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COP15 farce: There’s always more time, till there isn’t

by Stephen Hesse

Post-conference analysis of the Copenhagen COP15 has ranged from despair and disgust to guarded optimism that 2010 will bring a new and better agreement.

The truth is, Copenhagen was a circus of geopolitical bickering among self- absorbed leaders representing powerful and powerless nations, of politicians made ineffectual by corporate interests, of civil society groups being arrested and excluded, and of senseless process taking precedence over essential substance.

As one American climate campaigner, Ken Ward, observed, “An event that was to crown 10 years of international effort produced utterly useless language, unenthusiastically scrabbled together in hours by five out of 192 nations, and this . . . pathetic half-effort got exactly one day of our president’s time.”

At least Japan can say “Don’t blame us, we were willing to do our part.”

Not only did Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama pledge that Japan would reduce its emissions 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, putting Japan in line with the policies of European nations, but his administration agreed to provide ¥1.3 trillion to help developing nations reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and deal with the impacts of climate change.

Neither promise is sufficient in terms of the cuts and help needed, but at least Tokyo had the good sense to offer substantial commitments in good faith.

In the end it was not surprising that national leaders failed to put planetary health above politics, but it was disappointing. Just as when athletes gather for the Olympics, one hopes that world-class competition and the adrenaline of the moment will bring about nearly impossible feats of sportsmanship.

Sadly, in Copenhagen a team representing the world’s people turned in a performance that was as embarrassing to each individual as it was to the gathering as a whole.

The essential goal is simple. Greenhouse-gas emissions must be reduced dramatically and massive funding must be marshaled for mitigation and adaptation to the impacts of climate change that is already under way.

On both counts, government negotiators failed miserably.

There is no scientific doubt that climate change due in part or predominantly to human activities is occurring. However much fanatic nationalists, religious fundamentalists, and self-aggrandizing contrarians harangue to the contrary, our global, fossil-fuel-based economy is undermining the bio-geological stability of our planet.

Nevertheless, governments remain unwilling and unable to act.

The United States is shackled by oil and coal interests greedy for multibillion- dollar annual profits and a Chamber of Commerce that believes America and Americans are not capable of rising to the challenge of a new energy society.

China, with its centralized political system, could make tougher choices, but its juggernaut development is spurred on by more than a billion souls hungry for what Americans and Europeans have had for decades.

India faces the most challenging dynamic of all: the combination of a democratic political system and development needs that rival China’s.

As is so often the case on the international stage, national interests, political will, and environmental reality are nearly irreconcilable, and the decision-making machinery of the United Nations is barely up to the complex task of making the hard choices needed to deal with burgeoning populations, divergent political interests, and our steady degradation of the planet.

So what did Copengagen produce?

The Copenhagen Accord, drafted by five of the 193 nations present (Brazil, China, India, South Africa and the U.S.), is simply a political statement. It was not approved unanimously by the nations present, and thus is not a legally binding agreement.

The Accord states that our leaders have “strong political will to urgently combat climate change in accordance with the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” — meaning some nations are more to blame than others and some are more capable of action.

The drafters’ claim to “strong political will” is clearly not borne out in the rest of the document, nor in the meeting’s final outcome. Perhaps someone at the table had an ironic sense of humor.

The Accord further states that nations will “stabilize greenhouse-gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthro- pogenic interference with the climate system,” based on scientific consensus that any increase in “global temperature should be below 2 degrees Celsius.” Yet no specific cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions were noted or agreed to.

The Accord states, too, that developed countries will provide funding and investments to help vulnerable developing nations adapt to and mitigate climate change. How much is not clear, however, and the text simply calls for funds “approaching” $30 billion over the next three years.

The developed countries also promise further funding of “$100 billion a year by 2020,” but the source of these monies is unclear, and few if any of those sitting around that table will be in power 10 years from now. In contract law, this kind of language would be voided for vagueness.

The Accord also calls for a Copenhagen Green Climate Fund, a financial mechanism to support projects, programs and activities in developing nations, as well as monitoring progress reports.

The final paragraph mentions an assessment of the Accord’s implementation by 2015 — something we can hope is rendered unnecessary because long before that our leaders will have replaced the Copenhagen Accord with a coherent, binding agreement.

That agreement needs to be a science-based, long-term roadmap that picks up where the Kyoto Protocol leaves off, ensuring greenhouse-gas emission cuts of 80 percent by 2050 and guaranteeing massive funding for climate-change mitigation and adaptation.

No one ever said saving the planet would be easy.

In fact, what we really need is a transformation in human thinking.

We need a global commitment among all nations to take part in a worldwide transition to alternative, non-carbon- based energy generation.

We need to stop classifying nations as simply developing or developed, terms that are increasingly used for finger pointing and for hiding from planetary responsibility.

We need unprecedented political and economic cooperation led and financed by developed nations and burgeoning economies that are fueling production and consumption worldwide, especially China.

We need to ensure a long-term, sustainable balance between the health of our environment and the needs of human society, requiring that nations adopt a precautionary approach in dealing with the global impacts of human activity on the planet’s bio-geological ecosystems.

We need to stop seeing Beijing, Delhi, Tokyo or Washington as our only home and recognize that what our neighbors on the other side of the planet are doing will make or break our own children’s future.

Above all, we need to ensure that civil society has a meaningful role in all negotiations — and that politicians understand that “political will” means more than empty promises.

Is this too much to ask?

Stephen Hesse can be reached at stevehesse@hotmail.com