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.
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.
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