Copenhagen: time to re-think? Or just keep thinking!

As thousands of negotiators, activists, diplomats, scientists, politicians and journalists start pouring into Copenhagen for the climate summit – formally said, the 15th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – the question has been raised whether we should want them to succeed or fail. Which, of course, begs the next question: what is success at Copenhagen?

So is Copenhagen not the time to seal a new climate deal after all? Is it time for a re-think? My own view is that it’s best never to stop thinking, then you don’t have to make the effort to start up again.

Calling for failure when failure is a given

James Hansen, who did more than any other individual 20 years ago to get the issue onto the world’s agenda, has said it would be better for the conference to fail. Anything it can achieve, he argues (Audio of Hansen\’s Guardian interview), will be so badly flawed as to be counter-productive – worse than useless. A very different kind of voice expresses a conclusion along the same lines: Bjørn Lomborg, director of the Copenhagen Consensus Centre and  author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, also argues that a fiasco in Copenhagen would be the best thing for the global climate.

First things first: the last minute opti-spin of politicians saying that a deal in Copenhagen is still possible and the urgent insistence of mass rallies that a new and ambitious climate treaty is necessary should not distract us from a simple but unpleasant recognition: compared to the original goal of getting agreement on a treaty to replace and improve upon the Kyoto Protocol, the Copenhagen gathering will indeed fail.

There will be a political deal at most. Some leaders, some commentators and some activists will say the deal is binding, which might be a moral truth but will be a legal fiction. Political commitments can be laid aside either because the issue is in the hands of a new government or just because it is convenient.

So Copenhagen is not the endpoint and both hopes and fears that it is are somewhat overblown; arguments for failure, therefore, are really arguments for continuing the discussion.

Hansen and Lomborg

Hansen and Lomborg have completely different positions and standings in the climate debate. Hansen is a heavyweight who insisted on energetically disseminating the conclusions of scientific research at a time when the world did not want to hear it and the weight of established scientific opinion was against him. Thirty or forty years ago, the settled view was that climates do not change quickly. That he succeeded in getting a proper hearing was the result of his dedication and determination to carry through on a major act of public service.

By contrast, Lomborg is a gadfly with a talent for getting publicity, who courts controversy, some of it around his ideas but much of it around his use of evidence, and who is often worth listening to because what he says is not all stupid.

Hansen has become more radical and in some ways more public in his views and his articulation of them; it is, apparently, the Bush administration in particular that pushed him towards more vocal and radical stances over climate policy. He believes that world leaders are wedded to preserving as much of “business as usual” as possible and that the emphasis on reducing CO2 emissions by carbon trading is bound to fail. Lomborg likewise argues that the current approach to mitigation is an expensive non-runner. Better, he says, to invest in adapting to climate change now and in long-term green energy technology.

Thus, there is both some compatibility and major divergences between the arguments that Hansen and Lomborg separately advance. From my perspective, Lomborg is too complacent about the need for mitigation but right about putting emphasis both on adaptation and on long-term green investment, while Hansen is right about mitigation and about the enormous risk of relying on carbon trading as a major instrument for reducing CO2 emissions, but strangely silent on adaptation.

But there is something else that they have in common with each other and with the dominant way in which climate issues are debated. There’s too much thinking in boxes.

The conflict and peace dimension – the reason for thinking outside the box

In some small circles, discussions about the right policy responses to climate change are slowly starting to acknowledge that they have to address the implications of climate change for conflict and security. It is now reasonably widely accepted, as International Alert argued in a report I co-authored two years ago that there is a subtle, complex and real linkage between climate change and conflict and that the knock-on consequences of climate change interact with other economic, political and social factors to increase the risk of violent conflict and political instability.

But this insight has not yet filtered into the design of the policy response. As exemplified in the build-up to Copenhagen, the issue is in the hands of climate experts (because it’s about climate) and lawyers (because it’s about a treaty) with some diplomats (because inter-state negotiations are unfolding), but not in the hands of experts in peacebuilding, development or governance – even though it’s about all those things too.

A new report from International Alert, Climate Change, Conflict and Fragility, was launched last week. In a way our sub-title says it all: Understanding the linkages, shaping effective responses. If we – the world – are unable to come up with policy responses that address the linkages between climate change, conflict, development, government, human rights, trade and the world economy – if we cannot find good and effective ways of addressing the linkages, then policy responses are going to fail.

Because the treaty that will not be agreed at Copenhagen treats the reduction of CO2 emissions and the tasks of adapting to unavoidable climate change as technical tasks that are not linked to other major problems of peace, development and the economy, I have a degree of sympathy with both James Hansen and Bjørn Lomborg in their calls for failure. At least, the non-securing of a treaty in Copenhagen makes it possible that when the treaty is finalised it will include some steps – or some articles in it that facilitate steps – towards dealing with these troublesome linkages.

There are five main recommendations in the International Alert report for shaping an effective response:

  1. Ensure that climate adaptation is conflict-sensitive.
  2. Likewise but on the other side of the coin, make sure peacebuilding is climate-proofed.
  3. Back that up by ensuring that shifts towards a low carbon economy are supportive of development and peace (no more egregious errors like the hasty shift into biofuels).
  4. Strengthen the capacity for risk management and information handling in developing countries.
  5. Support developing countries in preparing to cope peacefully with climate-induced increases in migration; here, as at other points in the necessary policies, what is required is readiness for social adaptation to the social challenges climate change may generate.

In addition the report argues that

  1. Institutions responsible for adapting to climate change, whether at local or national or regional or global level, must be structured and staffed in a way that reflects the specific challenges of the climate-conflict linkages, especially the need to respond to unforeseen events.
  2. National development strategies henceforth along with international development assistance must integrate peaceful adaptation to climate change into their planning and implementation.
  3. There is an urgent need for a large scale, comprehensive study of the likely costs of adaptation, including the social and political dimensions along with those economic sectors that have thus far been left out of the cost estimates.

Linkage, linkage, linkage

A masterly overview in the Daily Telegraph by Geoffrey Lean on 5th December showed how the debate on climate science has moved over two centuries and especially over the last two to three decades and outlined where the areas of dispute remain. The article appears in a conservative newspaper, a majority of whose readers according to surveys do not accept that global warming is happening, is anthropogenic and is generating climate change. That is exactly where such articles – thoughtful, open-minded, rigourous, calm and authoritative – need to be published. Next stop, Wall Street Journal.

But once the scientific argument is won so that the overwhelming majority understands that there is a problem and something both must and can be done about it, then there is the need to win the argument about what that “something” is.

And at that point two nasty but necessary thoughts occur:

Climate is not only a climate issue. So it needs to get out of the hands of the climate experts. Or, at least, out of their monopoly control. Climate is a social, economic and political issue as well as environmental. From now on, let us undertake to respect those linkages.

We have to persuade people to shape policy responses without knowing exactly what those responses have to be. Exactly how climate will change, at what speed, with precisely what impacts still remains uncertain. Multiply that uncertainty by a very large but unknown quantity and you start to gauge the piled-up uncertainty about the social and political consequences. So exactly what needs to be done is not clear. We have to explore and advocate at the same time. It is a new way of doing politics and a new way of advocacy for a problem the world has thus far shown that it does not know how to handle.

It would be surprising if new forms of politics and modes of advocacy were not required.

The arguments are not over and the issue is in no way at an endpoint. Consensus about what to do is even further way than consensus about the problem. Both are necessary. Whatever happens these next two weeks at Copenhagen, the main conclusion is we shall keep thinking and keep arguing.

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