Copenhagen (COP 15) 2009
Report #5, Copenhagen and the Nature of Power

Report #5
December 17, 2009
By David Simpson and Jane Lapiner

Copenhagen and the Nature of Power

To readers. Please forgive the tardiness of this essay. I think you will find it still quite relevant even though the COP 15 has been declared officially over as of about 3 PM today when UNFCC Director, Ivo De Boer, gave his last press conference. He did what he could to paint a happy face on a sobering event, portentous in its lack of success. A concluding report will follow.

There was an eerie quiet Thursday morning in the area of the Bella Center where participants of COP 15 first enter. Right across from the expansive coat check area are the booths and tables that NGOs occupied as late as yesterday, where bright displays had told of their various missions throughout the world—protecting ecosystems, forests, indigenous peoples, communities. Some offered new processes or products that could help communities achieve sustainability, others financing concepts to make idealism work. Overall, these organizations represented the incredible breadth, dedication and diversity of citizen-run efforts to overcome the threat of climate change.

This morning, though, they were unmanned, the photo displays, the brochures, the bright statements of decades of accomplishment in protecting or renewing some precious aspect of the great planet puzzle—Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Climate Action Now, on and on….All gone. [see photo above] 

Some of the places still had bits and pieces of their displays in place, half-taken down, half packed to go, their crews probably waiting for permission to reenter after the event was entirely over. Many others were barren except for simple white signs with this message printed on them, “Civil Society Has Been Removed. How can they decide about us without us?” All were untended. It was a ghost town of good intentions that offered mute testimony to the nature of power.

It seemed especially egregious in light of the fact that it has largely been the work of these non-profit warriors who over many decades have fought against abuse and corruption and brought to the world’s attention the damage being done to our mother planet. Government has been involved for the most part only after citizens and civil society initiatives have forced them into conscientious action.

One could too easily jump to the conclusion that now, when there are huge amounts of money at stake in a vast potpourri of market-related potentialities, the big boys in the dark suits have moved in, shoving aside the foolhardy idealists and dedicated activists, especially since these same activists have shown clear common cause between environmental urgency and the plight of people in the poor nations who are helpless before the onslaught of a warming planet—the sacrificial canaries in this coal mine of blind power.

One thing is for sure, The event has lost a good deal of its color, literally. The displays and the very clothing, mostly informal, worn by the civil society component were filled with color and ethnicity. The spectrum that meets the eye at the Bella Center has been reduced. In these closing days black—as in black suits—had come to dominate.

The black suits, though, have not yet indicated that they can succeed. There is considerable doubt that an agreement can be reached at all now or if it can, that it will have any teeth to it. It seems that the process, at least in the minds of many of the developing nations, has been hijacked by an elite core of some 25 or so nations led by the US.

After experiencing a small draft of the desolation that blew through these empty booths, we forged on to the press room for the next blow to good cheer. It was delivered in an impromptu press conference held on a stairway in the media press center where the press congregate was assigned to work. US Senator James Inhofe had made a more or less spur-of-the-moment trip to Copenhagen, intended to last all of five hours. Inhofe is a fiercely conservative Republican from Oklahoma for whom climate change is the biggest hoax ever perpetrated against the American people—by the environmentalists.

He had come for only five hours, he said, and his ambition was simple: to disabuse as many of us as possible of any notion that something binding could come out of Copenhagen. “If it did,” he said, “it would be rejected by the American people.” And if that wasn’t sufficiently disabusive, he added that “there was not a chance in the world that the US would be passing any climate legislation” anytime soon.

Pressed for reasons for his stand, he cited the fact that China, which holds a huge amount of American debt, was not, as an Annex 2 (developing) country, obligated under Kyoto to achieve specific levels of emissions reductions while the US, had it actually signed on, would have been. He saw China’s recent commitment to reductions in “carbon intensity” as unverifiable and untrustworthy.

In my first ever press conference question, I asked Inhofe if China were to come up with a credible plan for significant greenhouse gas reductions as well as a way to accurately monitor and verify the cuts, would he support America making its own commitment to cuts. He humphered and fumphered, sweat a little and finally said he probably wouldn’t. So much for reason. The press corps openly reeled and then laughed. It was almost refreshing to see a real dinosaur amidst the extreme modernity of the Bella Center. Several reporters told me later that they hadn’t quite realized up until then what Obama was up against.

Meanwhile, like the heartbeat underlying and sustaining the body as a whole, the delegates of the Parties carried on their negotiations in the backrooms and side tables scattered throughout the great Center. One can only imagine the actual work getting done. A lot of it has to do with drafting acceptable language about a whole slough of issues in sufficient detail to represent what the Parties feel and that is not perforated with too many loopholes.

Hillary arrived and stepped right into an afternoon press conference to hang out the US flag, She’s quite a study—very good at manifesting America’s casual style of power. She delivers her message with complete assurance which would be far more impressive if it were tied to consistency and leavened with a little modesty.

The Secretary lay down for the first time the elements of a new Obama plan. It included some things that no doubt Senator Inhofe would take great pleasure in slashing. But he needn’t have worried. The Obama/Clinton Plan seemed to be right out of Inhofe’s playbook. Blame it on the Chinese even though you’re not really going to offer the world much anyway, certainly not in legally binding language.

The most interesting thing that the Ms. Clinton seemed to be putting on the table was a commitment by the US to “join with other countries to mobilize financing amounting to $100 billion a year by 2020”, but only if everyone signed on right away and only if recipients agreed to thorough monitoring and verification of use of funds and their successful applications. (Since, as far as I know, the US has never shown willingness to compromise its sovereignty to allow monitoring by third parties on its soil, what we seem to have here is a “My Way or the Highway” kind of deal.)

Note that the Secretary of State did not commit the US alone to this amount. (In fact, the only specific figures she seemed to be committing the US to were emissions reductions at levels of about half of what science indicates is required.) It is highly unlikely that she or Obama are still going to be in office anywhere near 2020. So it is an easy promise. It should be said, though, that this was the first time any Annex 1 Party had even mentioned a figure high enough that it could actually offer real help to the poorest nations.

As the day wore on, one head of state after another held forth at the Plenary. Brazil, Iran, Mexico, South Africa, Israel…They continued for quite a while, carrying on about how grave the danger was and the great sacrifices their governments were already making or preparing to make in response. 

France seems to be playing a quiet but treacherous role. Sarkozy, by all appearances, charmed or maybe bribed the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, into coming on board with the great powers. Zenawi, as leading negotiator for the African Group, had been, up until this intervention, antagonistic to the agenda of the large nations. Chants of “sell-out” were heard the next day outside the Bella Center from a team of close to 50 African demonstrators

At the end of the day, on the Metro heading to our Copenhagen home, (made available to us by a wonderful family related to close friends in California) I ran into Bjorn Lumborg, the well known Danish business academic, thinker and author of The Skeptical Environmentalist (2001), and Cool It (2007). He claims that his earlier repute as a major greenhouse skeptic (one who has doubts about the science of climate change as well as its human origins) is entirely unearned.

Lumborg is open and friendly and had made himself available for interviews in the Media Center over several days. He has a clear position now and is extremely deft at fielding criticism of it. For him, this UNFCCC process so many are now agonizing over is a waste of time and money. The cost, even if we could come to basic agreements as to how to proceed, will be huge in terms of meeting the needs of the poorest nations, and forgone productivity from emissions cuts and other expenses. Better to direct a lesser amount of money at research and development of new technologies. When asked about the risks of putting all our eggs in the technological basket he retorts that the known methods of combating climate change are just as or even more risky. He is both persuasive and simplistic in his understandings of nature and for both reasons he is dangerous.

I did share one perception with Lumborg, though. No matter what we do now, even in the best case scenario, there is going to be a significant climatic lag period before positive responses occur. We are already well into that period as our small island, lowland and African brothers so poignantly inform us. This is the reason why there is so much talk at COP 15 about adaptation and financing it.

For Lumborg, though, the fix both for the lag period and what follows is  geo-engineering. One example—a massive form of cloud seeding that would establish a high altitude aerosol layer capable of reflecting sunlight back into space and thus keep us cool. One of the projects being developed by his think tank/company, the Copenhagen Consensus Center, happens to promise to do just that. (Lumborg’s Center has been backed financially by Denmark’s conservative political party now in power.)

There is big money—potentially very big—involved here. One might be led to conclude that Lumborg has a conflict of interest large enough to reflect his intellectual position harmlessly back onto space. He runs from interview to interview wearing a tee shirt, blue jeans and sneakers but one detects the black suits waiting in the wings. Can the climate withstand the enormous speculative surge which the attempt to provide technological fixes is on the verge of precipitating? Will the benefits of those technologies provide both return on investment and survival for beleaguered people of the global south, the island states and low-lying countries?

Some grave questions on the relative power of self-interest, compassion and the simple desire for survival must soon be answered.

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