By Joe Campbell
December 21st, 2009
The dust is still settling from Copenhagen, and the reactions that I’ve seen so far have been muted. But the consensus is that it was something between a disaster and a face-saving attempt to achieve the smallest measure of progress possible. One item that has begun to be reported, but not gotten much attention is how in a dramatic gesture, President Obama himself salvaged what of the agreement there is by breaking into a secret meeting organized by China with a few emerging countries to develop their own local non-binding goals instead of working with the world community.
Some environmental activists havetried to spread out the blame around – as Rick Patel of Avaaz wrote in an email:
Big polluters like China and the US wanted a weak deal, and potential champions like Europe, Brazil and South Africa didn’t fight hard enough to stop them.
Interestingly, this breakdown conforms almost exactly to what critics of the Copenhagen summit such as Charles Krauthammer would predict – as they see these efforts to combat global warming as a giant socialist conspiracy to “raid […] the Western treasuries” by imposing “taxes on hardworking citizens of the democracies to fill the treasuries of Third World kleptocracies” with “a dose of post-colonial reparations thrown in.”
But the opposing sides weren’t the simplistic ones outlined by either Krauthammer or Patel. The principles at stake weren’t simply big polluters versus small polluters or the proponents of global socialism versus its opponents. Instead, Copenhagen was about whether or not there could be collective action and global governance in the face of a global crisis – or whether each nation would act on its own. When Obama along with most other world leaders arrived at the end of the conference, the final details were supposed to come together quickly as the principals gathered in the same rooms and made the deals they needed to. Which is why despite grumbling before the conference about America’s inability to pass legislation to combat climate change* and the concerns of poorer countries about being restrained from development, the blame has settled on China for scuttling the talks. As the Guardian reported:
The Chinese prime minister, Wen Jiabao, walked out of the conference at one point, and sent a lowly protocol officer to negotiate with Barack Obama.
After the snub and with China refusing to back down from any attempts to bind itself to meeting targets, Obama spoke to the conference. David Corn, writing in the Atlantic explained the impact:
Not hiding his anger and frustration, [Obama] said, “I think our ability to take collective action is in doubt.”
…Obama played it simple and hard. He maintained the United States was calling for three basic principles: mitigation, transparency, and financing. But he noted that it was absolutely necessary to verify the reductions commitments of the major emitters.
Obama’s speech left the gathered leaders and activists stunned as he seemed to be signalling the collapse of any possible agreement – of even some small measure of progress. Following this speech, Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and America’s negotiators attempted to salvage some agreement meeting with various world leaders (pressing China to come as a key player). But China’s negotiation team refused, secretly meeting with leaders from India, Brazil, and South Africa to negotiate on a non-binding agreement they could announce independent of the global community. The situation grew tense as world leaders realized no agreement could be reached without China’s participation. But in a dramatic moment, Obama salvaged some small measure of a deal, as John M. Broder reported the drama in the New York Times:
The deal eventually came together after a dramatic moment in which Mr. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton burst into a meeting of the Chinese, Indian and Brazilian leaders, according to senior administration officials. Mr. Obama said he did not want them negotiating in secret.
The intrusion led to new talks that cemented central terms of the deal, American officials said.
The deal was less than was expected going in, but it signified some small measure of progress:
Expected to be included in this agreement is a commitment by developed nations to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050, to create a finance mechanism to handle any agreement, to set a climate “mitigation target” of 2 degrees Celsius, to create a high-level panel to monitor carbon emissions, and to push for increased transparency in how they are being dealt with.
Like much of Obama’s presidency thus far, this deal is both a disappointment and the most significant effort to date to deal with an intractable policy and political problem.
*John M. Broder of the Times had a good piece on the obstacles the Senate was posing to climate change legislation as well as the measures the Democrats and Obama administration were taking to get around their sluggishness – including Pelosi pushing the legislation through the House and Obama’s EPA complying with the Supreme Court order and taking steps to regulate carbon.
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