It is now increasingly clear that we should not have high expectations from the global climate change talks to be held in Copenhagen in December.

US President Barack Obama on Sunday poured the final tumbler of cold water when he said that “we should not make the perfect the enemy of the good", a far from subtle hint that negotiators from 192 countries are unlikely to come to a binding agreement.

Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint

What now? It appears there could be a political agreement next month followed by a more detailed treaty a year later in Mexico City: feel good followed by do good.

Developing countries such as India and China have been under immense pressure to give up their old negotiating principles and become good boys. The Manmohan Singh government has been trying to tread a delicate—some would say confused—path: defending the old position that India is not yet ready to sacrifice economic growth while signalling that it does not wish to be a global deal breaker either.

We had in a 20 July editorial cited an interview of Thomas Schelling, who won the 2005 Nobel Prize for his original work in game theory and collective bargaining: “…I think (nations) ought to drop the idea that there are going to be enforceable commitments. There have never been enforceable commitments on anything of that magnitude. And I think they should try to negotiate not what emissions level they will seek in 20 or 50 years, but what they will actually do." Schelling then compared the complex climate change challenge with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or Nato. The agreement to defend western Europe against a Soviet attack was only two pages and there was never any enforcement mechanism. Yet Nato worked. “Because when responsible governments make serious commitments, they stick to them, especially when they see other governments sticking to them," said Schelling.

The point is that Nato did not succeed because it was based on explicit targets on how much to slow a Soviet attack or by calculating the probability of an attack. It showed that it is not what you promise but what you do that is important.

This newspaper does not dismiss multilateral negotiations; but it also believes that domestic legislation by leading countries is important for a self-reinforcing network of credible commitments. The US should make the first move, as the world’s biggest polluter and its most potent power.

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