July in Christmas: The City Bar Responds to Climate Change – Debra L. Raskin

Debra L. Raskin

President’s Column, January 2016

Following a disconcertingly warm December in which the temperature hit 72 degrees on Christmas Eve, and a summer called the hottest on record by multiple authorities, including NASA, it behooves us to reflect on what can be done, and what we can do as an Association, to address the effects of climate change.

Recognizing the realities of climate change and that modern civilization must be contributing to it, the international community has begun to take action. In 1992, leaders from nations around the world gathered at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro to adopt the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The 153 countries and delegations in Rio pledged to reverse the trend of increased greenhouse gas emissions and to assist developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to climate change. The UNFCCC became a binding international treaty in March 1994 and, as of December 2015, has 197 parties.

Despite good intentions, however, the treaty contains no binding emissions targets for individual countries and no mechanisms for enforcement. Since the 1992 Earth Summit, world leaders have tried to find common ground on climate change, but with mixed results. There was the Kyoto Protocol, adopted in 1997 and enacted in 2005. It was signed by President Bill Clinton but never submitted to the Senate for ratification and, therefore, remained non-binding. President George W. Bush famously withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol in a move that drew international condemnation. And there was the ill-fated 2009 Copenhagen Summit, which devolved into acrimony and yielded only a non-binding “accord” written by a handful of large countries.

But, at long last, it appears that the climate, so to speak, surrounding international talks has itself begun to change. In December 2015, the United Nations convened COP21, a climate conference held in Paris where, for almost two weeks, world leaders discussed the destructive effects of climate change and debated how best to address them. Whether fueled by the immediacy of recent weather-related catastrophes, President Obama’s renewed commitment to climate reform, French President Francois Hollande’s efforts not to repeat the mistakes of Copenhagen, the European migrant crisis, or some combination of these and other factors, COP21 succeeded where previous climate conferences failed. The result was a historic climate accord signed by 195 countries. The agreement includes commitments from nearly all of the signatories to undertake mitigation efforts with respect to greenhouse gas emissions, an agreement to convene every five years to assess and review these efforts, and regular and transparent reporting on every signatory country’s carbon emissions.

I’m pleased to report that the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice was well represented in Paris by Environment Program Director Susan Kath, who attended as an NGO observer for the American Society of International Law, and Vance Center Committee member Rubén Kraiem, who was there as a member of the Panamanian delegation and the Coalition for Rainforest Nations. Kath also attended the inaugural Climate Law and Governance Day at the Sorbonne, an initiative to address how the international legal community can support implementation of the Paris Agreement.

To coincide with the opening day of COP21, the City Bar’s Legal Issues of Climate Adaptation Task Force published a report, “Climate Adaptation in Developing Countries: Planning and Financing for Cities, Farms and Internally Displaced Persons,” in which the Task Force argues that, in addition to mitigation schemes like carbon taxes and “cap-and-trade” programs, wide-ranging urban and rural adaptation plans must be adopted across the nation and internationally to cope with the inevitable effects of climate change. To pay for such adaptation measures in developing countries, the Task Force recommends a financial transaction microtax (FTM) on trades of financial instruments, with the proceeds earmarked for climate adaptation.

This is an idea with the potential to raise significant funds from an as-yet untapped source. The Task Force’s recommendation offers what may be an elegant solution to concerns raised at COP21 by developing nations willing to do their part with respect to climate adaptation initiatives but lacking the necessary funds to do so. Innovative proposals like this are ripe for discussion as the international community attempts to make good on the pledges made last month in Paris.

Supplementing the report, the City Bar will also host a program called “Opportunities to Raise Public Awareness about Climate Change and the Need for Action. The program, scheduled for March 31st, will include panel discussions and working sessions with legal scholars, experts, and various New York City metropolitan organizations focusing on ways to increase awareness, scale up New York’s response to climate change, and align communications on the need for urgent action.

Real and lasting efforts to reduce or reverse the effects of modern civilization on the Earth’s climate will require ingenuity in multiple areas—scientific, social, political, and legal. I’m proud of our Legal Issues of Climate Adaptation Task Force’s efforts to come up with new ideas to further the dialogue on this issue. Great thanks to Stephen L. Kass, chair of the Task Force, and Michael G. Mahoney, chair of the Environmental Law Committee, for their leadership. I urge all of our members to read the report, attend the program, and do what they can to educate and advocate for action on climate change.