A positive view of Copenhagen

coplogoI wrote a column early in December trying to discern reasons for hope even in the face of the likelihood that Copenhagen was not going to produce a legally binding agreement. In the event it not only did not produce a legal agreement, but endorsed an Accord quite different from the kind of document we were expecting.  I’ve asked myself since whether the measure of cautious hope I  expressed in advance was foolishly optimistic.  Certainly some commentators have suggested so. But not all. Joseph Romm’s Climate Progress website has been upbeat about the Accord.  And today he has drawn attention to an article in the Huffington Post by David Doniger, policy director of the US Natural Resources Defence Council’sclimate centre.  Doniger hails the Accord as a gridlock breakthrough on three counts:

First, it provides for real cuts in heat-trapping carbon pollution by all of the world’s big emitters.  Second, it establishes a transparent framework for evaluating countries’ performance against their commitments.  And third, it will start an unprecedented flow of resources to help poor and vulnerable nations cope with climate impacts, protect their forests, and adopt clean energy technologies.

Doniger writes warmly of Obama’s personal involvement in forging the agreement and rescuing the conference from collapse. Brazil’s President Lula commented that it was unlike the kind of discussions that Heads of State normally have, and reminded him of his days as a trade union negotiator. I have read some accounts of the events which suggest that Obama showed little concern for climate change and was revealed as just another political leader manoeuvering to preserve the perceived interests of his own country ahead of those of the global community. It would be deeply disappointing if that were the case. Earlier this year I read both of Obama’s books, Dreams From My Father and The Audacity of Hope, as well as the collection of his election policies and speeches in Change We Can Believe In, and felt they represented an authentic and decent commitment to human welfare. I have written positively on Hot Topic several times about his unequivocal statements on climate change and the measures his administration has already begun to take to address it. “The science is beyond dispute and the facts are clear. Now is the time to confront this challenge once and for all.” I certainly don’t want to hastily credit the possibility that this has all been shown up as nothing more than hot air.

Back to Doniger, who addresses some of the concerns he has seen expressed about the Accord. First is the argument that the Accord isn’t enough to keep us under 2 degrees. He concedes that the agreement is not in itself ambitious enough to achieve that, but points out that Obama was quite candid that it is only a first step. Doniger thinks a significant one:

The real goal going into Copenhagen was to get the U.S., China, and the other fast-growing developing countries to take their first steps to curb their emissions.  That goal was achieved.  And that was no mean feat.

A second expressed concern is that emission cuts aren’t specified. In reply Doniger points to the open enrollment period through to the end of January which allows countries to record their emission reduction commitments. He considers that a year ago the targets and policy announcements on offer today from big developing countries would have been unthinkable. The Accord creates a dynamic situation, with the potential for a virtuous circle of countries reinforcing their commitments over time in response to similar moves by others.

In reply to the objection that the commitments aren’t legally binding, Doniger replies that the Accord sidestepped “legally binding” in favour of action commitments from both the big developing countries and the U.S.  Otherwise there was unlikely to have been an agreement. And there are other ways of getting there:

If countries can be bound by a web of interests and economic forces to make and follow through on commitments, that will mean more than any legalistic formulation of their duties.

In response to the objection that the Accord threatens the future of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Doniger points to the limitations of the Conference of the Parties in requiring consensus of all 193 countries – a requirement which finally resulted in the Conference agreeing to “take note” of the Accord rather than adopt it, because of the continuing opposition of Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, and the Sudan.

Doniger expects the government of the new Accord is likely to depend in part on the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate. Gareth noted in his Copenhagen post that the mix of this organisation covers just about all the necessary bases.  This doesn’t mean the UNFCCC will necessarily have no function, as Doniger sees it, but it will need to find ways of working which do not leave it open to rogue obstructionists and it will need to embrace the new agreement wholeheartedly.

Finally Doniger addresses the claim that the Accord won’t move the Senate.  It will:

[It] delivers the two principal things that swing Senators have demanded from the international process:  meaningful commitments to reducing the emissions of key developing countries, and a transparent framework for evaluating their performance against those commitments.

Political disappointments are not hard to find in the issue of climate change. I’m willing to hope that the kind of analysis of the Accord that Doniger and others offer proves to have some substance.

8 thoughts on “A positive view of Copenhagen”

  1. Last time I looked the N in NRDC stood for Natural, not National.

    At first glance, his comments mirror those that he made after Bali a couple of years ago. Whilst it’s very nice to read his perceptions of positive progress, I think he’s suggesting birds that waddle and quack are swans in his world, whereas they’re ducks in mine.

    The parties to the document in Copenhagen signed a political statement necessary for the non-confrontational photo opportunity finale.

    Why don’t people just accept that politicians are paid to represent national interest, and they are not going to compromise economic development and competitiveness. Thus they, and their lackeys, are very unlikely to provide any meaningful contribution to mitigation of climate change until available solutions don’t compromise their economic wellbeing.

    One obvious solution is to make energy use more efficient, especially in transportation of people and goods, but also in lifestyle. Forget about “green” technological solutions, as most current offerings aren’t. Offer consumers and businesses solutions that save money without compromising status and market share, and they will be all ears and invest.

    It’s frankly outrageous that many people travel solely for business contacts, rather than use the Internet. Perhaps we need many more failed terrorists to generate security responses that totally log-jam airports.

    2 hours flying, 8 hours waiting with no electronic communication permitted, might cause a rethink for some companies, and also activists who want to personally lobby.

    Firms that send technicians to install and repair items might then design equipment to be Internet or remotely-diagnosed with user-installable modules. Companies that sell commercial and consumer products might make their www pages their sales windows, rather than reps on 6-weekly cycles. We could have a system where one local community truck delivers household needs, and collects recyclables as it travels down streets.

    These solutions will be far more helpful to the planet than gatherings of politicians, because they will save participants money an make energy use more efficient and effective.

    Copenhagen was an unmitigated failure, understand that, and move forward by promoting alternative solutions. That duckling will never be a swan.

  2. Bruce, thanks for noticing my slip in the title of the NRDC, now corrected.

    Perhaps it is stubborn on my part to hope that political solutions to climate change might run ahead of economic well-being. Certainly in New Zealand Key and Smith have said they won’t put environmental matters ahead of economic growth, though they claim that doesn’t mean neglecting them. I’m extrapolating from my own experience that I lose interest in wealth per se in some kind of proportion to my understanding of the dangers climate change poses for the human future. I don’t imagine I’m unique in this, and I can’t see why there shouldn’t be at least some politicians who feel the same way and offer some political solutions to the mix.

    I noticed recently that Lester Brown has taken a position perhaps not dissimilar to what you advance. In the course of his article he suggests:

    “Internationally negotiated climate agreements are fast becoming obsolete for two reasons. First, since no government wants to concede too much compared with other governments, the negotiated goals for cutting carbon emissions will almost certainly be minimalist, not remotely approaching the bold cuts that are needed.

    “And second, since it takes years to negotiate and ratify these agreements, we may simply run out of time. This is not to say that we should not participate in the negotiations and work hard to get the best possible result. But we should not rely on these agreements to save civilization.”

    He goes on to point out that the shift to renewable energy is occurring at a rate and on a scale we couldn’t imagine even two years ago, instancing wind in Texas and China and solar in North Africa among many other examples. He doesn’t make as much of saving money as you might want to see, but he emphasizes that significant things are happening independent of international agreements.

  3. Bryan,

    I’m surprised that you have allowed Obama to bamboozle you. Wasn’t the experience with his silver tongued predecessors like Bill “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” Clinton and Tony “45 minutes” Blair sufficient to convince you that politics is a performance art? Closer to home we had Helen “let’s be carbon neutral” Clark.

    Ryan Lizza provides a practical example when he ends a 2008 New Yorker article with an anecdote about Obama on the day before his celebrated speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, in Boston:

    “We were walking down the street late in the afternoon,” Nesbitt told me. “And this crowd was building behind us, like it was Tiger Woods at the Masters.”

    “Barack, man, you’re like a rock star,” Nesbitt said.

    “Yeah, if you think it’s bad today, wait until tomorrow,” Obama replied.

    “What do you mean?”

    “My speech,” Obama said, “is pretty good.”

    Not surprisingly, this has got Obama into hot water with his supporters as explained by Edward Luce in the FT:

    Finally, many of the criticisms aimed at Mr Obama are fair. Of these the most damaging is that he seduced voters into believing he would change the way business is done in Washington. It is the oldest betrayal in the book. You campaign in poetry and govern in prose.

    For those, however, who took some of the candidate Obama’s flightier passages of oratory with a pinch of salt, there is the fascination of watching the President Obama grapple with the art of the possible – on healthcare, climate change and, perhaps most fatefully, on the military escalation in Afghanistan.

    Whether his army of volunteers will forgive him their disillusion when he is up for re-election in 2012 is an open question. At the rate the Republican party is moving rightwards, they might. “No they won’t” lacks the ring of “Yes we can”. But it gets people to the voting booths.

    And I’m disappointed that you re-broadcast Mr Doniger’s absurd piece of American propaganda on Copenhagen. His article contains so much spin it could easily take Harbhajan Singh’s place in the Indian cricket team. The Americans came to the table in Copenhagen with no emissions legislation in place at home and little likelihood of any, with the largest historical emissions of any country and with 2007 per capita emissions that are 4 times those of China. All they offered was a derisory reduction in emissions and a fistful of virtual dollars. When Doniger says that the accord “will start an unprecedented flow of resources to help poor and vulnerable nations cope with climate impacts” he has obviously forgotten about the Bonn Declaration of 2001 in which 20 industrialised nations said they would provide climate change cash to help poorer countries. The BBC’s Short Changing The Planet doco outlines the controversy over how much of the promised money actually turned up. And if you want to hear about America’s persistent refusal to be bound by international obligations you have only to listen to this podcast (22MB mp3) by Professor Noam Chomsky at the LSE in 2009.

    “Actions”, said Mark Twain, “speak louder than words but but not nearly as often”

  4. I think there are a lot of people/businesses/countries who want to do something about their footprint on the planet, provided their initiatives don’t disadvantage themselves. It’s good that people like Lester Brown are also advocating starting energy conservation and sensible production alternatives now, rather than wait for politicians.

    In his example of Texas, they had a significant tax credit for renewable energy producers ( but not homeowner scale, IIRC ). NZ has been rather tardy at promoting alternative sources and rewarding energy conservation by tax incentives, instead dreaming up stupid punitive taxation systems for some carbon emitters. Even though most of us don’t bray, a carrot is usually better than many sticks.

    It’s important that subsidies help consumers become more efficient and competitive, and adding sensible conservation strategies to the mix enhances the value of change.

    I know of employees in one NZ high tech manufacturing company, competing globally against BRIC-domiciled companies, who are proud that 90+% of their business is overseas, but client introduction and interaction is virtually completely via the Internet. Careful transport selection and consolidation also partially help maintain their competitiveness.

    The issues of renewables ( including wind ) are often that they can generate NIMBY and environmental concerns, so it’s important that neighbours are assured that any pollution is more than offset by the benefits. That has not always been the case, so it’s also important that all rose-tinted glasses are removed before considering and switching to alternative sources of energy.

    There may even be an argument for local ownership of generation capacity, however the issues of supply reliability are likely to be best resolved by national solutions until cost-effective bulk electricity storage is available.

    I’m very confident that we can take actions that will both help the planet and mitigate human-induced climate change. After all, much of our profligate use of energy has only occurred in the last 20-30 years because energy delivery was strongly promoted and convenient.

  5. Le Chat Noir, I won’t engage with you on the matter of Obama’s inegrity. In the post I gave my reasons for hoping that there is more to him than hot air. If it turns out not to be the case I shall be disappointed but in the meantime I’ll hang on to what hope I can take from his words (and his actions in several of his appointments) in relation to climate change.

    So far as what America didn’t bring to the table in Copenhagen, I’m well aware of all you say. And I’ve been listening to Noam Chomsky off and on for more years than I can remember. And I watched the interview with Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein at the end of Copenhagen. I don’t approach statements like Doniger’s with some kind of wide-eyed political innocence. But given that the Accord was the outcome of Copenhagen I looked to Doniger’s statement to see whether there was perhaps some hope that could be gleaned from it. Climate change is an issue of enormous moment and I don’t want to reject anything which might improve matters, however inadequately.

    1. Well, since you set so much store by what Mr Obama has to say, here is what he said to Jim Lehrer on the PBS News hour on 23rd December 2009:

      PRESIDENT OBAMA: And so the – you know, this notion that somehow the health-care bill that is emerging should be grudgingly accepted by Democrats as a half-a-loaf is simply incorrect. This is nine-tenths of a loaf. And for a family out there that right now doesn’t have health insurance, it is a great deal.


      MR. LEHRER: Back to the loaves situation.

      PRESIDENT OBAMA: (Chuckles.)

      MR. LEHRER: (Chuckles.) Copenhagen.


      MR. LEHRER: Here was a situation where there were many things that you and others wanted done.


      MR. LEHRER: None of them got done –


      MR. LEHRER: – and yet you’ve said, well, it was a success anyhow. Is that a loaf? Did you get –

      PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, –

      MR. LEHRER: You didn’t get any loaf there, did you?

      PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, – well, no – I think Copenhagen’s entirely different from health care. I mean, I think that people are justified in being disappointed about the outcome in Copenhagen. What I said was essentially that rather than see a complete collapse in Copenhagen, in which nothing at all got done and would have been a huge backward step, at least we kind of held ground and there wasn’t too much backsliding from where we were.

      It didn’t move us the way we need to. The science says that we’ve got to significantly reduce emissions over the next – over the next 40 years. There’s nothing in the Copenhagen agreement that ensures that that happens.

      It’s a different picture from the one Mr Doniger paints.

  6. Le Chat Noir, Doniger’s article came to my attention because Joe Romm offered it as a guest post on Climate Progress. It fitted with what I understand Romm’s own position to be as expressed in his own Copenhagen post . He had also recently had another guest post from Robert Stavins along similar lines. I respect what I regard as Romm’s outstanding effort to promote understanding of climate change and the political will needed to address it. I’m aware that he takes a position on the best way forward both domestically and internationally which sometimes puts him at odds with other climate change campaigners. I don’t regard myself as strongly committed to one side or another on many of those issues. I chose Doniger’s article because it was the most recent Climate Progress post and reflected Romm’s approach which I think at least worth some consideration. No endorsement was intended, and if Doniger is more optimistic about the Accord than Obama himself, as your comment suggests, that will no doubt affect readers’ evaluations of his statement.

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