03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Lessons From Denmark

Will Copenhagen's near collapse and half-hearted outcome help or hinder the effort to repair our climate? As a Danish prince once said, that is the question, but we won't know the answer for a while. Was the Copenhagen Accord strong enough to start a virtuous cycle of nations upping their clean-energy commitments? Or, will the profound distrust that brought this conference to the brink of disaster remain the dominant motif of international climate diplomacy? Will the initial pledges of financing for climate solutions in the world's poorest nations translate into ongoing, creative, and reliable financing for climate justice? It will be months, perhaps years, before we find out.

But there are important, if more modest, lessons that we can learn from Copenhagen. Here are my six major takeaways.

U.S. Leadership Is Still Essential

One missing ingredient would have done more than any other to make Copenhagen successful: an ambitious, credible U.S. carbon-reduction target. Yet that's the one tool that obstructionism in the U.S. Senate completely denied to President Obama. As a result, the more ambitious a goal he offered, the less plausible it seemed that he could deliver on it. And although President Obama played this very weak hand with tremendous intensity, he still wasn't able to carry the day in the way that was needed.

The angry and disappointed  reaction to President Obama's speech at the conference illustrates both how central and critical U.S. leadership remains and how weak the President's hand still is because Congress and the country have not yet bought in.

We have to accelerate the transformation of the American economy and the politics of energy and climate -- and the Republican Party's obstructionist strategies in the Senate must begin to carry a price.

Distrust Must Be Overcome

The striking and hopeful thing about the speeches given by the leaders of the major carbon-emitting nations was the firmness with which almost all of them reiterated their unilateral commitment to making significant, if inadequate, cuts in emissions. Not only the U.S., Europe, China, and India but also virtually every other nation that is a significant source of emissions promised to act. Equally striking (but depressing) was their unwillingness or inability to transform these individual intentions into a robust collective response.

The most insightful part of President Obama's weak speech was in its second paragraph:

For while the reality of climate change is not in doubt, I have to be honest, I think our ability to take collective action is in doubt right now and it hangs in the balance.

Every observer commented on this toxic distrust -- and how it made agreement on even the most basic aspects of the negotiations impossible. This distrust is rooted in decades of broken promises by all sides, but
eight years of Bush administration unilateralism has raised it to new
heights. President Obama's election was not a magic antidote -- and his
administration was inadequately prepared for that reality.

Perhaps the most eloquent speaker on this topic was Brazil's President Lula da Silva, who said that Copenhagen frustrated him because it reminded him of his experiences as a labor negotiator. (Lula was the one major leader who broke new ground and made new promises. One reason for the negative reaction to President Obama's speech was that it followed Lula's extraordinarily generous intervention.)

The next round of negotiations must focus like a laser on solving the problem of distrust.

Big Oil Poisoned the Process

The third most significant factor that led to failure -- after the weak U.S. commitment and the accumulated distrust -- was procedural. COP 15 worked (or, more precisely, didn't work) by consensus. That's not the UN norm. Although super-majorities are common in UN processes, even in the Security Council only the major powers have vetoes. The one exception is climate negotiations.

Observers here spent two frustrating days watching inaction while Tuvalu made its (valid) point. At the end of the conference, efforts to make simple changes to strengthen the final accord were blocked by a tiny group of states led by Venezuela and Sudan.

This is not accidental. At the beginning of the Copenhagen conference, an effort was made, once again, to establish normal procedural rules for the conference, including a three-quarters super-majority requirement. Saudi Arabia blocked it -- as it has from the very beginning.

The Saudis also blocked efforts to establish voting rules because they know that, without them, climate negotiations cannot yield a strong result. Don Pearlman, a former Reagan administration official working at the law firm of Patton Boggs and representing the oil industry-funded Climate Council, appears to have originated this strategy. The poison pill that he and the oil industry planted at the beginning of the UN's climate-negotiation process bore its bitter fruit in the dark winter days of Copenhagen.

Nations Still Think Locally Instead of Globally

There were numerous commentaries on the diplomatic snafus, particularly between the U.S. and China. Clearly there was a power struggle going on -- but there is also plenty of evidence that the Chinese were genuinely offended that, after China had privately offered to commit to a significant reduction in its carbon intensity, the U.S. delegation in Copenhagen continued to message as though China were an adversary. This messaging, of course, was aimed at the U.S. Congress and at Americans worried about China's economic dominance in the manufacturing sector.

Other nations had their own domestic special interests to worry about. India, like the U.S., is almost certainly confident that its emission reductions will be greater than its pledges -- but to say so would reveal that the Manmohan Singh government intends major reforms in India's energy policies, and there are powerful domestic interests that would begin mobilizing against change if Singh were to tip his hand. China had to maintain, above all, the sense that it had not permitted the U.S. to treat it as less than a full partner -- so each U.S. message intended for domestic consumption had to be matched by a Chinese countermove.

We Need to Start the Virtuous Cycles

Still, when the negotiators actually weren't constrained by domestic politics, as in the case of tropical forests, they made real progress. If an overall climate structure had come together, a critical forest-protection plan going by the acronym REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) was negotiated, agreed to, and ready to go. The U.S. even made its first major commitment to fund it, with a billion-dollar offer from Agriculture Secretary Vilsack. But with nothing in Copenhagen that it could be attached to, REDD was shelved.

A source of hope is that once nations start on a low-carbon pathway, it becomes self-reinforcing.It's getting started on the pathway that's hard -- not speeding up once you're on it. So the key is for all the major carbon-emitting nations to begin building their clean-energy sectors as quickly as possible -- the first gigaton of carbon savings is the hardest. If the U.S. had a larger renewable industry and smaller coal and oil
industries, the politics of accelerating our transition to clean energy
would be very different.

Pick the Low-Hanging Fruit

In conflict diplomacy there's a well-established approach to these kinds of collective-action problems based on distrust: Find some low-risk, win-win steps that will enable all parties to show good faith, and start doing them quickly.Fortunately, climate diplomacy has an extraordinary number of such opportunities. Two have already been agreed to. Ending deforestation by implementing REDD would be an enormous confidence booster. And President Obama's success in getting the G20 to agree to phase out subsidies for fossil fuels was a tremendous second step. But other such opportunities got no serious attention in Copenhagen. A serious effort to curb the short-term climate forcers -- methane, black carbon (soot), and the so-called H gases -- is one. A massive commitment to light the world's off-grid villages with distributed solar power (at less than the cost of the kerosene they currently use) is another. Shifting the world's energy-aid programs from expensive coal plants to cheap energy-performance improvements is a third.

If the Copenhagen Accord is to serve as the basis for something more robust and meaningful -- something that builds on individual national commitments to create a collective, global transformation -- then we need to take these easy steps and demonstrate that we all, truly, are beginning to understand that a low-carbon future is in our own best interest.