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Dec 21, 2009

Copenhagen's nasty negotiations

The spirit of the Copenhagen summit was marked by a degree of fractiousness, pig-headedness, selfishness and deviousness not seen at previous UN conferences.

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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36 thoughts on “Copenhagen’s nasty negotiations

  1. mtats

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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.

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