The Copenhagen Uncertainty Principle
By the time the world learned of President Obama's announcement about an "unprecedented breakthrough" to close these climate talks, called the "Copenhagen Accord," Obama was already on Air Force One. And not a moment too soon.
Hours later, as African negotiators were leading an uproar over the accord and civil society groups were protesting outside, it was still unclear which other countries were willing to support a backdoor deal forged by just five countries outside the typical UN process. "It looks like we are being offered 30 pieces of silver to betray our people and our future," said Ian Fry of Tuvalu, one of a few tiny Pacific islands for whom climate change is a matter of survival.At 3 AM, a plenary session was beginning to meet, with plans for talks to continue through Saturday. "If this makes it through the meeting in a couple of hours' time then I see it as a modest success," said Yvo de Boer, who added the understatement of the year: "We could have achieved more."
UPDATE 5:30 PM CET: On Saturday morning, following pressure from the UK, the climate summit agreed to "take note" of the Copenhagen Accord. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon concluded that "finally, we sealed the deal." He added, with safe vagueness, "Many will say that it lacks ambition. Nonetheless, you have achieved much."
The basic deal -- or whatever you want to call this un-official document -- agreed to in closed-door sessions between the US, China, South Africa, India and Brazil, outlines a next step towards another agreement, to be discussed at mid-year talks in Bonn, Germany and a COP16 conference at the end of 2010 in Mexico City.
The accord permits the continuation of climate change talks on two separate tracks: the Kyoto Protocol -- opposed by most industrialized nations but demanded by China and the G-77 -- and the Long-term Cooperative Action track (LCA). (Feast your eyes on those documents at the COP15 website; see the two bottom documents.)
In some ways, the pact represents a partial resolution to the deep divide in trust between the US and China that persisted throughout the summit. On its face, it was a way of saving face for both countries, and the summit as a whole.
But if it saved some face for the summit and resolved some trust concerns for China and the US, the deal spat in the face of the UN, and widened the trust gap between developing nations and developed. And given the way he unilaterally swooped in, brokered and announced the accord, President Obama will be seen as largely to blame.
G-77: Accord a COP-out
Lumumba Di-Aping, chief negotiator for the G77 group of 130 developing countries, scoffed at the notion that it was a deal at all. He said it lived up to long-held suspicions that the United States, along with the Danish government, would "superimpose" an agreement on the rest of the world. "This deal will definitely result in massive devastation in Africa and small island states. It has the lowest level of ambition you can imagine. It's nothing short of climate change scepticism in action.
"It locks countries into a cycle of poverty for ever. Obama has eliminated any difference between him and Bush."
Ouch. Sure, technically the US isn't much farther along now than we were over the past decade, under the non-US-applicable Kyoto Protocol. But Lumumba's may be a harsh comparison. Given the current political climate for carbon cutting in the US, and the many issues that threatened consensus in Copenhagen, Obama alone could never have squeezed even a good agreement out of the summit.
How Did Obama Do What
How he managed to broker a deal, or whatever we want to call it (in his press conference, not even Obama seemed to know how or if it would be signed), was not just about keeping talks alive between the four biggest developing nations -- a tactic that put a final end to the already shaky unity of all developing nations at the summit. He might have had luck partially to thank: the President apparently accidentally walked in on a "secret" meeting of the four nations. Joining them to hash out a final agreement. Obama then relied upon his characteristic finesse and, well, semantic capacity.
The sticking point between the US and developing nations always mainly hinged around MRV, or whether the Chinese would allow their emissions cuts to be independently verified. As Kate Shepperd and David Corn report at Mother Jones, Obama managed to satisfy the surly Chinese and the suspicious Europeans by switching out the term "examination and assessment" for the friendlier "international consultations and analysis."
But what does "international consultations and analysis"--soon to be referred to as ICA--mean? Asked this, [Brazil Ambassador Sergio] Serra shrugged and said, "Ehhhh." He added, "The definition will be negotiated by a panel of people. They will decide what it means, like everything else." Obama promised to sell this not-well-defined ICA phrase to the Europeans.
But this four-nation cooperative document pledge thingy doesn't look like much of an achievement. It says nothing about a legally-binding treaty in the future, an aspect considered essential if a global climate deal is to be effective. It makes no new demands on developed countries as far as emissions cuts go. It loses language from an earlier draft that called for cutting global emissions in half by 2050, and says nothing about a peak year by which greenhouse gases should begin to decline.
Two Degree or Not Two Degree
Furthermore, the accord only pays lip service to the summit's most-cited and oft-debated scientific mantra, that anything more than a 2 degree C rise in average global temperatures would be catastrophic. (Small island nations and European countries had urged a 1.5 degree limit, but Obama reportedly couldn't convince the Chinese to accept that.) Under the current regime, pledges put forward by all nations will add up to 3 degrees Celsius or more.
Even Obama acknowledged weakness on this point. "There are going to be those who are going to look at the national commitments, tally them up and say, you know, the science dictates that even more needs to be done."
And while the non-deal deal mentions the developed nations' offer to spend $100 billion a year starting in 2020 to help developing nations fight climate change, and commits $30 billion for short-term funding for programs like the REDD deforestation prevention plan, it fails to provide any details about how these programs would be funded or administered.
Of course, and notwithstanding the super powers the summit seemed to have invested in Obama leading up to his visit, pinning down the details and creating consensus on them by today's deadline would have been an impossibility under the laws of physics.
But the laws of physics also dictate that if we don't shift very soon to a global low-carbon economy with appropriate economic stimuli and financing, the costs of saving the planet for ourselves, for the world's poorest, for our children and for future generations will only keep rising. Kinda like the ocean.
"We Have to Be Honest"
Emerging at the near universal start of Christmas holidays, Obama's "meaningful" deal may face less analysis than it deserves in the media. Many may take in the President's words, like "meaningful," and "step forward," and miss the details, which anyway are hard to appreciate unless you're a climate wonk or have been writing about the talks for a week. Many will miss complaints like Oxfam International's. It said the deal was "a triumph of spin over substance. It recognizes the need to keep warming below two degrees but does not commit to do so. It kicks back the decisions on emissions cuts and fudges the issue of climate cash."
"It's a very sad day especially for poor countries, because they had hoped the world had understood the seriousness of climate change, but it does appear the lessons had not been learned," Nnimmo Bassey, chair of Friends of the Earth International, said. He called South Africa's cooperation with the deal "very disappointing," and added that the only winner at Copenhagen was President Obama. "Otherwise everyone is going home empty handed. Unless something else happens this morning." (See video here.)
"This accord is better than no accord, but clearly below our ambition," European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, conceded in a press conference long after Obama left. "We have to be honest."
One Silver Lining Maybe: US Legislation
Perhaps the only positive aspect of the four-way pledge was the power it could have back in the US. The agreement may give the Senate the assurances it needs regarding Chinese transparency in order to pass climate legislation. "What [Obama] now needs to do is push for legislation in the United States Senate," said Fred Krupp, the executive director of the Environmental Defense Council. "We couldn't afford to fail and we didn't fail. To have China agree to do things, to have transparency. I think it's good for the Senate."
Carl Pope, the director of the Sierra Club, said the accord "puts to rest the claim that China and India would never join, nor be held accountable for, an international accord -- the core argument that has held back Congressional action on U.S. clean-energy legislation."
The agreement may make the US a stronger partner in a future climate treaty. But for now, Obama will need to cope with the fact that what's good for the US Senate is not good enough for most of the world.
Forget Carbon Emissions: How Do We Measure, Report and Verify This Agreement?
In 1941 the German scientist Werner Heisenberg -- the father of the uncertainty principle -- came to Copenhagen to visit his mentor, Niels Bohr, likely to talk about his work on developing the atomic bomb for Hitler. To this day what happened during their meeting is unclear, the subject both of controversy, and of the Pulitzer Prize winning play named for the city. Did Bohr argue with Heisenberg over his use of scientific knowledge to build a weapon that could destroy humanity? Did Heisenberg insist on doing it anyway? All that's certain is that the Germans didn't build the bomb.
In the 2009 climate-change-summit version of Copenhagen, the final act has not yet been written, the previous four acts remain nearly incomprehensible, and the roles of the scientists seem to have been diminished to mere walk-on parts. How the world will defuse the climate bomb will depend on what we take away from the bizarre drama at Copenhagen. Will we be bitter and suspicious, for instance, or smarter and energized?
One answer may lie not in the delegates but in the people surrounding the Copenhagen summit, and who, to the UN's discredit, were eventually blocked from entering it. The work of civil society on climate change has helped fix the world's attention on the problem like never before. Google it: the threats and solutions to global warming have become essential parts of the vocabularies of global industry, governments and culture.
Whether or not this is the most important issue in the world, philosophically and physically and scientifically, may be up for debate, in a way the science isn't. But the record-breaking size and strength of the movement that led to Copenhagen and grew on its sidelines is a testimony to the importance of the issue, and a reminder that the effort to achieve a climate treaty will only intensify. At least we can leave Copenhagen with one certainty.