Why Copenhagen will fail

“This is about saving the future of our species.”

These words were uttered by Barack Obama only a few months ago at a press conference on the upcoming climate conference in Copenhagen, and the whole world over breathed a collective intake of expectation on hearing them. If America is onside, they thought, then everyone else will fall into line; China, India, Australasia.

But things are not, it would seem, quite as rosy as some would have us believe.

Lars Løkke Rasmussen, the Danish Prime Minister, is reported to have lowered his expectations for the conference. The organisers of Copenhagen have admitted last weekend that they no longer have any hope that the summit will be able to formulate a final legally binding agreement; the hope now, being spearheaded by Rasmussen as conference host, is that global leaders will be able to reach a “political deal” now which can be followed by a legal one at a later stage. The only questions remaining are just how “political” this deal will be and how soon the legal one will follow.

The date in everyone’s mind is 1 January 2013, the day the Kyoto protocol expires. From than point onwards, there will be no legally binding limits placed on countries globally on greenhouse gas emissions; all carbon trading deals currently in operation will be null and void, and any incentives to cut emissions will quickly dry up.

That date is just a little over three years away. Given that the Kyoto protocol took over seven years after signing to become a legally binding international agreement, anything signed by governments next year may not be ratified in time by the requisite number of states.

The Danish Prime Minister, remarking at a meeting in Singapore of Asian leaders, said that the pragmatic approach was to focus on “specific commitments and begin to bind countries to meet certain targets by certain dates”. He went on to say that the figures were needed, as was the action; his climate minister, Connie Hedegaard, agreed. Cynics are pointing to the politics of Mr Rasmussen’s right-of-centre party, Venstre, and their lacklustre attempts to tackle their own carbon emissions thus far.

For me, pragmatism is not enough. Nor is that other fashionable word “consensus.”

To me consensus seems to be the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies in search of something in which no one believes, but to which no one objects — the process of avoiding the very issues that have to be solved, merely because you cannot get agreement on the way ahead. What great cause would have been fought and won under the banner “I stand for consensus”?

It is on the issue of consensus to which we return to President Barack Obama. Thought to be reluctant to have to renegade on promises that Congress will not let him keep – as Al Gore had to on Kyoto in 1997 as Vice President, he wants all climate change bills currently before Congress to pass before he makes any firm pledges either way. There is no possible chance that this will happen before Copenhagen.

Asiatic leaders, including the influential President Hu Jintao of China, have insisted that neither they nor their countries will commit to reductions in carbon emissions until the US is fully committed to cutting theirs. This was reported in newspapers the world over with a variety of different headlines, but one of the most cutting was in Le Monde and simply read “le lion se réveille”. If Obama can get a bill through Congress, then the international deal that now looks thoroughly stalled will remain strikingly doable next year. For the pessimists, it seems as if climate talks just ran out of time.


Humans do have an amazing capacity for believing what they choose and excluding that which is painful

5 thoughts on “Why Copenhagen will fail

  1. Pingback: Clothing controversy « Tommy Gilchrist's Blog

  2. The only defense I can come up with for the man is that the actions which he will take are likely to be far more progressive than a President McCain would have.

    There is no excuse for inaction, yet the last progressive person to tell the American public what to do to help the planet was voted out of office in favor of the most environmentally regressive president of the 20th century.

    I really hope this is a plot to lower global expectations for the conference, then something positive happens in the end…but only time will tell.

    -Adam E.


  3. Strong words indeed.

    I reckon nothing is viable for the US until a climate bill goes through Senate. I do feel that we are losing time though. Many island nations are already suffering from rising sea levels.

    One thing is for sure, my eyes will be on Copenhagen Dec.7.

    Hope for the best.



  4. Re: your comments on consensus.

    Consensus is a prerequisite for making policy from science, or indeed any evidence base, about which you do not have personal competence. All previous environmental action, on lead or CFCs or sulphur dioxide has been made using the overwhelming consensus on their effects.

    It is true ‘I stand for the consensus’ is not a dramatic narrative, but science and narrative do not comfortably mix. Andrew Wakefield’s renegade status didn’t make him any less wrong, and didn’t make the resultant unscientific advocacy any less damaging. I’d always prefer my public policy correct and boring than dramatic and wrong. Although that might not extend to everyday life…


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