After Copenhagen: new world disorder

coplogoIt’s a bit like reading the runes — trawling through reactions to the events of the last couple of weeks, trying to work out what the Copenhagen Accord means. I don’t mean a parsing of the words, though translating the language of diplomacy is never trivial, but what the various parties to the Accord, and the rest of the world, think it means — and crucially, what that implies for future action to reduce emissions.

For background, read this excellent BBC analysis of Copenhagen, and Joe Romm’s interesting take at Climate Progress (which refers to Bill McKibben’s reactions at Grist, plus there’s a more considered McKibben article at e360), but the article that really helped to crystallise my thoughts is Mark Lynas’ insider’s account of the final phases of negotiations:

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.

Lynas’ key point is that China holds the real power in any negotiation. As the new superpower on the block, it is beginning to flex its geopolitical muscle. As the world’s biggest emitter, it knows that no solution is possible without it. The US administration knows if that if China is not part of an emissions deal, the chances of passing domestic legislation to cut emissions are small. Everybody needs China, and China knows it.

At the same time, the UNFCC process relies on building consensus. Every country has a say, every country can delay, demur, or derail proceedings. If national interests don’t align, only the weakest of deals can be done. Copenhagen Accords, in other words. That leads to the essence of Joe Romm’s argument: if the big emitters act together outside the UN process, the problem is well on the way to being solved.

Obama launched the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate back in March (a follow-on from a Bush initiative designed, ironically, to delay action), and it includes all the key players: Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, the European Union, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States. That mix covers just about all the necessary bases: the rich developed nations, the rapidly growing developing countries, and Brazil and Indonesia, where deforestation is a huge issue. China’s position would not necessarily alter simply because of the change of venue, but the process of deal-making might be easier.

One small feature is missing: the rest of the world, the 170 or so countries not invited to the table. That includes Burkina Faso, Tuvalu — and New Zealand. The poorest nations, and particularly those most likely to feel the impacts of climate change, will have to rely on what amounts to goodwill. $100bn a year in 2020 is on the table, but would that still be the case if the MEF were to a deal in their own interests? For New Zealand, which has always relied on and advocated a multilateral approach to global issues, any influence we currently have would vanish. Lke the rest of the world, we would have to like it or lump it.

That’s why much official reaction to Copenhagen has centred on the need to follow it up with binding commitments to emissions reductions, to sign a better deal in Mexico at the end of 2010. Unsurprisingly, the UN wants the UNFCC process to continue — and I would guess that the vast majority of the UN’s membership agrees. But realpolitik is king, big economies wield the power, and a political structure that evolved to manage a balance of power during the cold war years of the 50s and 60s is beginning to look irrelevant when confronted with this global tragedy of the commons.

Here’s the big question. We have an urgent need to cut emissions, to stabilise and then reduce the atmospheric greenhouse gas load. The numbers are clear enough, the danger is pressing. Events in Copenhagen suggest that we lack the global political apparatus to deliver those emissions reductions in the timescale required, so should we look around for something else that can do the job? Ends or means? The balance between the two is what will emerge over the next year.

Two things will influence the direction the world takes: the perception at international level of the seriousness of the climate problem, and the position adopted by China. My feeling is that until there are severe and undeniable impacts, the collective will for action — especially in the absence of strong leadership — will remain weak. Unless and until the Chinese show signs of taking strong action within some sort of international framework, significant emissions reductions look like pie in the sky. And we’re looking like char siu.

15 thoughts on “After Copenhagen: new world disorder”

  1. One hopes we won’t have to wait for severe and undeniable impacts. When the science is as overwhelming as it is, and as many political leaders are now acknowledging it to be (including even John Key if I understood him aright in some of his Copenhagen statements), there should come a point where even the most powerful feel disaster breathing down their necks and take the still feasible steps which can avoid it. Admittedly the denialist industry is still hard at work, and has plenty of deluded fanaticism it can yet draw on, but the vested interests that have funded it must include people with enough intelligence to recognise when their very survival is at threat. Or am I placing too much reliance on human intelligence?

  2. “…the denialist industry is still hard at work, and has plenty of deluded fanaticism it can yet draw on, but the vested interests that have funded it must include people with enough intelligence to recognise when their very survival is at threat. Or am I placing too much reliance on human intelligence?”

    A rather sad and wistful statement Bryan, in light of the huge disaster to the AGW cause after Climategate and the chaos and farce in Copenhagen.

    Does anyone, other that those who cannot swallow their pride, now continue to say that the science of AGW “is settled” ? Does anyone really deep in their hearts believe that this green crusade is about “saving the planet” and not wealth redistribution ?

    I read that Hadley and the CRU are releasing more data, and feel that its scrutiny will show that science of climate change has been poisoned by ideology and money. And not money from big oil. The green left have lost the PR war, Copenhagen and Climategate were DDay…it will be fascinating to follow the course of the final battle in 2010.

    This “deluded fanatic” is confident of the outcome.

  3. Mikh, all you are revealing is the depth of the delusions. Climategate, so-called, impacts not a whit on the work of thousands of scientists in many fields whose findings almost daily add to the frightening reality of human-caused climate change. The political leadership at Copenhagen may have disappointed in many ways, but they have not in any way suggested that there’s no substance to the threat of global warming. I don’t know what gives you the confidence to reject the work of responsible science and to deny the evidence of danger, but you seem to have it all tangled up with your political views. I can assure you I would be equally alarmed by climate change whatever my political orientation. It’s a matter of science, not of politics.

  4. Bryan, I think you may be wrong re Climategate. Phil Jones’ notorious attempt to “hide the decline” has been met with worldwide derision and scepticism, and ongoing investigation of CRU work (which as you know forms the backbone of IPCC analysis) will I’m sure, continue to demolish your, and Al Gore’s assertion that the science is clear re CO2 and catastrophic global warming.

    You might like to consider this letter to the UK Economist which I’m sure speaks for many, many people…

    “SIR, You proclaimed that a scientist’s effort to “hide the decline” was “not sinister”… What is it, then, when a scientist formulates a hypothesis that growth patterns follow temperature, and tests the hypothesis against data only to find that growth patterns do not follow temperature at all for 30% of the data and only partially for the rest? Do you then conclude, as would any sane person, that your hypothesis is not valid? Or do you instead take the road followed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and conclude that data which undermine your favoured hypothesis are not valid, and throw out the data? If this is “not sinister”, then it is flabbergastingly stupid. R.B. Gothenburg, Sweden

    Not “sinister” perhaps Bryan, but flabbergastingly stupid. It looks very much like the boot is now on the other foot; the burden of proof is now plainly with the green/left, and it looks too that the fear and fright campaign has stunningly failed.

  5. Facts don’t change because of PR campaigns or political views, mikh. I have a mind to archive your first comment as a testament to the depth of delusion on show. In a year or two, you might be embarrassed to be reminded of your words, much as my son is embarrassed by tales of his extreme youth. I shan’t mention the face cream on his grandmother’s wrought iron staircase… (Whoops!).

  6. Great to see you back here, Bryan, and the speed of your recovery is amazing. To answer your question about relying on human intelligence, I’ll have to say that I tend to agree more with Gareth that we probably will have to wait until there are in-your -face impacts before the will to act becomes strong enough. Certainly we have collectively acted in a concerted fashion when faced with major threats before – the phasing out of CFCs comes to mind. However this was a relatively simple matter of product substitution; nothing like the challenges of decarbonising our way of life. But even so various stupidheads continued to dispute the science of ozone depletion.

  7. Carol, when the bad stuff really starts to affect rich countries, don’t be surprised when the idiots start proclaiming that it’s too late to do anything.

  8. I think we are witnessing a crisis and important turning point in international relations. Prior to the conference Rajendra Pachauri said that it would be a test of the nation-state approach to world governance: So it has turned out. What interest do states have in retaining membership of a body that asks them to sign away their territorial existence? That is the point Tuvalu, Maldives and AOSIS are making.

    Geoffrey Sachs is very critical of what he sees as the abandonment of the UN approach: I think we should listen carefully to his concerns. It seems to me that we are being extremely hasty in, literally overnight, turning our fortunes over to the leaders of a couple of big nations. I was always taught that continuing concern for the poorest ultimately leads to better outcomes for all. I have my doubts about any forward strategy that begins with an assumption that small island nations cant be listened to because we dont have the time or inclination. Such an approach would quickly degenerate into unprincipled calculations about who will be saved and who will drown. The interstate agreements that might emerge under such a scenario would be ugly.

    The Lynas article is getting incredible play. If correct, the report that China would not even allow developed nations to state their 2050 goals is astonishing and very very hard to understand on any principled basis. Although it has to be noted that, in the pages of the Guardian in which Lynas writes, prior to Copenhagen, China clearly sent the message that it simply could not meet an overall 2 degree global limit. See and in particular That was a fundamental issue that should have been front and centre on day one at Copenhagen. It made any statements other nations intended to make about emissions reductions pretty much irrelevant.

    My concern is that in coming days we might see a readiness to displace concern about climate change onto China. Hopefully and others, who are scrambling to develop a new strategy, will see the sense in continuing to build a worldwide movement, but now with redoubled efforts on building a citizens movement within China. We have to do better, they have to do better, for all our sakes.


  9. COP15 outcome didn’t surprise most observers, and I really wonder at Bennion’s suggestion of a citizens movement in China. The “citizens’ movement” in the West doesn’t, to me, seem to be good model, and Chinese governments traditionally dislike dissent.

    China isn’t a villian, much as people wish to paint is as one. China’s delegates, and those of many other countries, negotiated on behalf of their nation – that’s what they are paid to do.

    Trying to embarrass countries into sensible positions hasn’t worked, ocean fishing, whaling, and climate change suggest that the efforts of citizens’ movements great exceed the desired outcomes.

    Perhaps looking at a carrot process that worked ( eg phase out of CFCs ), shows that targetted solutions that offer benefits are more effective that multiple people waving sticks.

    It’s far better to start the “minimize harm” process, develop and implement economically-rational viable solutions that don’t require punitive taxes. Now is the hour of opportunity for novel solutions, not despair.

  10. As mentioned in a previous comment on Copenhagen (22/12/09):

    “1. We’ve got a major global issue that needs sorting. It’s not the first time, it happens.
    2. Existing political models do not cope with the changes the world has experienced in communications and the transparency now required.
    3. Interest groups are way ahead in the use of this communication revolution (hence I’m here and so are you) but as of yet unskilled in turning the communication into action, either by leverage or directly. (and look out when they do…)
    4. Behaving as normal the political system heads off to protect the interests of the masses (just their’s though). After all it’s their job to wait for midnight on the last day and dramatically impose the “Big View” on the rest of us.
    5. But wait… Eyes wide in the glare of the communication spotlight there is no deal to cut without the complete ridicule of the waiting world, so they don’t cut one. No deal is no failure for a negotiator, just proves you’re good at your job.

    More interesting is what happens next:
    1. Interest groups get even better at communicating. Ultimately this leads to new ways to express the public’s viewpoints. Where’s Bono after all? (And that’s at the “soft” end of what’s likely to happen)
    2. Political systems evolve new methods of conflict resolution. This is a given but who knows how long will it take. My thoughts are though that it’ll be fairly quick given point 1.
    3. “No more than 2 degrees Celcius” goes flying past equally quickly.
    4. “Cap and Trade” goes shortly thereafter in light of 1-3.
    5. We seriously tax carbon as it leaves the ground and the market establishes a new paradigm for valuing alternate energy sources.
    6. We accept that our kids will think we were idiots. But don’t worry, there won’t be as many of them.”

    I think you’re getting around to my point(s) of view. If there’s going to be major change it’s going to require a “Another Way”. There are lots of them and all they require is “communicating”. Why not start by not buying anything made in China, how long do you think it would take to find out who’s the latest super-power?

  11. Bandersdad,

    Totally disagree, why follow a known cul-de-sac?.

    As for “taxing carbon as it leaves the ground” and boycotting China – who’s going to allow their politicians to sign up for national economic suicide?.
    Why only China, many other countries currently have similar positions.

    China will sell their very competitive products to all those Australasian, Pacific, Brazil, Russia, African, and Asian countries from whom they are purchasing industrial raw materials – including carbon, minerals, labour – it’s called global trade, and China and like-minded nations are major players.

    Other participants in those global markets would lose out. You want to start a war?, easy, try to constrain the economic development of other nations by imposing punitive tariffs.

    Taxes go to politicians and their favoured solutions, not to best or effective solutions. Anyone proposing taxation as a solution hasn’t looked at history.

    CFCs were not taxed into oblivion, as they were a key industrial product – from cleaning sensitive and expensive electronic components to cheap, safe ( compared to previous flammable and toxic ) refrigerants.

    Industry and governments invested serious money into research into viable alternatives, manufactured them, and their industries remained viable and globally-competitive. We still allowed the developing world much more time to phase CFCs out because their atmospheric contribution was relatively small and their growth was far exceeded by shrinkage in developed countries, rather than provide additional capital for them to adopt new technologies.

    There are other ways for mitigation of climate change ( including investing in local and regional mitigation by increased efficiency of our use of carbon ). Hopefully it’s not going to be the developed world donning sackcloth and/or starting a trade war. Everybody loses.

    1. I think we’re in fundamental agreement actually Bruce. Your point about the CFC’s is one of my favourites given it wasn’t governmental action that stopped their use. It’s probably the first ever example of what I was refering to as effective, successful, “communication” by interest groups. Goverments may have followed but they weren’t going to do a think before the folks said “no way, we’re not buying”.
      The point about trade and war is only valid if there’s an object to get upset with. How does anyone go to war with 100 million people from 150 countries who decide they don’t like current policy? France tried it (once, Greenpeace) and look where that got them. I’m also not concerned about others losing out. It’s the truth, there are going to be people losing out and that’s regardless of what we do or do not do, we are dealing in shades of grey and we’re all already losing out.
      As for mitigation I’m not confident there’s the means nor the time. It’s also addressing the problem by applying esoteric analyses to a simple truth…it’s coming out of the ground.
      Taxes I agree with you on. The problem is they exist and are the best of the worst methods we’ve got applying a level playing field to our endeavours. Voluntary doesn’t work, it needs to be legislative and with carbon it needs to be at source or there’ll be cheating (more cheating that is).
      Have a great Xmas.

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