In a year marked by impatience with traditional politics and institutions, two major, little-discussed international agreements struck in recent weeks show that patient effort, forthright presidential leadership, respect for institutions and compromise can accomplish what emotional outbursts and shortsighted me-first-ism cannot.
First was a landmark agreement struck in Kigali, Rwanda, last month that will phase out hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), greenhouse gases used in appliances such as refrigerators and air conditioners. HFCs are powerful greenhouse agents — a thousand times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide.
Meanwhile, refrigerators and air conditioners could run with alternatives. If nations would summon the political will to press a transition, in other words, they could do quite a bit to combat climate change — preventing perhaps a whole degree Fahrenheit of warming — at relatively low cost.
Global negotiators had been trying to do just that for seven years, under a preexisting treaty, the Reagan-era Montreal Protocol, which world governments struck in 1987 to phase out chlorofluorocarbons, a related class of environmentally unfriendly gases responsible for eroding the planet’s protective ozone layer.
Even though the protocol provided a negotiating structure and enforcement mechanism for the deal, the HFC amendment nevertheless took nearly a decade to hammer out, and President Barack Obama’s engagement proved crucial to getting it done. The result is a compromise — richer nations have to transition faster than poorer ones, but poorer ones must halt using HFCs in time, too. Effort, not grievance-mongering or extremism, made the difference.
The story is similar with a major global agreement that world governments concluded to protect a massive, 600,000-square-mile swath of ocean off Antarctica, now the world’s largest marine preserve. One of Earth’s least disturbed marine ecosystems, the Ross Sea contains huge numbers of krill, whales, seals and fish, and 38 percent of the world’s Adélie penguins. Nutrients churned up in the region’s waters enter the global ocean circulation and support a variety of marine species.
Once again, a preexisting global institution, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, provided the structure for international negotiations, which dragged on due to objections from China and Russia. In the end, 24 countries and the European Union agreed to prohibit fishing and other resource extraction in the Ross Sea for 35 years, leaving the question of protecting other zones for a later date.
Neither agreement is perfect. Experts warn that current global efforts, including the HFC treaty, are helpful but not ambitious enough to stave off dangerous climate change. A variety of countries wanted to add other areas of ocean off Antarctica to the list of protected ecosystems, and global negotiators failed to do so.
But political compromises, even ones years in the making, are never perfect. The real lesson is that it is foolish to surrender to cynicism or to make the perfect the enemy of the good.