Tuesday, December 22, 2009

It's your fault...

As Obama rightly predicted in his speech on the floor of the Bella Center, the Copenhagen Accord has disappointed many of the party nations involved, to say nothing of the civil society organizations that were shut out of the Bella Center and feel as though their voices were marginalized when it mattered the most. It did not take long for the blame game to find willing participants. So let's play: Who is to blame?

The British climate minister Ed Miliband asserts that negotiations were essentially hijacked by parties who constantly were stalling talks by using "procedural games" as cover for fundamental disagreements over substantive issues that remain unresolved. He was in effect, challenging the notion that the existing UN Framework is capable of resolving this deadlock without major reform.

Aside from the structure of the UN talks themselves, Milibrand lays the majority of the blame for the failure of the talks to produce a legally binding agreement squarely at the feet of China and the G77. They were unwilling in the end to accept the notion that all countries should share in legally binding commitments outlining a timetable for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. This was the principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities" that arose over and over again as a chasm separating the positions of the developing world from industrialized countries.

While this principle is present in the Kyoto Protocol and is seen in the developing world as a simple expression of fairness, many parties including the U.S., believe that it is unrealistic to believe that any international agreement would succeed at capping CO2 concentrations below 450 ppm without the binding participation of "major economies" such as China and India. As the default leader of the developing world and the 800 lb economic gorilla in the room, China took a hard line on compromising this position.

The U.S. has also received their fair share of blame for the weak, abstract accord that was finalized in Copenhagen. Developing countries in the G77 and the African Group accused the U.S. of trying to forge a deal independent of the existing documents negotiated in the working groups that would be favorable to industrialized countries at the expense of the worlds poorest economies. Perhaps frustrated by the tension and lack of movement in the meetings last Friday when Pres. Obama arrived in Copenhagen, he appeared combative and impatient when speaking to the other heads of state.

The most damning criticism of the U.S. throughout Copenhagen was their unwillingness to set ambitious goals in cutting greenhouse gas emissions and take the lead in forging some final agreement that everyone could be proud of. We have written before in this blog about the fact that it was perhaps unrealistic for the U.S. to take on such a leadership role while there is so much domestic opposition and we remain the only country in the room that has failed to commit to the emission reductions laid out in Kyoto. In many ways, there was no practical way that Obama and the U.S. could have truly lived up to worldwide expectations in Copenhagen. They were doomed to disappoint.

But these are all symptoms of a larger problem. The most legitimate and compelling argument I have heard explaining the failure of Copenhagen to arrive at a legally-binding treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and catastrophic climate change involves neither the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Chinese or American governments.

It's your fault. And mine. Collectively, we are all to blame. In describing the agreement last Friday, Polly Toynbee of the Guardian newspaper in the UK stated, "Gutless, yes. But the planet's future is no priority of ours."

Her argument is simple. The negotiators and heads of state that met in Copenhagen to forge an agreement were faced with a Sisyphean task. They "are out ahead of their people. Most understand the crisis better than those they represent, promising more sacrifice than their citizens are yet ready to accept - while no doubt praying for some miraculous technological escape. "

This is borne out by any number of polls on the issue taken here in the U.S. A Pew Center poll taken in October of this year shows that Americans are remarkably confused about whether climate change is a political or scientific issue. A Washington Post poll released just a few days ago confirms the politicization of the issue among Americans. But the cynicism of Americans transcends policy-makers and the government, "four in 10 Americans are now saying that they place little or no trust in what scientists have to say about the environment." Among registered Republicans it rises to 58%. These numbers leave me speechless.

Is it any wonder then that politicians were unable to move beyond their positions of safety and aggressively forge a binding agreement to address climate change? Toynbee warns, "there is a limit to how far ahead of their people any leader can go, elected or not...The question is whether governments have the power and consent to do the draconian things required [without the consent and support of the people]."

It is easy for us to blame China, a longstanding scapegoat, for their intransigence. It is easy for the rest of the world to blame the U.S., the richest country in the world that is unwilling to shoulder any discomfort to solve problems we have created. But at some point we need to look in the mirror and see the real culprit. It is our own complacency, ignorance, distrust, and cynicism that doomed this process.


  1. Like most of your posts -- sad but true.


  2. Yep, Like I already said in previous comment - a sea change in people's heads is what's required where everyone is willing to change the way we live to which we've all become accustomed.

  3. why should a person in a developped country have the right to produce about 3 times (or more) of the CO2 that is granted to a person in a developping country? - the blame game is easy: the people in the USA (obama just represents them).

  4. I’m not sure which developing countries you are thinking about. As far as the emissions are concerned, make no mistake, there are few countries (other than the big oil producing states) that rival the amount of CO2 each American produces on a per capita basis. It is just that many of the developing countries have significantly larger populations (for example, China has over a billion people more than we do here in the US). So while China’s total emissions now exceed the US, each individual in China produces about five times less than your typical American.

    Why should rich Americans have the right to emit more than five times as much as people living in poorer countries? It is easy to feel indignant when you are to blame.


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