Copenhagen Discord – Obama’s lesson in realpolitik

The Copenhagen Accord negotiated by US President Obama together with Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, will help smooth the passage of the Senate Energy and Climate Bill and serves notice on a UN climate negotiations framework that could not deliver a binding agreement in the absence of a clear political framework. It has been apparent for some time that fault lines in the UN negotiating framework threatened to undermine progress. The G-77/China grouping has been particularly dysfunctional, as it has sought – at times – to broker interests ranging from those of the small island developing states to Saudi Arabia. In his closing comments to the US press corps…Obama spoke frankly about the ‘deadlock’ that was Copenhagen, because the UN framework for climate change action was not designed to differentiate between the poorest of the poor and major economic powers such as China and Brazil, and place obligations on the latter, while protecting their right to development. Any judgement of the Accord will be premature before 1 February, the deadline established for the US, China, South Africa and others to set out their ‘commitments’ and ‘actions’ in an attempt to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference in the climate. Copenhagen did more to obscure than highlight the progress over the past twelve months in bringing China and others to the table with undertakings to contain their projected emissions growth. There has never been more discussion about the ethical demands of climate change. Obama’s realpolitik does not oppose ethics, and it might just deliver where soaring rhetoric did not. The success of Obama’s domestic climate change legislation twinned with global civil society’s commitment to political action (and personal change: every European citizen must now endeavour to reduce an average per capita emission of ten tonnes of carbon p/a to two tonnes within a generation) will play a huge role in pressing for a legally binding successor to the Kyoto Protocol.

  • Much of what you say in the last part of this post is wishful thinking. The reality is that the developing nations are focused on developing. The problems of climate change are way down their list of priorities. For the poorer countries, whose hardships we barely acknowledge, climate change is very much a rich nation’s problem.

    It is a fact that cutting down trees in the great Amazon Jungles is contributing hugely to a reduction in the ability of the planet to absorb the CO2 being emitted into the atmosphere. However, try telling that to the impoverished Brazilians who see land as their ladder, not to prosperity, but to mere subsitance.

    Trying to impose any kind of ethos on the developing nations will not get the rich countries anywhere, neither will leading by “example.”

    The future question for the West is really, should they make the problems of the developing nations part of their problem and increase their contribution towards helping those nations? Alternatively, should they just accept that the present trends will not be arrested or reversed and instead throw their money behind protection, such as flood defences?

    The answer really depends upon what China and India decide to do. These nations between them have 40% of the World’s population. Only when they decide that they really want to throw their weight behind an effort to maintain our relatively benign climate can we expect any significant progress to be made. Unfortunately, the time remaining for them to make that commitment will very soon run out.