In the last month or so, this has all started to fall apart. The Australian policy debate has shifted to the point where Howard has had to announce support both for emissions trading and for the logical corollary, binding targets for emissions reductions, though he still refuses to give any actual numbers. China and India have agreed to negotiate a post-Kyoto agreement by 2009, though they are still resisting targets.

That has left Bush isolated. Only a week or so ago, the Administration contemptuously rejected a draft G8 meeting statement on climate change prepared by the Germans, who are hosting the meeting. But as Bush’s lame-duck status has become increasingly apparent, his capacity to throw his weight around has diminished. The reaction from the Germans, and the rest of the Europeans was ferocious. It became clear that the G8 meeting would be a failure, possibly even ending with an overt statement of disagreement, although (as far as I can tell) such an outcome is viewed by those who run these events as unthinkable.

As with his response the recent Supreme Court decision requiring the EPA to control CO2 emissions, Bush responded with a plan that would have no effect until late 2008, by which time his term would be nearly finished. As Dan Froomkin observed, the US reaction showed that Bush still knows how to play the American press like a harp, but the European reaction ranged from tepid (those who interpreted Bush as offering largely meaningless rhetoric) to hostile (those who viewed him as attempting to derail the post-Kyoto process). And this gradually fed back into US coverage.

So, the pieces are moving again, and the system of mutually supportive intransigence is breaking down. It remains to be seen if anything positive can be achieved, but the untenability of Bush’s position is now clear for all to see.

* Australia held out for a special deal, allowing an 8 per cent increase, then decided not to ratify anyway.


Unknown said...

Hi Brian!

I always get your newsfeeds - and with this headline you surprised me! :) zugzwang is a german apprehension and your description on it is very good - except that zugzwang mostly has a negative meaning. it's close to the conception of being trapped. however, I always appreciate your entries and i also use your comments for my blog which is a german blog also focussing on climate change. (http://www.klimadebatte.de). i just started it several weeks ago, and already used your entries as a source.

here the tension is rising a lot: heiligendamm is THE MEDIA TOPIC these days.

anyway, I'd like to quote helmut kohl this time: only the outcome is relevant!


Unknown said...

dear brian,

i am sorry with my comment on zugzwang. i just figured out that you may come from switzerland, i didn't read your profile before. if that's true so excuse my former comment ( i didn't want to sound bossy)!
so long!

Brian Thomas said...

Dear Manuel,
Many thanks for your comment and the link to your blog. I will add klimadebatte.de to my blogroll.

As for Zugzwang, I'm always a sucker for an apt chess term. That's what caught my eye with the post from Crooked Timber.

And you didn't sound bossy to me -- I'm American, not Swiss. But I will practice my rickety German by reading Klimadebatte.

All the best, Brian

Unknown said...

Hey Brian,

thank you for the absolution ;-). I will stay tuned to your blog as well!

All the best