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Copenhagen’s nasty negotiations

It is sometimes said that the United Nations knows only two types of conference, the successful and the very successful. After Copenhagen, there is a third, the failure that cannot be covered up by calling it a success.

The costs of failure will play out over the long term, but there was a more immediate toll. On the last day, a member of the UN secretariat told me that three delegates, including one Australian, had died under the pressure of the negotiations.

For those present in the Bella Centre, it was soon apparent that this Conference of the Parties was different. The spirit of this conference, my fifth, was marked by a degree of fractiousness, pig-headedness, selfishness and deviousness that was unique. Of course, these are always present at COPs, but in previous ones they were leavened by a realisation that the stakes demanded some co-operation and compromise.

There was none of that at Copenhagen. Any sense that the parties were resolved to fight a common enemy was gone. The retreat to self-interest was primitive in its intensity.

Much of it was down to China. China had always been present of course, but in Copenhagen it found itself to be a first-ranked player. Indeed, there were only two players in the first rank. Europe had somehow sidelined itself, and Japan forgot to show up at the game.

With the rise of China, and the relative decline of the United States, which it has fallen to Obama to manage, the dynamics of global power are in flux. In the presence of such uncertainty and threat, it is human to retreat to rigid positions.

The same rigidity infected the US approach to Copenhagen, dashing the hope that, after nearly a decade of Bush-inspired sabotage, the new administration would transform the politics of the COPs.

Todd Stern, the head of the US delegation, put paid to any such idea early on. Since the start of climate negotiations back in Rio in 1992, developing countries have evinced a deep sense of grievance, and at Copenhagen many referred again to the historical obligation of rich countries.

Stern would have none of it, declaring bluntly: “I actually completely reject the notion of a ‘debt’ or ‘reparations’ or anything of the like”. The presence in the Danish capital of Desmond Tutu was not enough to remind the Americans that recognition of grievances and an expression of regret is the surest way to a spirit of reconciliation. Instead, we saw again that grievances ignored can only fester.

Instead, Stern seemed to be channeling Harlan Watson, George Bush’s legendary head of the US delegation — head-kicker extraordinaire, master saboteur and for years the most hated man at every COP.

I met Stern a few years back when he worked for the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank, part funded by George Soros, which was in practice a parking lot for ex-Clinton staff while they waited out the eight years before the next Democrat president.

Its CEO was John Podesta, formerly Clinton’s chief of staff. Podesta was appointed by President-elect Obama to oversee the transition to the new administration, including nomination of senior officials.

With the Center for American Progress and the London-based Institute for Public Policy Research, my organisation, the Australia Institute, set up an international climate change taskforce. Stern struck me as the compleat Washington political operative — believes in nothing but is highly effective at implementing it.

Jonathan Pershing, now Stern’s deputy climate envoy, and John Holdren, now Obama’s chief science adviser, were also involved in the three think tanks project.

One of the lessons we Australians learned was that the American supremacism that underpinned the foreign policy approach of the neo-cons was not a Bush thing. Nor was it a Republican thing. It is an American thing, and the Democrats are just as likely to treat the rest of the world as a bunch of pissants as their GOP rivals. Stern proved this as Copenhagen. With the election of Barack Obama, no new era dawned in America.

But if all of this is too bleak, there was one spark of light. At a business fair in Copenhagen last week, Steven Chu, the US Energy Secretary, gave a Powerpoint presentation, one he had obviously given many times before.

He talked solely about technological possibilities, detailing the opportunities now opening up and the torrents of federal money being poured into the new energy industries. At the most senior levels, especially in the department of energy, the techno-geeks have taken over from the friends of the fossil fuel industry, and it is plain that, whatever happens to climate legislation in the US Congress or international treaties at Copenhagen, Obama appointees are going to use whatever levers they can to bring about a technological transformation in the eight years they have at the helm.

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  • 1
    mtats
    Posted Monday, 21 December 2009 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    Maybe it’s the lack of coffee on my part, but are you saying negotiators ‘died’?

    Am i reading this right, or am i just taking it too literally? Or are we talking an existential death, or a ‘death of youth’ kind of thing.

  • 2
    MichaelT
    Posted Monday, 21 December 2009 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    Good analysis.

    IMHO it was always unlikely that over 192 countries would agree to increase the price of energy (which is a very sensitive subject) let alone stick to any such agreement.

    Steven Chu is right to focus on developing new energy industries, because that is something we can all agree needs doing, and we can all get cracking on just doing it, without having to broker impossible agreements.

    I don’t think Kevin07 should waste much time and political capital on the post Copenhagen process. Follow the lead set by Steven Chu, I reckon.

  • 3
    EnergyPedant
    Posted Monday, 21 December 2009 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    I’ve read a few things by Steven Chu and I’m mostly quite impressed.

    He explained how his interest in energy efficiency at home is because he’s cheap and doesn’t want to waste money on a large heating bill.

    Mostly he impress me on a nerd level because he’s really smart. Not sure how that plays to the masses though….

    MTATS, there was thousands of people there. Its statistically not unreasonable for a handful to die within a two week period.

  • 4
    beachcomber
    Posted Monday, 21 December 2009 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    Copenhagen in Winter was probably the most inappropriate place to debate Climate Change. Delegates sat in air conditioned comfort while snow fell outdoors. They were so far removed from the reality and urgency that they may as well have met in Santa’s Workshop.

    The next meeting should be in Tuvalu or Bangladesh.

  • 5
    Frank Campbell
    Posted Monday, 21 December 2009 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    So Dopenhagen was the fifth “Conference of the Parties” you attended Rev. Calvin? Time to buy another carbon offset then…yet another pot plant?

  • 6
    mtats
    Posted Monday, 21 December 2009 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    Notwithstanding the good article, i’d like to know the name of the “Australian Delegate” who “died” during the intense negotiations and why i have not heard about it on the nightly news.

  • 7
    Frank Campbell
    Posted Monday, 21 December 2009 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    It was Kevin Rudd’s ego who died. Refused entry to the venue. Cause of death: a combination of rage and hypothermia.

  • 8
    James McDonald
    Posted Monday, 21 December 2009 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    Hamilton, you’re a Leninist fanatic. Here is a different analysis from a far more credible source, the most balanced of the political reporters on the Australian, Lenore Taylor.

    Obama’s men even got into a scuffle with Premier Wen’s minders when the Chinese Premier tried to ignore a previous arrangement to meet with the American.

    For Wen, the entire Copenhagen conference was all about claiming alpha male status in the new world order. Nothing more and nothing less.

  • 9
    franmolloy
    Posted Monday, 21 December 2009 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    This is a sad day. I think the West reaped what it sowed in conference after conference in the past and paid a high price for Stern’s arrogance.

    Had COP15 been called by China or India, had it been held in Hong Kong or Nairobi, I suspect negotiations may have gone differently.

    China has been brutal in the past in applying essential and painful policy for long-term gain; what other nation has come up with the one-child policy - and stuck with it?

    Sounds like much dick-waving went on. Tragic stuff.

  • 10
    Kevin Cox
    Posted Monday, 21 December 2009 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    The Chinese have long realised that Emissions Trading or Carbon trading is a waste of time.

    It appears that the USA has come to the same realisation. Let us hope it is not too long before Australia understands that the cost of renewable energy is less than the cost of energy from burning fossil fuel - if the cost of finance is reduced. Remove interest payments and extend repayments to the life of the energy plant and the output from almost any renewable energy power plant is cheaper than the equivalent output from a fossil fuel energy plant.

  • 11
    Ben Carew
    Posted Monday, 21 December 2009 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    James.
    If Hamilton is a ‘Leninist fanatic’, you are a Neo Marxist, Orwellian Nazist, Green-wash swallowing, bandwagon jumping, Machiavellian, right-of-centre, and most importantly, illiterate, ding-bat.
    You didn’t read it.
    The article was good.

  • 12
    Frank Campbell
    Posted Monday, 21 December 2009 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    If Hamilton is a ‘Leninist fanatic’, you are a Neo Marxist, Orwellian Nazist, Green-wash swallowing, bandwagon jumping, Machiavellian, right-of-centre, and most importantly, illiterate, ding-bat.”

    A good one to add to my collection, Ben.

    (not sure why “illiterate” is worse than all the other attributes. English teacher?)

  • 13
    Frank Campbell
    Posted Monday, 21 December 2009 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    For those interested in the process and politics of AGW action, read this:

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/6847227/Questions-over-business-deals-of-UN-climate-change-guru-Dr-Rajendra-Pachauri.html

  • 14
    James McDonald
    Posted Monday, 21 December 2009 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    Ben, coming from a Hamilton groupie I’ll take that as a sort of compliment. I did read it and I do agree at least on the brilliant Steven Chu. By combining Chu’s innovative approach with Kevin Cox’s proposal for interest-free finance, there may be a light at the end of the tunnel. As for the three dead, I expect Hamilton assassinated them with a poison-tipped umbrella.

  • 15
    James Bennett
    Posted Monday, 21 December 2009 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    A few did die,

    but Kevin was able to save them by praying hard to St Mary Mackillop.
    St Penny Wong had already let him down badly.

    BTW Kevin Cox - do you want to explain that rubbish you just posted regarding energy cost comparisons.
    Are you saying ‘renewable’ energy is cheaper if we don’t count the infrastructure costs?
    Brilliant.

  • 16
    Scott
    Posted Monday, 21 December 2009 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    Green” Bonds are really the only option in financing Green Projects. I know Kevin Cox has been trying to get his “quasi-islamic loan” option working, but unless we want debtors prisons in Australia, probably not a good idea.
    Good news is that Green Bonds work within our existing Financial system and are already being used. Check the world bank website for more detail.
    A better variation on this would be to create zero coupon green bonds which mean that no coupon is paid during the life of the bond (5 -10 years), but a premium is paid at maturity along with the face value of the bond. Unfortunately, due to the high risk of green projects, these bonds would need to have high yields to encourage investment from hedge and super funds.

  • 17
    Posted Monday, 21 December 2009 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

    Good read this, thanks.

    I was blogging about coverage on the front web pages of The New York Times and Washington Post - both kept Copenhagen as footnotes regarding the final washup in their domestic websites. (One had a “global” alternative which led with Copenhagen.)

    What led their pages was big snow storms leading to Christmas, and Obama’s Health legislation reform. So climate was way down on their domestic political radar.

    And with NASA’s Hansen saying a global cap and trade is crap, well how much clout does he have with Obama? Alot is my guess.

    It’s been a shocking 10 days I think - for progress on safe climate and for the choir at Copenhagen. On the other hand there will be a premium of co-operation out of NGO groups gathering there.

  • 18
    Kevin Cox
    Posted Monday, 21 December 2009 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    James the infrastructure is paid from profits generated by the infrastructure. Think like an investor and not like a cost accountant. In effect the government backs the investment through the issuing of a zero interest loan with newly created money to a bank who takes responsibility for distributing that loan as zero interest loans to the general population. These loans have tight restrictions and must be invested in renewables and are automatically paid back from the income earned on the investments.

    http://cscoxk.wordpress.com/2009/12/18/financing-renewable-energy-with-zero-interest-loans-2/

    I used a capital cost of $10,000 per continuous kw which is higher than current geothermal and solar thermal power stations. For energy saving investments the repayment times could be closer to two or three years.

  • 19
    John T
    Posted Monday, 21 December 2009 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

    Beachcomber - did they not even agree on a date on which to meet again, or a place? Bangladesh seems a good idea - with no airlifted comfort cocoons.

  • 20
    thedukeofmadness
    Posted Monday, 21 December 2009 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

    As much of a radical left wing ideolog (Faux News’ words not mine) as Barack Obama is, he will not do anything that makes him a one term president. I do not think that the paranoid fantasies of Sean Hannity and Glenn “Everyman” Beck about George Souros and his Communist controlling Obama have any truth to them. Barack Obama is anything but a puppet.

    And anyway, America is something like 70% nuclear powered so any cuts in dreaded Carbon Dioxide they make in relation to power will be fixed by another power station or two. Australia, thanks to the kneejerk fear mongering by the Greens about nuclear power (other than Chernobyl and Three Mile Island has there been any nuclear accidents?) has no such luxury. Kevin Rudd is a lot of things, a fool is not one of them. He will not murder the economy to appease the Greens.

    Btw…who paid for Hamilton’s trip? I hope it was Crikey and not the taxpayer. We already paid for the 100+ photographers, lawyers, economists and other political dags to go there under the auspices of the gentlemen senator from South Australia.

  • 21
    Harvey Tarvydas
    Posted Monday, 21 December 2009 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

    Dr Harvey M Tarvydas

    Clive, thank you for your information and insight that I couldn’t have had for myself obviously without your help, not being there.

    You said
    “For those present in the Bella Centre, it was soon apparent that this Conference of the Parties was different. The spirit of this conference, my fifth, was marked by a degree of fractiousness, pig-headedness, selfishness and deviousness that was unique.”
    Does this mean our future leader Mr Tony Abbott (cum world leader – the budgie stroking one) is already influencing the world with leading sophisticated scientific insight and interpretation on the subject of ‘climate change’ in the manner to be expected of a Rhodes Scholar?

    While I have many American friends that I love I must say I think you struck paydirt with your insight on the American supremacism and it has been alive in that place for the 50 years that I’ve been watching.
    It was worse, uglier and more evil before the Clintons, revived and brought to the boil by Bush and is already slightly receding I thought.
    It is the psychological driver for such a nation being able to execute its own president and his brother (doesn’t get more evil than that) and even worse things during the Bush National Farting Competition that lasted 8 years.

  • 22
    gef05
    Posted Monday, 21 December 2009 at 10:17 pm | Permalink

    OK. I know I’m cynical, but really, did anyone expect a different outcome? There was a lot of talk before the meeting, a lot of “hope” and “expectation”, all of which seemed totally unrealistic.

    Obama appointees are going to use whatever levers they can to bring about a technological transformation in the eight years they have at the helm.”

    Ten bucks says it’s four.

  • 23
    acannon
    Posted Monday, 21 December 2009 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

    Given that in general even two people can barely agree on what DVD to rent I suppose it’s not surprising negotations on this scale didn’t work. Mind you I don’t have any better ideas.

  • 24
    phil dickie
    Posted Tuesday, 22 December 2009 at 3:52 am | Permalink

    I think the Copenhagen negotiations were far too complex to simply write off in a good/bad, right/wrong way. I participated in the climate negotiations this year and can add a perspective to some of the comments here. Firstly on delegates under pressure, let me tell you of one delegate who died, the lead negotiator for Belarus. He was in his 40’s, and he had a heart attack during the negotiations leaving behind a young family. He had contributed significantly to the growth and system for environmental protection in his country under difficult circumstances for many years and many delegates, while divided politically, cried during moving speeches given for him in the plenary the next day. If the secretariat says two more died, it would not be surprising under the extreme and growing pressure we have faced all year. Take a moment to consider those who died as I know how much all of the families of the delegates have also sacrificed during the 15 weeks or so we’ve been together this year, plus all the in country work, plus all the regional environment, finance and head of state summits.

    Secondly, on delegates and comfort. Having stood in queues outside the Bella centre for many hours in minus temperatures in rain and snow on a number of occassions to get in over the last fortnight, eaten horrible food (ever seen curried-pickled vegetables before?) on the run and seeing delegates regularly working through the night, it wasn’t a comfortable place You can’t compare any of this to the poverty and privations in developing countries which are becoming and will become measurably worse under climate change but I can say it was no easy ride.

    On the blame game, yes, it was a dreadful outcome measured against what we need. I’ll be working the next year and the one after and probably many more along with thousands of others to try to fix it. The governments didn’t go far enough and they missed a huge opportunity. But these were the most complex negotiations attempted and the outcome would force the shift of whole economies, rewrite trade rules, deal with food, water, national and energy security, write new trillion dollar markets and shift geopolitics. Despite that, every head of state meeting this year attempted to grapple with climate change and the political dynamic was ripe. It proved too big for heads of state and we have to work to convince them to do better and they need to listen and realise it is in their self and national interest to act with ambition.

    Perhaps we should avoid the trap of laying all the blame at the feet of all the negotiators at once. I disagreed with many on many issues, agreed with many on others, but one thing I did see was that they all worked hard with little room to move under rigid instructions from their cabinets and heads of state and as the negotiations got more complex had to take on the role of educators for their government whilst also trying to convince them to adjust positions. They were boxing historical injustice, future positioning, domestic laws (or the lack of), their own political and regional circumstances, competitiveness, ignorance, fear, anger, future growth. It wasn’t alturistic, some were downright destructive, but most were genuinely engaged. At the end, it came down to a few powerful people in the room making a deal that wasn’t good enough. End of the UN system? What would you replace it with? Multilateralism is like our democracy - for all the commitment you get those who bring a lot of baggage and ignorance. I get frustrated with the UN system often and turn my mind to how to make it better - but it is the sum of its parts and I’m not smart enough to figure out a better system - instead of being pejorative to those involved or those who write or those who comment, how about constructive ideas anyone?

    It was a small step when giant strides were needed. In participating we all learned more and I suspect most of us were frustrated at the outcome. But having read the comments, I wanted you to consider alongside the external injustice, big oil, failures and some movement there was a human perspective from the inside too. It was tough, none of us made it work, we got a small wobbly step further and we all, all, have to do much better next time.
    Susan Brown

  • 25
    Frank Campbell
    Posted Tuesday, 22 December 2009 at 7:56 am | Permalink

    Who paid for your trip, Hamilton? Let’s have some transparency. And the other four “COP” conferences too.

    You’re a “Professor of Public Ethics”, so profess some here.

  • 26
    James McDonald
    Posted Tuesday, 22 December 2009 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    Oh FFS who cares who paid for someone’s trip or how many emissions the plane trips caused, that’s like whining about who pays for a phone call to make a billion dollar deal.

    Phil Dickie, thanks for the report and respects to those who died. My flippant joke above was out of order.

    I think the UN is the right body for something like this; it’s the only body for something like this. The kernel of a global deal is an achievement worth building on. This kind of peaceful, complex, counterintuitive but enlightened necessity, not the military strongarm stuff we’ve seen for some years, is the right reason for the UN to exist.

  • 27
    Posted Tuesday, 22 December 2009 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    Err, Susan Brown credit under Phil Dickie’s subscription by the looks. Thanks too Susan.

    However you may be indicating a bit of Stockholm Syndrome there too. As I said elsewhere Obama was more concerned about the USA health bill than health of the planet. But he may chew gum and do walk the walk in Washington later?

  • 28
    Posted Tuesday, 22 December 2009 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    PS Dear Frank, hope you brushed those pearlies, your fangs are showing.

  • 29
    Jonathan Maddox
    Posted Tuesday, 22 December 2009 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    @ your grace, who told you the USA gets 70% of its electricity from nuclear power? The proportion is a shade over 20% and declining as aging facilities are forced to close by operational difficulties and safety question marks. The balance is composed 60-70% from coal, 5-8% from large-scale hydro, 8-12% from natural gas, 1% heavy oil (most of it burned in Hawaii and Puerto Rico), and a small but growing 2-3% share from wind, solar, biomass and smaller-scale renewables.

    That doesn’t count exhausts from the other large fossil-fuel-burning sectors in the USA, domestic heating (most of the country has very cold winters, and most dwellings and many workplaces have very inefficient central-heating furnaces running on oil or gas, occasionally wood or coal) and transport. Americans drive further, and drive larger cars, than anyone else; and proportionally more of their freight is hauled by road than in other industrialised countries.

    Over a dozen of America’s nuclear power stations have closed in the last 15 years, leaving 70 in operation, and several more are due to be decommissioned in the coming decade. No new nuclear power station has started operations in the USA for 13 years and as far as I’m aware there’s only one under construction. Any new nuclear power stations can directly replace only the coal-fired electric portion of the USA’s energy (thus displacing at most 45% of the total fossil fuel carbon-dioxide emissions), and they must compete with gas and renewables for both dollars and public approval to do so. Renewable and gas-fired generators are much smaller, somewhat cheaper in capital terms, and are easier and faster to plan, site, approve and commission, than nuclear power stations.

    In China, Japan, France and possibly some other countries, the story is a little different and we may see a significant expansion of nuclear power in short order; especially considering that China currently produces sufficient coal domestically for all its power needs (it imports small quantities of coking coal) but it is likely to experience its own “peak coal” moment in a decade or two. But don’t expect miracles in the USA, even if nuclear power there does recover a bit from its present moribund state.

    The USA needs a real change in its habits and infrastructure before it can significantly reduce its consumption of fossil fuels.

  • 30
    Horace
    Posted Tuesday, 22 December 2009 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

    Frank….

    I have posted a message on the telegraph site in response to your obvious saviour……Akerman.
    I know it won’t ever be published, or appear on the telegraph site…….seems that “cane toad” akerman selects what gets listed.

    I would be very happy for yourself, akerman, mccrann, abbott, fielding, minchin, conroy, (K) keneally, bishop and any other people of your small-minded ilk (do you get my drift??) to debate some of these issues in a neutral forum.

    Bet none of you have the “balls” to do so…….(yes….i think Bronwyn probably does have balls…..the rest of you probably don’t).

  • 31
    Jeremy.Yapp1
    Posted Wednesday, 23 December 2009 at 3:38 am | Permalink

    Susan Brown/Phil Dickie, thanks very much for your post. I think the Chinese and Indian demands were unreasonable, and their unwillingness to allow verification of emissions cuts will have to change. Do you think the politically unrealistic target of 1.5C set by the poorer nations wasted too much time and contributed to the failure of the COP? Also, it is surely unpalatable for Western democracies to sit in a negotiation listening to a moralising lecture from Sudan.

    I wonder whether the developed nations’ reluctance to announce large unliateral emissions cuts contributed to the situation also. I asked a member of the UK delegation whether an EU offer of 30% cuts by 2020 without any strings attached (that offer was made contingent on a global deal being brokered) would have provided the momentum necessary to get something better. I was told it wouldn’t have made a damn bit of difference. Which suggests that Australia offering strong cuts upfront wouldn’t have made much difference either.

    It’s a shame the US Constitution was designed by conservatives so afraid of change that it. It really is very difficult to achieve radical legislative change in the US. What do you think it will take to achieve a solution in the next few years? More than just a few million extra signatures on a petition or protesters on the street, surely; but can our politicians’ minds be changed without a major climate-induced “event”, such as major floods or heat-waves in the US or Western Europe? I hope so, but I’d like your opinion.

    As for the deaths, I asked someone who was at Copenhagen about this report and I’m sad to say I was told that one negotiator committed suicide. How awful.

  • 32
    Johnfromplanetearth
    Posted Wednesday, 23 December 2009 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    The delegates probably died of boredom, both China and India were never going to support any deal in Copenhagen. The whole thing was a meeting to set up the next meeting to discuss the next meeting’s agenda! Sounds like a Monty Python sketch doesn’t it! Our own primenut then comes back and has the gall to use the word rhetoric when describing Abbott’s response, now that’s the pot calling the kettle black. Krudd is the King of rhetoric!

  • 33
    James McDonald
    Posted Wednesday, 23 December 2009 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    Jeremy - “It’s a shame the US Constitution was designed by conservatives so afraid of change that it really is very difficult to achieve radical legislative change in the US”

    Sorry to go slightly off topic but don’t blame the US founders for the state of American government today. From about the 1960s the democratic component of the republic - accountability to the people - gave way to enslavement to the people, or rather their self-appointed proxies, the thousands of interest groups that now run Congress and the opinion pollsers who fill in the rest. The reasons are complex but I think it had to do with the Cold War and people coming to believe that the US was just the exact opposite of the USSR. It once was much more than that. I believe James Madison’s USA would have handled this very differently.

  • 34
    Jeremy.Yapp1
    Posted Wednesday, 23 December 2009 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

    James McDonald - the sentence you commented on was incomplete (I pressed send too early, sorry about that). I agree that lobby groups in Washington are very strong and lack transparency, and that system needs urgent reform that isn’t likely to happen. But the American political structure is also to blame. It was set up by small-c conservatives who were very wary of change. There’s even a mechanism at presidential elections for the state delegates to vote however they want, if they disagree with the popular vote! And the whole thing is designed to allow the Senate (house of review) to easily block or filibuster legislation. This is one of the reasons that US presidents are rarely famous for major legislative reform.

    Can anyone name a major piece of contentious legislation from the Reagan administration? No: Reagan was hugely influential but he didn’t make his changes with legislation (he did it largely through funding measures, which isn’t quite the same thing). Bush snr is another example of this. Clinton is remembered for a legislative failure (healthcare) and Bush jnr’s two big legislative victories (the 2001 tax cuts and the PATRIOT act) were, I think, exceptions to the rule (the first because the Dems were supine and it’s hard to block tax cuts; the second because the Dems were supine and any opposition to the ‘war on terror’ was politically impossible at the time).

    Averting climate change requires a compliant Senate or a mechanism to bypass an obstructionist Senate (such as Australia has with its double dissolution option). The US has neither, and because there are also mid-term elections thrown into the mix (imagine if every Australian government had to endure a whole stack of planned mid-term byelections!) it’s almost impossible to make big changes in the US through national legislation. Just look at the example of fuel efficiency in cars: any President would have buckley’s trying to bring in mandatory efficiency levels, but Schwarzenegger could do it pretty easily and because the Californian car market is so big, it has a national effect.

    Sorry, very long post and I went off-topic a bit. Today’s my last day of the crikey free trial and I’ve decided not to subscribe. In conclusion: blame the US political system, the idiots in the US Senate, Johnfromplanetcoal (no, I’m just kidding mate), China, India, Russia and Angela Merkel, in no particular order.

    Best wishes,
    Jeremy

  • 35
    James McDonald
    Posted Wednesday, 23 December 2009 at 11:56 pm | Permalink

    Hi Jeremy,

    We may as well run with it even if it is off topic. I’ve just finished reading a truly remarkable book, The Future of Freedom by Fareed Zakaria, which gobsmacked me by arguing the exact opposite of some of the (well informed and perfectly reasonable) summary you just wrote. Very convincingly. Among other things, he presents some strongly supported arguments that …

    - the recent development and rise of primaries has devastated the presidential election process
    - political agencies produce better legislation if they can only veto each others’ bills, not modify them
    - California’s political process was slowly broken by its gradual conversion to direct democracy. Unaccountable interest groups that control the plebiscites have supplanted the old parties, the will of the people has locked in 85 per cent of the annual budget (eg 40 per cent must be spent on education every year), leaving the legislature only 15 per cent of the budget to work with, and not even much discretion on that. The Governor is little more than a figurehead.
    - Clinton had some amazing reforms, including the one-in-one-out rule of funding the rent-seeking interest groups, which went to the heart of what cripples Congress. That he succeeded as far as he did against such a dysfunctional system was truly amazing.

    In summary, USA was once a power sharing republic in which accountability to the people was a central pillar of good governance. When democracy, leaning towards direct democracy, came to be seen as a one-stop-shop for solving all political problems, it all started coming apart.

  • 36
    Jeremy.Yapp1
    Posted Thursday, 24 December 2009 at 12:37 am | Permalink

    James, thanks for this: sounds a fascinating book, and if I’m quick to drop the hint I may well find it in my stocking on Friday morning.

    The points you listed sound reasonable to me, but I still think that the US democratic system (such as it is) was designed to favour a softly-softly approach, and that any drastic response to climate change will be achieved despite rather than because of it. Really most democracies are Fabian in this respect. I heard Anthony Giddens speak last week, and he was adamant that a solution requires massive structural changes to the global economy and to society. These are unlikely to be achieved by legislation alone, although Giddens suggests taxation as one of the best ways to change behaviour.

    I caught the end of a BBC interview with one of the Chinese negotiators from Copenhagen, and he remarked wryly that one of the problems when negotiating with Obama was that they couldn’t be sure he would deliver on whatever he committed to, because of the US political system. Without a democracy, it’s much easier.

    Anyway, hostile Senates or not we are now back in the era of planning (after the last 30 years or so of global deregulation) but this time around time is not on our side, and we have to plan for a “non-linear” future; by which I mean very few technological breakthroughs are planned, so a technological solution will come suddenly or not at all. I suspect not at all. If it were up to me I’d accept that markets are more innovative than states and I’d fund the mitigation and adapatation with “catastrophe bonds”, relying on derivatives to offset risks and acknowledging that the insurance industry is going to be a major player. It may be that big legislative changes (in the democracies, at least) will be less important than they might have been if we’d started doing this a generation ago.

    Also I’d tie Senator Fielding’s shoelaces together so he couldn’t leave his house or even get to the phone to talk to anyone.

    I’ve just reread your last sentence and I think you and I are in complete agreement. The solution won’t come from politicians alone.

    Cheers, and have a good Christmas.

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