Climate change inaction: reactions to Copenhagen

While the failure to reach any substantial agreement marks a crucial  opportunity missed, we must adjust to the slow pace of global politics.

With an agreement that is in no way legally binding and no real figures for emissions cuts, the Copenhagen Climate Conference of December 2009 has been widely derided as a failure. Despite assertions from world leaders that speak to the contrary, it appears to many that this conference has made no tangible progress toward the long-term goal of combating climate change through policy measures.
Looking back on this issue with a month’s worth of hindsight, we can see that the anticlimactic outcome was ultimately provoked by optimism prior to the conference. An atmosphere of global confidence seemed to permeate after arriving on the heels of new US leadership and clear policy goals within the EU. The well-publicised ruptures in the conference quickly stalled this momentum. The media lingered on a short-lived boycott from a band of small, developing nations early in the conference — a protest to what is perceived as a refusal from members of the G8 to acknowledge their own role in creating an overwhelming percentage of the pollution that cripples the global climate.
Moreover, the United States — whose new leader, Barack Obama, was an inspirational figure in the hope surrounding the conference — failed to deliver any significant compensation to G77 nations for their role in creating the current climate situation, and insisted on holding industrializing nations to the same standards it holds for itself. While Europe offered a figure of $15 billion to assist in tackling problems unique to developing countries, the US refused to follow suit.
Four weeks later, we still find ourselves asking: was anything actually accomplished in Denmark, or are world leaders just senselessly racking up air miles? “We are confident that we are moving in the direction of a significant accord,” attested Obama after the conference, with China’s representative summing things up succinctly: “The meeting has had a positive result [and] everyone should be happy.”
The world has met these public remarks with scepticism, but such assertions might be closer to the mark than an initial reflection suggests. We must keep in mind that other threats, such as nuclear proliferation, world hunger and AIDS, have been on the global agenda for much longer than climate change — and these issues remain largely unimproved. We should indeed mark (“celebrate” may prove to be too poignant a word) the progress the world has made in moving environmental issues to the top rank of global affairs, a feat many would have thought impossible two decades ago.
Rome wasn’t built in a day — or even a decade — and perhaps we should hold Copenhagen to similar standards. The mere fact that the conference took place takes a key step toward a policy solution on global warming.
A comparison to the Kyoto summit of 1997 reveals just how far one decade has brought us toward “fixing” global warming. Though it offered a potentially galvanising proposition, the Kyoto Protocol failed to unite nations under a shared mission or agenda regarding emissions reduction. The protocol pursued a worthwhile set of goals that were rendered dead in the water by a recalcitrant United States. Kyoto taught us the difficult lesson of patience: without giving deference to the world’s biggest polluters, those countries may well pull out of any deal, in effect neutering its potential benefits.
Last month’s conference marks the first stage of what is bound to be a long healing process from the wounds of geopolitical negotiation suffered in Kyoto. Looking ahead, a smaller follow-up event is planned for Bonn this summer before another full-scale attempt in Mexico City before Christmas.
The gruelling pace of global policy negotiations is, undoubtedly, a frustrating modus operandi to adopt. Large, developed countries are used to seizing on fast, logical solutions to identified domestic problems. For the time being, however, these baby steps seem to be the only way to create a solid foundation for a permanent policy solution. We must accept the hard reality that progress occurs much more slowly on a global scale.
Though not legally binding, the current agreements establish a loose framework within which global leaders can construct their negotiations over the next few years. A cursory glance at the events of the conference suggests that the G8 nations, and the United States in particular, have condemned poorer nations to another century of environmental havoc. Nevertheless, it is fickle to believe that a single meeting could make altruists of global superpowers in one fell swoop.
Perhaps we were too quick to dispel our aspirations for change after Copenhagen. Under Obama and a fully unified Europe, the world is much better suited to negotiate global policies than it was at the time of the Kyoto meeting. The hype surrounding the conference swelled our expectations beyond any sense of pragmatism, but we ought not to lose hope before Bonn. After all, our current atmosphere of false despair could, in the clarity that a few more months may bring, prove to be the Conference’s biggest failure.