Saturday, December 19, 2009

Assessing the failure

The failure in Copenhagen was far from unexpected. One cannot draw up an agreement between 192 nations in two weeks when there are no signs beforehand that a zone of negotiation has emerged.
International agreements rest on an alignment of domestic politics in various key countries. These were not aligned, as is evident in the case of the US, China, the EU, the G77, to name a few.

But alignment is not enough, one needs leadership, too. There was much self-bestowed ‘leadership’ of countries like Germany and the UK but this was not evident in Copenhagen. Maybe everyone hoped that Obama would save the situation but this would have been naïve in the extreme. It has been more than 10 years since US Senate made it clear it would not agree to binding GHG cuts. This situation had not been resolved and thus it was clear that Obama would come empty handed. A former leader of an US delegation (at The Hague) rightly pointed out that nations can only negotiate abroad what they believe they can ratify at home.

US domestic politics thus seems the real battleground if global agreements are to have any future. However, it may be counterproductive to wait for such a move to occur. Climate change policies need to have alternative options – otherwise we are bound to wait for the next international meeting, and the next, and the next…

What also becomes clear is that no amount of dramatization will galvanise governments into action. We have seen a complete failure of efforts to convey an impending ‘climate catastrophe’ in order to make politicians forget their bargaining positions. International negotiations are about the assertion of national sovereignty and national interests. Climate change negotiations are far removed form any kind of scientific assessment. And no amount of scientific certainty would have changed the situation in Copenhagen profoundly. How could people believe that dramatic prophesies would sway leaders of government?

Some people are close to desperation. George Monbiot in the Guardian today says that governments willingly have killed the planet. Different conclusions can be drawn. One is that the overselling of the science has had a deeply counterproductive effect, especially on parts of the US public, as reflected in opinion polls and the Senate. They are deeply suspicious of any exaggeration or misrepresentation of the climate science, especially if it comes from allegedly neutral bodies such as the IPCC and its chairman.

There needs to be much more public involvement and discussion about options we have, about changes we can make by changing technologies and social practices--on the level of communities, regions and nations. The idea that climate policy could be science based and executed in a top down fashion is an illusion. 

Other fields have entered a truly post-normal modus operandi, i.e. including stakeholders in decision making. Civil society involvement in decision making has become normal. Climate science and policy are anomalies compared to the civil society engagement in other areas. 

The positive lesson from this failure is that we have more opportunities to explore and more options to consider (apart from carbon trading which Copenhagen wanted to establish), IF we stop waiting for a ‘global process’ to solve the problems of the planet. We need to stop being obsessed with scientific model predictions and international negotiations. The UNFCCC and IPCC are examples of a vanishing world of top down global management.

I am under no illusion that many will want to persevere on the path they have been taking for so long.


Unknown said...

Prof Latif is very disappointed. I can understand him. But I must say I am not surprised that the summit was a failure. I think, politics is bankrupt now. We should do it without it. I see a lot of movement in industry (with big projects) and in the society (with small, personal projects). I think, if the politics does not disrupt this movement but just push it only a bit, it is possible to find the right direction soon. I am an optimist. ;)

On the other side: maybe the scientists can test the sensitivity of CO2 doubling pretty soon, hm.

Alec said...

The Copenhagen outcome invites to reconsider the whole debate. Too much utterly nonsense has piled up, or been institutionalised.

Anonymous said...

You say "How could people believe that dramatic prophesies would sway leaders of government?"

This is exactly the problem. For years now we the public have listened to ever more strident prophesies of imminent doom. We are weary of it. Climategate has confirmed many peoples suspicion that what was being sold as neutral science was in fact advocacy in disguise. We are not prepared to indulge the hippies any more. The world economy is in the doldrums and we look at Copenhagen and see an endless lineup of dodgy third world leaders demanding billions from us when we are already up to our necks in debt.

The politicians are not stupid. They know that they cannot carry their electorate in this indulgance any more. Copenhagen was surreptitiously dumped by the western polititions who know they cannot sell it to the voters at home.