Adapting to failure in Copenhagen

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.

What happened

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.

3 thoughts on “Adapting to failure in Copenhagen

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Adapting to failure in Copenhagen « Dan Smith's blog --

  2. I’m not sure I’d read it as pessimistically as you do. To me, this isn’t a lowering of expectations, this is the high-level agreement that was being talked about a few months ago – to my mind, this is a media issue and the press have chosen to present it as failure. A ratifiable treaty at Copenhagen has not been a realistic outcome since the first negotiating text was put together, we’ve all known that, but now the media does too.

    So what is a political agreement? It doesn’t have to be a woolly statement of intent or a nicely worded communiqué. A political agreement can still be a COP Decision, which in itself is legally binding (well, as binding as international law can be, but that’s an issue for another time). It can still have just as much bite as a new Treaty.

    So the question is, what can we agree at Copenhagen? What can we bank and what do we need?
    And what happens next? Does Mexico City have to be the next milestone? I don’t think so – a subsequent treaty could be agreed sooner.

    Some thoughts…
    To me, this is an issue of timing – the pieces are there: re-engagement of the US, positive moves by leading developing countries (not least Brazil today, high level political interest and reputations on the line…

    However, US negotiators have learnt their lesson and are determined not to get ahead of Congress on this one – unfortunately that means we’re not in a position to have nailed down all the details in Copenhagen (in many ways, this is a far better position than we were at Kyoto – where we ended up with a deal that wasn’t ratifiable).

    Annex 1 KP Parties are not willing to sign up to a new commitment period under the KP (or a Copenhagen Protocol) until the US makes a clear pledge. Non-Annex 1 countries refuse to engage constructively on the rest of the issues until the numbers are resolved (the Africa group demonstrated this frustration by somewhat misguidedly stalling KP discussions at Barcelona).

    Yes, the rest of the pieces (finance, developing country actions) need to be in place, but ultimately we won’t be able to get a new Treaty until the US can take the unblocking step (i.e. Congress passes a Bill).

    Putting aside the question of whether or not Congress will actually get a Bill (I’m still perhaps irrationally positive about that), if the US can’t get ahead of Congress, and Congress won’t deliver anything before December, then what can we get at Copenhagen? Even if we do get a number, I doubt it will be ambitious enough.

    But does that matter? The value of getting the US into a deal, even with low ambition (or ambition not agreed at Copenhagen), should not be underestimated. Once they’ve actually started taking action, I’m confident that they’ll see that it’s actually not as costly or difficult as they first thought – similar to the EU’s experience – and could be the key to a stronger US offer in future.

    The US wants a deal – not least because it is in their interests to sign up to a deal now as over time, the balance of power will continue to shift Eastwards. So I think it is possible that we can get the key elements of a Treaty in place at Copenhagen (e.g. architecture, compliance mechanisms, use of mechanisms), in a way that State Department can present to Congress as a US victory, then we’re in with a chance. I hate to make this whole negotiation so US-centric, but it’s probably the key dynamic at the moment.

    That’s an overly simplified take and they are plenty of other issues that need to be resolved (not least adaptation finance, and will anyone sign up to anything without numbers) – but I for one am confident that the pieces are there for a decent political agreement at Copenhagen and that we could agree a treaty in the months following. Regardless of the inevitable post-Copenhagen spin, there’s the potential for this to be a real turning point, even if it’s not the one we expect. To get there, it will take the continued efforts of negotiators, political bravery and a little bit of good fortune. But perhaps most of all, it will take optimism, positive energy and a desire to find workable solutions.

  3. A very good article and a very good response. I only really have questions to offer, with the first one being if the US is the problem, and without them a deal of some kind would be reached by the other countries round the table why don’t they (the US) step aside / get moved aside by the others? This exact premise was raised in Bali 2 years ago. It would be highly embarrassing for the Obama administration, but if the end result is that most countries everywhere become committed to action, wouldn’t it be worth it?

    My second question concerns the scope of Copenhagen. Copenhagen is looking to secure a deal on reducing carbon emissions, and other carbon-related issues that come into play (eg deforestation), but no-one ever mentions the ever increasing population of the world. A lot of the world’s problems are coming directly from this, including the fact that more carbon emissions are required to maintain power and heat levels for more people (essentially increased demand for finite resources). When will this (overpopulation) be bought to the table?

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