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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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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