The city of Copenhagen is a crime scene tonight, with the guilty men and women fleeing to the airport,” said John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace UK, on Friday night. “There are no targets for carbon cuts and no agreement on a legally binding treaty.”
The guilty men included U.S. President Barack Obama and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva, who took the first planes out. Xie Zhenhua, the head of China’s delegation, lingered behind to declare that “The meeting has had a positive result, everyone should be happy.” But many people are unhappy, including most of the 130 presidents and prime ministers who showed up for the Copenhagen conference.
Their countries spent two weeks struggling unsuccessfully to bridge the gulf between the rich and the poor nations over who pays to fix the eminently fixable problem of global warming, but at least they were clear on the goal. They wanted a treaty that would hold the warming to a safe level (although they could not agree on what that level was). Most of them even wanted to make it legally enforceable.
The “Copenhagen Accord,” by contrast, was a drive-by shooting, agreed on in a few hours among the U.S., China, Brazil, India and South Africa. It contains no hard numbers for emissions cuts and no deadlines. Yet Barack Obama insisted that it was a “meaningful result,” because they had “agreed to set a mitigation target to limit warming to no more than 2C and, importantly, to take action to meet this objective.”
It’s easy to make fun of this stuff. Those wise and powerful men set a target of no more than 2 degrees C of warming — which is exactly the same target they declared at the G8/G20 summit last July. “Importantly,” they also agreed “to take action to meet this objective” — though they could not agree on what the action would be, or when they would decide on it.
For this, 192 countries spent two weeks negotiating at Copenhagen? Why bother? It was an utter waste of time. But why is anybody surprised? Even I knew that it was bound to end up like this.
Two weeks ago, I wrote: “The Copenhagen summit will certainly fail to deliver the right deal. The danger is that it will lock us into the wrong deal, and leave no political space for countries to go back and try to get it right later. Public opinion is climbing a steep learning curve, and the asymmetrical deal that cannot be sold politically today might be quite saleable in as little as a year or two.”
Well, Copenhagen certainly didn’t lock us into the wrong deal. The reason no deal was possible is that public opinion in the developed countries is still in denial about the fact that the final climate deal must be asymmetrical. Until the general public grasps that, especially in the United States, there will be no real progress.
Most Western leaders understand the history. For two centuries, the countries that are now “developed” got rich by burning fossil fuels. In the process they filled the atmosphere with their greenhouse-gas emissions, to the point where it now has little remaining capacity to absorb carbon dioxide without tipping us into disastrous heating.
This means that the rapidly developing countries like China, India, and Brazil will push the whole world into runaway warming if they follow the same historical path in growing their economies. Since they are relatively poor, however, they have been investing mainly in fossil fuels, just as the West did when it was starting to industrialize. A wide variety of alternatives is now available, but only at a higher price.
So how do we deal with this unfair history? The developed countries must cut their emissions deeply and fast, and give the developing countries enough money to cover the extra cost of growing their economies with the clean sources of energy that they must use instead of fossil fuels. That’s the deal, but most voters in the United States don’t understand it yet.
That’s why Barack Obama couldn’t promise to cut American emissions to 20 or 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, as most other industrial countries were offering to do. Instead, he could only offer a paltry 4 percent — and he couldn’t even guarantee that.
His most visible problem is the U.S. Senate, a body whose constitutional role is to delay change. The Senate has become more corrupt in recent decades because of the almost unlimited spending power of special interest groups, but an uncorrupted Senate would not pass drastic climate legislation, either. Like Obama himself, it cannot risk getting too far ahead of the American public.
Until Americans start to take climate change seriously, Obama will not be able to move. It is politically impossible for the Chinese to make concrete commitments until the Americans do. We will just have to wait until they get there.
Each year in which we don’t reach an adequate global climate deal is probably costing on the order of 50 million extra premature deaths between now and the end of the century, but that’s just the current tariff. By 2015 the annual cost in lives of further delay will be going up steeply. Time is not on our side. •
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.