11/26/2013 06:39 pm ET Updated Jan 26, 2014

Warsaw: The Collapse of Solidarity

It is ironic that Poland, a nation rescued from Russian domination by the workers movement Solidarity, should have presided over the nadir of global solidarity around climate issues. That's the core message I take from the grinding theatrics surrounding this year's UN Climate Conference.

It didn't seem inevitable. Just as the Warsaw conference gathered, Typhoon Haiyan slammed into the Philippines, turning Tacloban and other neighboring areas into an unprecedented death trap where more than 10,000 people died. The Philippine delegation clearly hoped that the juxtaposition of the tragedy with the COP would inspire solidarity, particularly around funding of efforts to help poor nations cope with the "loss and damage" resulting from climate chaos. Delegation chief Naderev "Yeb" Saño called on the conference to "end this climate crisis madness."

To drive home his point Saño went on a hunger strike, which was rapidly joined by interfaith groups and such environmental delegations as members of the Sierra Student Coalition.

But as the conference rolled on it became clear that even 10,000 deaths in a place most delegates could not pronounce was too small a tragedy to reunite the flame of collaboration -- particularly with no leadership from the host. Poland, Europe's die-hard hold-out for coal, bizarrely slotted an inappropriate World Coal Congress alongside the climate negotiations, and then fired its Environment Minister in the middle of the gathering.

The move led to a stinging series of rebuffs for the black rock:

1. UNFCC Chair Christiana Figueres appeared at the coal event and delivered a surprisingly stern message -- that future reliance on coal is dependent upon capturing and safely storing its carbon dioxide, and that most of it must remain in the ground. "Coal must change rapidly and dramatically for everyone's sake."

2. Great Britain joined the United States, the World Bank, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in declaring that, except in exceptional circumstances, its aid and global finance agencies would no longer support coal.

3. Norwegian political parties and fund managers continued to move aggressively towards divesting entirely from coal.

4. And U.S. Climate negotiator Todd Stern used Barack Obama's continued pledge to continue reducing U.S. carbon emissions through new clean air standards to show that the U.S. was no longer the world's climate scofflaw.

But, at the same time, new data showed that coal continued its dominance of energy growth, with India's coal emissions, for example, increasing by 10 percent in the last year.

Poland's coal bias was not the only force hampering Warsaw. The fruits of terrifying environmental blunders and some toxic elections haunted the gathering from the beginning. Japan -- citing its decision to shut down its nuclear plants after the Fukushima disaster from which it is still not home free -- abandoned its previous pledge to cut emissions by 25 percent, defaulting to a miniscule 3.8 percent goal. "I don't have any words to describe my dismay," Xinhua News Agency quoted China's negotiator in Warsaw, Su Wei as saying. And number crunchers quickly reported that Japan's backsliding could not be explained by increased emissions from nuclear shut-downs, which would have required a much more modest scale back from 25 percent to 17-18 percent.

Japan could take cover, however, as both Canada and Australia also abandoned their previous pledges, in their cases quite explicitly driven by the rise of pro-fossil, anti-climate action conservative governments hostile to the very concept of global solidarity -- period. This left two of the largest industrial producers of fossil fuels outside the international climate framework -- major steps backward which takes us towards creating a virtual industrial world "carbon cartel."

Not be outdone, the Saudis hijacked a dialogue about how to provide transitional support for coal miners insisting that if the world used less - and hence less pricey - oil as a result of climate diplomacy, the kingdom needed to be compensated for its lost monopoly profits.

And the reality that very modest reductions in emissions made the U.S. somewhat of a standout for a change was merely a marker of how poorly the existing approach to climate diplomacy is working.

As the conference rolled on, Japan, Canada and Australia stuck to their new hard-line, and rich nation after rich nation made it clear that more climate aid was not on the table, because their "fiscal realities" somehow made this impossible. Frustrated by the lack of progress on climate finance, emerging countries in turn weakened their previous agreements to put on the table their own emission reduction commitments by 2015.

Environmental NGOs responded by walking out of the conference for the first time, leaving it without a civil society voice which provides much of the energy and focus for these meetings.

Having failed to act to prevent future climate change, the world bogged down over the question of who pays for the disasters that flow from that failure -- what the conference termed "loss and damage." Poor nations argued that financing their losses properly belonged to those whose emissions destabilized the climate, but the U.S. firmly insisted that it while it might fund efforts to adapt to climate change, it would accept no liability for those costs. Even as strong an advocate of collective action as EU Climate Chief Connie Hedegaard, warned, "We cannot have a system where we have automatic compensation when severe events happen around the world. That is not feasible." Of course, within nation states precisely this system exists -- it is called insurance. So Hedegaard's comment underscored the chasm which exists between the global and catastrophic nature of the climate crisis, and the ever flimsier culture of international cooperation which might enable the world to cope with this crisis.

It's important to understand that the erosion of international solidarity is neither limited to nor driven by the climate crisis. The European Union has been unable even to muster enough cohesion to avoid the obvious mutual risks of a dysfunctional currency, the euro. The essence of the Tea Party argument against the Affordable Care Act is that health care should not be a focus for social cohesion - that we should each take care of our own health financing, getting only as good care as we can afford. Increasing inequality erodes solidarity -- and ideologies which extol inequality as a form of market virtue corrode it still further.

In retrospect, one of the fundamental errors in the climate movement's approach to the global landscape was assuming that documenting a common threat adequately would lead to collective action -- and when the threat became contentious, and its impacts on different societies diverged so sharply, this premise was never reexamined - even when the rest of the global landscape showed just how hard shared sacrifice had become in the post Cold War world.

At this point the evidence is in. A shared sacrifice narrative focused on who is to blame and who is to pay is not going to yield anything like the pace of progress climate requires. What is needed is real diplomacy, starting from the premise of differing interests and perspectives, not common ones - they simply aren't strong enough, however much we share the climate. Real diplomacy demands that we find opportunities to build confidence and trust. We may need to focus for the next decade on climate progress that pays for itself, either in lower energy costs or cleaner cities -- there is a lot of it to be had. Instead of focusing exclusively on short-term emissions trajectories -- which are going to be grim -- we should obsess instead with how much clean energy we are deploying, because the strongest new ally climate campaigners could have is a clean energy industry globally that can wield economic heft at the scale of coal and oil. And while India and China may balk at being asked not to use fossil fuels, they know they can't afford enough carbon to grow their economies. Helping them build rail, mass transit, solar, wind and electric transportation networks will begin to generate the sense of global trust and solidarity so signally lacking in Warsaw. We should remember, a computer powered with a solar electron does not provide a market for coal, and a trip taken by bio-diesel bus does not expand the market for gasoline.

A narrative and diplomacy of opportunity and hope needs to replace the dismal mood that dominated Warsaw. Conscious focus on how to revitalize solidarity is global climate challenge number one.

A veteran leader in the environmental movement, Carl Pope spent the last 18 years of his career at the Sierra Club as CEO and chairman. He's now the principal advisor at Inside Straight Strategies, looking for the underlying economics that link sustainability and economic development. Mr. Pope is co-author -- along with Paul Rauber --of Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress, which the New York Review of Books called "a splendidly fierce book."