Copenhagen Post-mortem

HENDRIK VAN DEN BERG 
UNL PROFESSOR OF ECONOMICS

In December, 50,000 people converged on Copenhagen to attend, protest, lobby, observe or report on the global climate conference. The original purpose of this long-awaited summit was to complete a new international agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol that expires in 2012. However, instead of a new agreement, the 50,000 attendees, protestors, lobbyists, and observers were left with what Friends of the Earth described as a “sham agreement” that was agreed to by just five countries on the last evening of the two-week-long gathering. European Commission President José Manuel Barroso termed the accord a “commitment to the lowest common denominator.” 

The so-called “Copenhagen Accord” is indeed a sham of an agreement because it’s nothing more than a statement issued by the leaders of just five countries after a brief closed-door meeting to which the remaining 188 countries were not invited. Especially infuriating was the complete exclusion of the European Union (the only region of the world to have offered ambitious and firm measures to curb greenhouse gases) and the bulk of the world’s developing countries that stand to lose the most from global warming. So Copenhagen produced an Accord arrived at completely outside the normal participatory United Nations process. Worst of all, the Accord established no goals, targets, strategies or even a process for future negotiations. Amazingly, President Obama—one of the five leaders who put the Accord together in a couple of hours (the leaders of Brazil, China, India, and South Africa were the others)—acted as if he’d engineered a breakthrough.  

I would argue instead that the Copenhagen Accord is worse than no agreement at all, because Obama’s endorsement, as the representative of the world’s biggest economy, effectively legitimizes a new process under which no country is called on to make binding commitments, everything is completely voluntary, and nothing more than an informal “assessment” of progress is planned in five years. Also, the Accord offered no enforceable commitment for high-income countries to pay for poor countries’ adjustment to climate change—a basic principle accepted by most of the world’s countries in Copenhagen. In short, Kyoto is dead. And no serious new agreement was conceived in Copenhagen to replace it.

Obama’s voluntary, informal and ‘every nation for themselves’ approach to climate policy is exactly what the Bush/Cheney Administration proposed at the Bali climate summit two years ago. At Bali, U.S. negotiators were highly criticized for working behind the scenes to pull a critical mass of countries behind a strategy of voluntary national policies without any overall global monitoring or enforcement. In the end, the full conference solidly rejected such an approach. In Copenhagen last month, President Obama succeeded at imposing President Bush’s rejected climate strategy on the world. 

What We Can Expect Now 

Global warming has disappeared from the news since President Obama’s return from Copenhagen. Many of those convinced of the scientific evidence of global warming are, apparently, thinking that President Obama somehow “saved the Copenhagen summit from failure” (as one pundit ignorantly suggested). The climate skeptics, on the other hand, were elated by the obvious failure of the meetings. The real result of the Copenhagen fraud, though, is that we are back to business as usual. Here’s what we can now expect: 

1. With no international goals, standards or scientific monitoring, corporations will be even better able to use advertising and public relations to define the issues.  

2. ‘Greenwashing’—the dishonest and misleading public relations ploy to make normal business activities appear to be environmentally friendly—will become even more prevalent. 

3. Corporate lobbying, advertising and media manipulation will leave the public sufficiently confused to where the scientific consensus on global warming will have little influence over government policy. 

4. Worse yet, corporate public relations and advertising will use the unfocused and confused public concerns about the environment to turn ‘climate policies’ into even bigger government ‘hand-outs’ to the private sector (like, for instance, for ‘clean coal’ technology). 

5. Government leaders will piously frame their huge giveaways to corporations as proof of their commitment to dealing with global warming, and the more shameless politicians and controlled media pundits will even use the corporate welfare as proof that ‘voluntary programs are working’ and that the U.S. was right in rejecting a ‘European-style’ international agreement on climate policy. 

6. These corporations will remind us at every turn how costly it is for them be ‘green,’ how they need even more help because foreign competition is not encumbered by the ‘tough’ regulations U.S. politicians have imposed on U.S. firms, and how they reluctantly will need to take U.S. taxpayer money to carry out profitable business projects. 

If this scenario seems overly pessimistic, “The Dirt on ‘Clean Coal’” article offers a telling case study of this process at work.

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