Maybe Copenhagen should fail

Simon Jackson on the need to get a grip at Copenhagen.

One week down, one week to go. No deal in sight.

The much-anticipated UN summit on climate change is underway in Copenhagen, with 192 countries engaged in top-level debate, seeking a global consensus. 

While the conference has yielded some positive news, it has also, sadly, done far more to underscore the deep divide between rich and poor nations, and the complex domestic political agendas that, taken together, provide massive obstacles to success.

Certainly not helping the discourse is the so-called climategate scandal — the stolen emails from a select group of UN-backed scientists, which suggest that some of the data that was used to prove global warming exists was altered to enhance the case for action.

Though the emails have largely been taken out of context and represent conversations based on debates that occurred 10 years ago — long before science without political steroids proved the case for global warming — the scandal is increasingly taking up oxygen at Copenhagen and robbing negotiators of precious political capital.

Welcome world. Copenhagen's interactive globe, one symbol of the climate change summit. (Cristian Charisius/Reuters)

Many politicians did their best to lower expectations for this summit, in order to under-promise and so, possibly, over-deliver for their constituents back home.

But that didn't stop hope from taking hold, hope at least for a comprehensive political agreement that might set the table for a toothier international treaty to try to keep global temperatures from rising.

The question at this point: Is that hope misplaced?

Pledge time

In the days leading up to the summit, China and India, two of the world's fastest growing economies and largest carbon emitters, pledged to uphold their end of the bargain.

China even seemed to have desires to transform itself into a green-technology superpower.

More importantly, perhaps, the U.S. led off the proceedings with a pledge to tackle climate change even without the support of Congress, which could be the Harper government's worst nightmare.

Personally, I don't buy this but I think many people feel the Tories only pledged to follow U.S. climate policy because they never believed the White House would get the changes it sought past a more reluctant Congress.

But by directing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to designate greenhouse gases as dangerous pollutants, the Obama administration looks to be able to force carbon reduction without the need for any great legislative action.

Letting the air out

Going into this conference, there was even more good news for climate-concerned Canadians.

Federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice clarified that Canada's position was to impose a hard cap on emissions, not the weaker intensity targets that would have allowed for overall emissions to increase.

Even Stephen Harper, whose support for the Kyoto deal was, well, never mind, said in Shanghai last week, "the world needs a climate-change deal" and that he was hopeful something concrete would emerge from Copenhagen. 

Yet at the halfway mark, the goodwill appears to have evaporated.

What was supposed to be an internal, Denmark-written discussion paper amongst a few select countries was leaked to the entire plenary and unearthed the root problem of the Copenhagen talks by suggesting, in essence, that the Kyoto Protocol be abandoned in full, rather than renewed.

Delegates talk to each other prior to a plenary session at the UN Climate summit in Copenhagen, Denmarkon Friday, Dec. 11, 2009. (Anja Niedringhaus/Associated Press)

For many countries, this was seen as shorthand for foregoing the key Kyoto pillar, which called on wealthy nations to reduce their emissions while offering financial assistance to those poor nations that have contributed so much less to the atmospheric problem in the past.

Without Kyoto-like terms in any Copenhagen agreement, developing nations fear that hard emission caps for them would create an unfair burden and limit their ability to pull themselves out of poverty.

At the same time, the leaked Danish white paper also managed to anger the Chinese, who felt the call for international authentication of carbon emissions would impinge on Beijing's sovereignty.

While Barack Obama gets credit for bringing Washington to the table, his less-than-bold climate plan looks to be creating a limbo effect at Copenhagen where many emerging economies, on principle, are watering down their targets so as to be proportionally less than those proposed by America.

Small-step time

This rich-poor mistrust and lack of common ground at Copenhagen in week one has been compounded by domestic politics and the left-right divide in countries like the U.S. and Canada where important regional barriers remain. 

All of this has led some environmental activists and even James Hansen, the leading climatologist at NASA, to argue that the best possible outcome at this point might be for the talks to fail to reach even a political agreement.

Their fear is that a watered-down compromise would produce only a treaty of minimum targets that, rather than acting as a good first step, would end up becoming all there is.

They are also concerned that if Copenhagen produces only a celebratory united front without a concrete plan for implementation or enforcement (hello Kyoto), then the public will become permanently disengaged and that would sap all political will for improving on what should be seen as a good first step.

It is a valid argument. Especially when the concepts of asymmetrical balance and innovative thinking seem to have become lost in the hubbub around Copenhagen.

Though it's tempting to blame politics and politicians for this mess, we probably all have to share in it.

We have let a simple scientific issue become hijacked by special interests and grow like topsy to the point that summits like Copenhagen have now become forums for everything from the merits of socialist economies to Third World development and the reliability of scientific research.

While the majority of the world — including more than two-thirds of Canadians — believes climate change is real and requires decisive action, most people don't know what decisive action on climate change really means and what it equates to on an individual level.

And maybe that is what we have to get back to — the baby step of what can I do or what can we do as Canadians to make a difference.

Otherwise, we are left at the mercy of too many overpowering agendas and highly politicized messaging, which can create support for a cause but without any real way of achieving it.