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What Really Happened in Copenhagen?

Detailed accounts from participants in the recent Copenhagen climate summit are still coming in, but a few things are already quite clear, even as countries step up the blame game in response to the summit’s disappointing conclusion.

First, the 2 1/2 pages of diplomatic blather that the participating countries ultimately consented to “take note” of are completely self-contradictory, and commit no one to any specific actions to address the global climate crisis. There isn’t even a plan for moving UN-level negotiations forward. Friends of the Earth correctly described it as a “sham agreement,” British columnist George Monbiot called it an exercise in “saving face,” and former neoliberal shock doctor-turned-environmentalist Jeffrey Sachs termed it a farce. Long-time UN observer Martin Khor has pointed out that for a UN body to “take note” of a document means that not only was it not formally adopted, but it was not even “welcomed,” a common UN practice.

Second, the global divide between rich and poor has never been clearer, and those countries where people are already experiencing the droughts, floods, and the melting of glaciers that provide a vital source of freshwater expect to find themselves in increasingly desperate straits as the full effects of climate disruptions begin to emerge. Not to mention the small island nations that face near-certain annihilation as melting ice sheets bring rising seas, along with infiltrations of seawater into their scarce fresh water supplies. Especially despicable was the changing role of the governments of the rapidly developing “BASIC” countries (Brazil, South Africa, India and China), who claim to speak for the poor – in their own countries and around the world – when it is convenient, but mainly seek to protect the expanding riches of their own well-entrenched elites.

Third, even the meager and contradictory progress of the past 17 years of global climate talks is now at risk, as is the flawed but relatively open and inclusive UN process. After the 2007 climate summit in Bali, Indonesia, the Bush administration tried to initiate an alternate track of negotiations on climate policy that involved only a select handful of the more compliant countries. That strategy failed, partly because its figurehead was George Bush. Now that the Obama administration has adopted essentially the same approach, with the full collaboration of the “BASICs,” the utterly substanceless “Copenhagen Accord” can be seen as this coercive strategy’s first diplomatic success.

As I wrote just as the Copenhagen meeting was getting underway (see my “Repackaging Copenhagen,” posted in early December), the US had planned for some months to attempt to replace the quaint notion of a comprehensive global climate agreement with a patchwork of informal, individual country commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and undertake other appropriate measures. If the Copenhagen document means anything at all, it establishes that process as a new global norm for implementing climate policy. Nothing is binding, and everything is voluntary, only to be “assessed” informally after another five years have passed. (Pages 4 and 5 of the “accord” actually consist of a pair of high school-caliber charts where countries are free to simply write in their voluntary emissions targets and other mitigation actions, nominally by the end of January.)

The document was hammered out in a back room, WTO-style. It hedges all the important issues, and appends loopholes and contradictions to every substantive point that it pretends to make. While discussions will nominally continue under the two UN negotiating tracks established 2 years ago in Bali, the “accord” provides a justification for leading countries in the process—which Bill McKibben has termed the “league of superpolluters,” plus a few wannabes—to continue subverting and undermining those discussions in the name of a more efficient and streamlined process to continue business as usual for the benefit of the world’s elites.

As some have pointed out, it could have been worse. A useless non-agreement may be better than a coercive agreement that entrenches insufficient targets and destructive policy measures, such as expanding carbon markets. But the potential loss of an accountable UN process could prove to be an even worse outcome than that. The US, of course, has always tried to undermine the United Nations when it couldn’t overtly control it, but replacing the processes established under the 1992 UN climate convention with a cash-for-compliance, anything-goes circus that more closely mirrors the World Trade Organization’s discredited mechanisms doesn’t bode at all well for the future.

Did anything positive happen in Copenhagen? For climate justice activists around the world, Copenhagen may have been a long-sought Seattle moment. It was a unique opportunity for activists and NGO representatives from around the world to gather, forge personal ties, and begin raising the global profile of an essential climate justice agenda. Independent journalists, most notably Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now team, helped amplify the voices best able to explain how climate disruptions are no longer an abstract scientific issue, but one that is already impacting the lives of those least able to cope. Even the mainstream US press featured some notable stories of people around the world who are struggling to live with the effects of climate chaos. More than ever before, people are coming to understand that the only meaningful solution to the climate crisis is to “leave the oil in the soil, the coal in the hole, and the tar sands in the land,” following the slogan raised by campaigners against oil drilling in Ecuador’s endangered Yasuni National Park.

It was also a pivotal moment for the ALBA countries of Latin America—most notably Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Venezuela—which continued to the very end to stand up to intimidation from the US and other powerful countries, and refused to buckle under last-minute pressure to approve the vapid and destructive “Copenhagen Accord” as an agreement of the assembled nations. This is in stark contrast to the role of the European Union, which once stood for a strong worldwide agreement on greenhouse gas emissions, but has now fallen in line with the disruptive strategies of the US. Another positive income is that there was no new bone thrown to the world’s financial elites, who were banking on a Copenhagen agreement to help inflate their artificial market in tradable carbon allowances. Carbon prices in Europe have begun to decline, which may help prevent the enshrinement of carbon markets (so-called “cap and trade”) as the primary instrument of climate policy in the United States.

So now the struggle returns to the national and local levels, where people may be best able to create examples of just and effective ways to address the climate crisis. There is no shortage of positive, forward-looking approaches to reducing excess consumption and furthering the development of alternative energy sources, especially ones that can be democratically controlled by communities and not corporations. But the power of positive examples is far from sufficient to address the crucial problem of time. A few years ago, climate experts shocked the world by saying we had less than ten years to reverse course and do something to prevent irreversible tipping points in the global climate system. The disastrous outcome of the Copenhagen conference makes it harder than ever to feel confident that it isn’t too late.

BRIAN TOKAR is the Director of the Vermont-based Institute for Social Ecology. His books include Earth for Sale, Redesigning Life? and the forthcoming collection (co-edited with Fred Magdoff), Crisis in Food and Agriculture: Conflict, Resistance and Renewal (Monthly Review Press).

 

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Brian Tokar is the director of the Institute for Social Ecology and a lecturer in environmental studies at the University of Vermont. A newly revised and expanded edition of Brian Tokar’s Toward Climate Justice, has just been issued by the New Compass Press. 

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