It’s official. A new treaty on mitigating and adapting to climate change will not be agreed at the Copenhagen conference in December. So now we have to mitigate the impact of that failure and at the same time adapt to it.
There’s undoubtedly a whole lot to be said about what has happened, why and what is the way forward. And it needs to be said and knocked back and forth so that we move on in better shape. Those who have been close to the process need to sort out what they think and articulate it so conclusions can be weighed and lessons learned. For myself, a distant observer, I have three points to make under each of those three headings – what, why and looking ahead.
1. Even a few months ago, expectations were not being massaged this low. What was being mooted was a framework agreement, an initial agreement just leaving some details to sort out. Perhaps to carry on with the negotiating slog you have to ignore the increasingly unfavourable political environment and the mountain ranges of disagreement, uncertainty and misunderstanding that have to be climbed, and simply maintain a degree of wilful optimism. But if we are to know where we stand, we need to agree on one thing at least: this is bad. It is not a zero point but there is a huge amount of work to do.
Even coming to a politically binding agreement in Copenhagen, which is the height of today’s vestigial ambitions, is itself a huge task. The risk is that to get political agreement, the outcome from Copenhagen will be a series of fudges and compromises that can be spun in any direction by the principals, so that all the old terrain of 2009 will have to be traversed again next year in the lead-up to the next Conference of Parties (COP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, due in Mexico City in December 2010.
In other words, a cosmetic agreement in Copenhagen may do more harm than good. But a complete absence of agreement will be even worse.
2. But can somebody tell me what a politically binding agreement is? I think it’s an agreement politicians come to. Looking for examples of agreements and commitments made and broken by politicians, I came across so many I turned to Wikpedia, which laconically notes, ‘There are strong pressures on politicians to make promises which they cannot keep.’
3. So agreement at Mexico City is not in the bag. It is all very well for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to declare that the climate issue is so urgent that the world cannot wait a year for agreement but the sad fact is that, seen in today’s perspective, it is going to take a lot of work to get agreement in one year’s time at the Mexico City COP. Neither the content of a political agreement at Copenhagen nor its durability can be taken for granted.
The likelihood of fudge and spin at and after Copenhagen leads to a fairly simple equation:
- the better and more far-reaching that the terms of an agreement in Copenhagen are, the less durable the agreement will be;
- contrariwise, the more durable it is, the emptier it will be.
Finding the right balance is going to be horribly difficult.
Why it happened
Everybody will have their theory; as indicated above, I have three for today:
1. The idiocy of the Bush administration: ’nuff said – always good to blame the Bushies and they were a genuine obstacle on the road to agreement. If the world’s biggest carbon emitter would not join in, there was no hope of an agreement.
2. There was a lot of hiding behind the idiocy of the Bush administration. The extent of the Bushies lack of intelligence, competence and integrity on the issue of climate change masked a whole lot of other problems. These include
- the genuine complexity of negotiating a new climate agreement – a jig-saw puzzle whose entirety is understood by hardly any (if any at all) of the negotiators;
- the reluctance of other leading players to step up, including not only China and India but also many EU states as recent negotiations have shown;
- the divisions between many participants – there is no unified negotiating bloc to be found anywhere;
- the contrast between the focus in the rich world on mitigation and the focus in the developing world on adaptation, which permits a political bargain to be struck, subject to detailed terms being worked out, but makes an inclusive legally binding treaty a much tougher prospect.
3. As a result, there is an incentive to be negative. We have arrived at a situation where those who wish to have no treaty can impose a high price for their reluctant and provisional acquiescence. It is a common situation in negotiations and, for example, consistently bedevils peace settlements. But with the climate change negotiations, there are so many negative voices and votes, competing with each other to get the best inducement for signing up, that a perverse incentive has emerged, in which even those who most genuinely want or need a treaty are tempted to meet their interests by playing a blocking game.
Playing your cards close to your chest is standard negotiating tactics; threatening to tip the table over is reserved for crunch moments in high stakes games; right now, half the key players seem to be actually walking out or tempted by it. Easy to sympathise with from a human point of view, and an understandable negotiating tactic, it is self-defeating when it becomes a trend.
And the way forward
Once again, three thoughts, in the expectation that there are many more to get out into open discussion:
1. The arguments still need to be won. And they need to be won in a way that breaks down the political polarisation surrounding the issue – most notably but not exclusively in the US – and that gets away from the pseudo-religious air that surrounds it. In other words, further re-articulation is needed of the dispassionate and scientific arguments that show that climate change is happening, and which permit of the actual uncertainty that surrounds the science of climate change, let alone our understanding of the social consequences, and allow people to explore the dimensions of likely change and relate it to their own core concerns both in and outside of politics.
This is a bad time to be making that sort of argument in the UK. A court judgement here has just equated concern about one’s carbon footprint with religious belief,* which is a genuine step in the wrong direction. The aura of religion and belief around environmental issues has long obstructed a clear understanding of them, and the work of zealots tempted into a modern secular equivalent of a medieval religious fanatic’s hair shirt has been a definitive turn-off for many who would otherwise be interested. Meantime, the government has just sacked a scientific adviser whose advice on drugs it didn’t like.
So there are strong odds against getting the tone of the discussion right. We need to persist in trying.
For some, a properly balanced case on the increase in risk of conflict and insecurity as a knock-on consequence of climate change may offer a route away from the personalised politics of individual environmentalism, which I think leads into the zone of quasi-religious fervour, and a route into facing up to how to manage and mitigate natural, economic, social and political risk.
2. Sort out the adaptation issue. Money – huge amounts – see earlier posts on this – money needs to be put on the table to get an agreement. But how adaptation is done is going to be as important as how much money is spent on it. The fine details matters at least as much as the big picture. If that issue can be got across, it could even be the case that deferring from Copenhagen to Mexico City would offer some benefit to set against the cost of one year’s delay.
3. Don’t stop negotiating. Obvious really but taking the foot off the gas right now (sorry, wrong metaphor) would be a perilous mistake.
* An employee refused to take a flight to pick up his boss’s Blackberry because it was against his principles to enlarge his carbon footprint needlessly. He was sacked. He is suing for unfair dismissal. The court judgement says he can sue on the same basis as if the boss had asked him to do something against his religious beliefs. I would have thought that a better defence is that his boss was an absent-minded git who would benefit by having to live without his Crackberry for a couple of days.