Copenhagen: Things Fall Apart and an Uncertain Future Looms  

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Yale 360 has an article from Bill McKibben on the failed talks at Copenhagen, saying the "summit turned out to be little more than a charade" - Copenhagen: Things Fall Apart and an Uncertain Future Looms.

It’s possible that human beings will simply never be able to figure out how to bring global warming under control — that having been warned about the greatest danger we ever faced, we simply won’t take significant action to prevent it. That’s the unavoidable conclusion of the conference that staggered to a close in the early hours of Saturday morning in Copenhagen. It was a train wreck, but a fascinating one, revealing an enormous amount about the structure of the globe.

Let’s concede first just how difficult the problem is to solve — far more difficult than any issue the United Nations has ever faced. Reaching agreement means overcoming the most entrenched and powerful economic interests on Earth — the fossil fuel industry — and changing some of the daily habits of that portion of humanity that uses substantial amounts of oil and coal, or hopes to someday soon. Compared to that, issues like the war in Iraq, or nuclear proliferation, or the Law of the Sea are simple. No one really liked Saddam Hussein, not to mention nuclear war, and the Law of the Sea meant nothing to anyone in their daily lives unless they were a tuna.

Faced with that challenge, the world’s governments could have had a powerful and honest conversation about what should be done. Civil society did its best to help instigate that conversation. In late October, for instance, — the organization of which I am a founder — held what CNN called the “most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history,” with 5,200 demonstrations in 181 countries all focused on an obscure scientific data point: 350 parts per million (ppm) of CO2, which NASA scientists have described as the maximum amount of carbon we can have in the atmosphere if we want a planet “similar to the one on which civilization developed, and to which life on Earth is adapted.”

In fact, that kind of scientific reality informed the negotiations in Copenhagen much more thoroughly than past conclaves — by midweek diplomats from much of the world were sporting neckties with a big 350 logo, and 116 nations had signed on to a resolution making that the dividing line. A radical position? In one sense, yes — it would take the quick transition away from fossil fuels to make it happen. But in another sense? The most conservative of ideas, that you might want to preserve a planet like the one you were born onto.

From the beginning, the most important nations chose not to go the route of truth-telling. The Obama administration decided not long after taking office that they would barely mention “global warming,” instead confining themselves to talking about “green jobs” and “energy security.” Perhaps they had no choice, and it was the only way to reach the U.S. Senate — we’ll never know, because they clung to their strategy tightly. On Oct. 24, when there were world leaders from around the globe joining demonstrations, they refused to send even minor officials to take part. Instead, they continued to insist on something that scientists kept saying was untrue: The safe level of carbon in the atmosphere was 450 ppm, and their plans would keep temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 F) and thus avoid “catastrophic consequences.” (Though since 0.8 degrees C had melted the Arctic, it wasn’t clear how they defined catastrophe).

In any event, even this unambitious claim was a sham. That’s strong language, so here’s what I mean. Thirty-six hours before the conference drew to a close, a leaked document from the UN Secretariat began circulating around the halls. It had my name scrawled across the front, not because I’d leaked it but apparently because it confirmed something I’d been writing for weeks here at Yale Environment 360 and elsewhere: Even if you bought into the idea that all we needed to do was keep warming to 2 degrees C and 450 ppm, the plans the UN was debating didn’t even come close. In fact, said the six-page report, the plans on offer from countries rich and poor, if you added them all up, would produce a world where the temperature rose at least 3 degrees C, and carbon soared to at least 550 ppm. (Hades, technically described). It ended with a classic piece of bureaucratic prose: Raising the temperature three degrees, said the anonymous authors, would “reduce the probability” of hitting the two degree target. You think?

The document helped make already-suspicious vulnerable nations even more suspicious. Remember: The reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have made it clear that a two-degree temperature rise globally might make Africa 3.5 degrees C hotter. Almost everyone

The most vulnerable nations didn’t knuckle under quite as easily as usual.

thinks that even 450 ppm will raise sea level enough to drown small island nations. There wasn’t much solace in the money on offer: $10 billion in “fast start” money for poor nations (about $2.50 a head — I’d like to buy the world a Coke) and an eventual $100 billion in annual financial aid that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised when she arrived on Thursday morning. Even if that money ever materialized (Clinton couldn’t say where it would come from, except “special alternative financial means”) it wouldn’t do much good for countries that weren’t actually going to exist once sea levels rose. They were backed to the wall.

And so, they squawked. They didn’t knuckle under quite as easily as usual, despite the usual round of threats and bribes. (One island nation left a meeting with the U.S. fearing for its International Monetary Fund loans; one African nation left a meeting with the Chinese hoping for two new hospitals if only it would toe the line.)

This annoyed the powerful. When President Obama finally appeared on Friday, his speech to the plenary had none of the grace and sense of history that often mark his words — it was an exasperated and tight-lipped little dressing-down about the need for countries to take “responsibility.” (Which might have gone over better if he’d even acknowledged that the United States had some special historical responsibility for the fix we’re in, but the U.S. negotiation position all along has been that we owe nothing for our past. As always, Americans are eager for a fresh new morning). In any event, it didn’t suffice — other nations were still grumbling, and not just the cartoonish Hugo Chavez.

In fact, the biggest stumbling block to the kind of semi-dignified face-saving agreement most people envisioned was China. According to accounts I’ve heard from a number of sources, Obama met with 25 other world leaders after his press conference for a negotiating session. It was a disaster — China turned down one reasonable idea after another, unwilling to constrain its ability to burn coal in any meaningful way (and not needing to, since power, especially in any non-military negotiation, has swung definitively in its direction).

Mark Lynas has a column in The Guardian blaming the Chinese for the failure of the summit - How do I know China wrecked the Copenhagen deal? I was in the room.
Copenhagen was a disaster. That much is agreed. But the truth about what actually happened is in danger of being lost amid the spin and inevitable mutual recriminations. The truth is this: China wrecked the talks, intentionally humiliated Barack Obama, and insisted on an awful "deal" so western leaders would walk away carrying the blame. How do I know this? Because I was in the room and saw it happen.

China's strategy was simple: block the open negotiations for two weeks, and then ensure that the closed-door deal made it look as if the west had failed the world's poor once again. And sure enough, the aid agencies, civil society movements and environmental groups all took the bait. The failure was "the inevitable result of rich countries refusing adequately and fairly to shoulder their overwhelming responsibility", said Christian Aid. "Rich countries have bullied developing nations," fumed Friends of the Earth International.

All very predictable, but the complete opposite of the truth. Even George Monbiot, writing in yesterday's Guardian, made the mistake of singly blaming Obama. But I saw Obama fighting desperately to salvage a deal, and the Chinese delegate saying "no", over and over again. Monbiot even approvingly quoted the Sudanese delegate Lumumba Di-Aping, who denounced the Copenhagen accord as "a suicide pact, an incineration pact, in order to maintain the economic dominance of a few countries".

Sudan behaves at the talks as a puppet of China; one of a number of countries that relieves the Chinese delegation of having to fight its battles in open sessions. It was a perfect stitch-up. China gutted the deal behind the scenes, and then left its proxies to savage it in public.

Here's what actually went on late last Friday night, as heads of state from two dozen countries met behind closed doors. Obama was at the table for several hours, sitting between Gordon Brown and the Ethiopian prime minister, Meles Zenawi. The Danish prime minister chaired, and on his right sat Ban Ki-moon, secretary-general of the UN. Probably only about 50 or 60 people, including the heads of state, were in the room. I was attached to one of the delegations, whose head of state was also present for most of the time.

What I saw was profoundly shocking. The Chinese premier, Wen Jinbao, did not deign to attend the meetings personally, instead sending a second-tier official in the country's foreign ministry to sit opposite Obama himself. The diplomatic snub was obvious and brutal, as was the practical implication: several times during the session, the world's most powerful heads of state were forced to wait around as the Chinese delegate went off to make telephone calls to his "superiors".

Shifting the blame

To those who would blame Obama and rich countries in general, know this: it was China's representative who insisted that industrialised country targets, previously agreed as an 80% cut by 2050, be taken out of the deal. "Why can't we even mention our own targets?" demanded a furious Angela Merkel. Australia's prime minister, Kevin Rudd, was annoyed enough to bang his microphone. Brazil's representative too pointed out the illogicality of China's position. Why should rich countries not announce even this unilateral cut? The Chinese delegate said no, and I watched, aghast, as Merkel threw up her hands in despair and conceded the point. Now we know why – because China bet, correctly, that Obama would get the blame for the Copenhagen accord's lack of ambition.

China, backed at times by India, then proceeded to take out all the numbers that mattered. A 2020 peaking year in global emissions, essential to restrain temperatures to 2C, was removed and replaced by woolly language suggesting that emissions should peak "as soon as possible". The long-term target, of global 50% cuts by 2050, was also excised. No one else, perhaps with the exceptions of India and Saudi Arabia, wanted this to happen. I am certain that had the Chinese not been in the room, we would have left Copenhagen with a deal that had environmentalists popping champagne corks popping in every corner of the world. ...

This does not mean China is not serious about global warming. It is strong in both the wind and solar industries. But China's growth, and growing global political and economic dominance, is based largely on cheap coal. China knows it is becoming an uncontested superpower; indeed its newfound muscular confidence was on striking display in Copenhagen. Its coal-based economy doubles every decade, and its power increases commensurately. Its leadership will not alter this magic formula unless they absolutely have to.

Copenhagen was much worse than just another bad deal, because it illustrated a profound shift in global geopolitics. This is fast becoming China's century, yet its leadership has displayed that multilateral environmental governance is not only not a priority, but is viewed as a hindrance to the new superpower's freedom of action.


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