Kevin Rudd has arrived in Copenhagen too early. Most other leaders will wait for their officials to thrash out an agreement before flying in to tidy up, sign the document and leave triumphant. After all, if they can give directions to their negotiators from their capitals, why risk being around if the whole thing collapses, as it may well?
With his heart still in Foreign Affairs, the Prime Minister seems to want to do the negotiating himself, to eye-ball the other parties across the table. In all likelihood he will become caught up in the feverish atmosphere and, like the bidder at a house auction who exceeds his top price, promise more than he intended.
That would be good for the climate, as well as fulfilling the PM’s desire to be a statesman. It is remarkable how Rudd has managed to position himself as a global climate leader when his plans for domestic action are so timid. He will have to go further at Copenhagen.
Australian negotiators willingly concede that the first question they ask of any proposal is “What is the compliance cost?” No one ever became a statesman by protecting narrow economic interests, so the coal lobbyists here must be sweating.
However, Australia is still doing what it has always done, supporting the United States. At COP15, the agenda — hidden in Australia’s case — is to ditch the Kyoto Protocol and replace it with something broader but weaker.
Yet the Rudd government does not have the immovable obstacle that thwarts the plans of the Obama Administration. It is in Rudd’s power to hold a double-dissolution election and remove the Senate blockage in Australia. That would be Obama’s dream.
Meanwhile, the natural tension of the past week is being multiplied and turning ugly by the chaos surrounding access to the conference venue. Even people with an official photographic pass augmented by the secondary pass created to ration access are caught in a seething crowd and turn away in frustration. The police had to get the dogs out yesterday to maintain order.
Many delegates are cooling their heels in their hotels, such as Mike Rann, the SA premier, whom I passed on the third-floor landing of our hotel in the placid northern suburbs of the city. He was on his mobile doing a radio interview with a journalist who seemed sceptical about the premier’s claim that he wanted to make SA a world leader in renewable energy.
Copenhagen is chock-full of mayors, state premiers and myriad others who are used to being treated as important. The vastness and bewildering complexity of climate conferences make almost everyone feel small, which turns mobile phones into lifelines to people back home who think you matter.
Bill McKibbin, the American author and founder of 350.org, has his own biggish pond in which to swim, the alternative conference known as Klimaforum09 being held at a sports complex near Copenhagen Central station. After a rambling talk to the thousand or so people from civil society groups around the world, he got to the point, introducing the new hero of international climate activism, Mohamed Nasheed, the President of the Maldives. A small man in a neat suit, he spent a long time in solitary confinement for resisting the military dictatorship before becoming the Maldives first democratically elected leader.
Fresh from chairing a cabinet meeting held under water with scuba gear (desperation trumps dignity), he spoke of the need never to give up, and rallied the multitude to chant the three most important words, “three five oh”. The crowd’s projection of hope onto his small frame was something to behold. As he left the stage he disappeared into a scrimmage of independent media.
Of course, we are past 350 ppm already, and getting back to that concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would require technological feats so far beyond our imagination. Sometimes hope can become disconnected from reality, whereupon it becomes wishful thinking.