The Earthquake in Copenhagen: Reflections on CoP-15 and its Aftermath

After attending CoP-15 (as a UN Observer, on temporary assignment to the Division for Sustainable Development, though of course I write entirely in my individual capacity), talking to numerous delegates and observers and NGO activists during the event, and reading over a hundred articles on the process and the outcome, I have come to an unsurprising conclusion.

The world will never be the same.

But it’s the way that the world will never be the same that interests me, for the events of the past two weeks in Copenhagen signal not just a change in global climate politics, but a change in global politics, period.  The primary outcome of these negotiations is not just the Copenhagen Accord, the relative merits and demerits of which will now be debated endlessly in the months and years ahead. The second, and likely more important, outcome is the global realization that the balance of things on this planet has shifted irrevocably.  Copenhagen marks a phase shift in the way the world sees, understands, and governs itself.

Much has already been written (and much more will be written) about how the result of the negotiations boiled down to a dialogue between China and the United States, though this was something that longtime observers had already been saying was the case, months before CoP-15.  The constellation of the instantly-famous eleventh-hour meeting between Wen, Zuma, Lula, and Singh (the heads of state for China, South Africa, Brazil and India respectively), into which Obama barged uninvited to make the final deal, also communicates something all by itself. The absence of any European country from the conversation that ultimately mattered most ­– not to mention the absence of Russia, Japan, and all the other countries — was, to say the least, widely noticed.  It is the height of understatement to note that in the end, no one can accuse the European nations, among them the world’s former colonial powers, of imposing their will on the conference’s outcome.

While those closing, dramatic moments in Copenhagen were definitive and emblematic, the process leading up to them was already quite revealing. Many complaints have been heard  (and will be heard) about the CoP-15 process, the delays, the procedural wrangling. Strangely, I found it all a sign of progress — at least, from the standpoint of equity and democracy in global governance.  The CoP-15 process reminded of nothing so much as the U.S. Senate, where all U.S. states have equal representation, regardless of their size, population, or wealth, and every Senator has an equal capacity to disrupt or smooth the proceedings with filibusters or smart behind-the-scenes deal-making.  This makes for challenges when trying to take tough decisions, but it is, in purely political terms, highly democratic.  (The UNFCCC goes one better and operates by consensus, meaning that every nation’s “vote” is equally powerful, at least in theory.)

My colleague and friend (also my client for the UN assignment mentioned above) Tariq Banuri made an interesting observation during one of the final side events, which was also the last in a series of panel discussions and debates on the general topic of geo-engineering.  The subtopic of this last panel was the governance of geo-engineering — not only the doing of it, but even the research about it.  Who decides, and how?  What governance structures exist to steer research (much less action) on whether we can, or should, try to meddle directly with the amount of solar radiation coming into the Earth, or the amount of heat that is trapped here?  Speaking for himself, and not for his Division or the UN, Tariq noted that the world already has a governance structure, with a parliament where global laws are debated (the UN General Assembly and related other bodies, including the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change), but no executive branch.  It’s as though Jefferson had won the arguments over federalism during the founding debates on the US Constitution, and all executive power had been devolved to the states, said Tariq.  This is how the UN functions.  Its “global parliament” can pass “laws,” but the execution (or even acknowledgment) of these “laws” is left to the individual countries, acting in their individual executive capacities.

We saw this on perfect display at CoP-15 in the negotiations between China and the US on the issue of reporting and transparency.  “Sovereignty” was the stated reason for China’s deep reluctance to agree to independent monitoring and verification of its emissions.  In other words, to offer a free interpretation, China was saying, “we have our own executive branch, and we resist these world federalist attempts to strengthen centralized global governance with extra-national control mechanisms.”

We saw this anti-federalist, sovereignty-asserting behavior also on display in the overall dialogue among the countries.  Old categories like “developed” and “developing” and “emerging market” appeared less and less relevant with each passing day.  Sudan, the Maldives, France, Indonesia … it would be impossible to say which of these was most “powerful” during CoP-15.  They participated as true equals, with President Nasheed of the Maldives probably clocking more media time, for example, than President Sarkozy of France, whose media savvy is legendary.

Of course, the categories of “developed” and “developing” remain essential when talking about the flow of climate funds, issues of equity, vulnerability, adaptation, etc.  But I am talking here about the democratic process of the world.  Just as a blustery Senator from a relatively poor Southern state in the US can become a pivotal figure in the US national political dialogue, the CoP-15 process established once and for all that when it comes to a global negotiation and deliberation process, even the smallest or economically most marginal nation can find a powerful and influential voice.

The US Senate is a better model for understanding post-Copenhagen geopolitics than, for example, the European Union, because despite the obvious dissimilarities between countries formerly classed as “West European” and “East European,” these continental halves are still more similar than different.  The countries of Europe share a common, interlinked history (religious, cultural, economic, political) going back millennia.  At the global level, however, real commonality of history is a new phenomenon, and plays out against a backdrop of much greater diversity.  This is a situation more like that in the United States (though, of course, even more extreme); and therefore the dynamics are more like those on display, historically, in the U.S. Senate.

That increasing global democracy should go hand-in-hand with reshuffling of power concentration into the “G2” (US and China) or “G2+3” (add India, Brazil, and South Africa) — constellations that were seen as decisive in Copenhagen — is not a contradiction. Both phenomena can co-exist, and geo-engineering provides a sobering example.  On the one hand, the great powers will ultimately be forced into more extensive governance decisions regarding whether, and how, to examine the last-ditch planet-hacking options we call geo-engineering.  In the meantime, however, several commentators have recently pointed out that some geo-engineering interventions are so cheap and easy, any single country of moderate size could decide to undertake them — the ultimate in “democratic empowerment” in the context of global environmental governance.  As with nuclear weapons proliferation, even the theoretical possibility of unilateral geo-engineering means that no country with the capacity to do it can be ignored, any more than the world can ignore North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Dynamics like this mean that global governance on issues of climate will never be fully reducible to a conversation among the largest and most economically powerful states.  Therefore an inclusive global engagement of all actors in this drama is a not optional, but mandatory.

Another unexpected outcome of Copenhagen concerns the enhanced role of the press when it comes to understanding what is happening in this increasingly complex globalized democracy. Many today talk about the decline of official news agencies, and the rise of blogging or even Twitter as signs of a new, dispersed information economy. Copenhagen crushes this myth, for during CoP-15 everyone, everywhere, probably including the delegation members themselves, was dependent on the news — professionally gathered, well-written, carefully edited, and broadcast as soon as possible in widely accessible form.  There was no other serious way to know what was going on.  Only the global news agencies and largest press organs had both the access and the capacity that allowed them to stitch together a reasonable picture, and present it in relatively coherent narrative.  (An official translator told me that, even with direct access and participation in the discussions as they were occurring, it was impossible to understand exactly what was going on.)  Those inside the Bella Center were getting their information from the latest AP or BBC or other posting, as much as they were from watching the closed circuit television cameras or whispering in the halls.  The bloggers of this world may be important for airing underreported facts or building the body of global opinion.  But the press is, more than ever, the entire world’s Fourth Estate, and therefore indispensable.

As for the Copenhagen Accord itself, I believe the world is being a bit quick in jumping to judgments, both positive and negative.  Only time will tell whether the agreement was truly the best that was possible under very difficult circumstances, and therefore a major step forward, and therefore something that we can and will build on in the near and mid-term future … or whether it was an unmitigated (pardon the pun) disaster, as many already claim.  The Accord’s major flaws have already been acknowledged by several of its chief last-minute architects, President Obama noticeably among them (and Chinese Premier Wen noticeably not). The most troubling among these flaws, from the perspective of science, may be the obvious delay that will likely result from this Accord in terms of when the world will peak in its emissions and begin finally to head down, instead of continuing to head up.  Every year of delay in “bending the emissions curve” means that the slope of the curve on the other side of that peak must be steeper.  This is a mathematical way of saying that the longer we wait to start reducing, the faster we must reduce, once we start.

If, that is, we wish to keep the global temperature from rising more than two degrees above pre-industrial normal during the remaining ninety years of this century.

That, dear friends and readers, is a very big “if,” because it is attached to a very difficult and not-fully-shared “wish.”  To want to save human civilization and natural ecosystems as we have come to know them, we must believe that these things actually are in danger.  Even if we do believe they are in danger, we must care enough — as a big, complex, democratic, geopolitically fractious, yet somehow unified world — to take the mammoth actions required to save them.  We must be willing and able, as a world, to take coordinated action of a kind never before seen on this planet.

It is the scale of this “must” that ultimately gives me hope after Copenhagen, and causes me to hold back both harsh judgment and optimistic praise.  That, and the rather open-ended quality of that word “We,” which cannot be reduced to national leaders, national governments, or the United Nations.  This “We must” is the most challenging thing the human species has ever attempted, and it is not going away.  This “We must” involves everyone, everywhere; and it will be with us for a lifetime. Of course the negotiations over the first-ever comprehensive, legally binding global treaty to transform the world’s management of energy, forests, and climate-related development patterns were dramatic, confusing, problematic, and disappointing for many; it would be something like a miracle had they not been.

The Earthquake in Copenhagen truly marked the end of one historical era, and the beginning of a new one.  It is an era of more democratic global governance (at least in the sense of how power, actual and perceived, is dispersed among nations).  An era of continuous struggle to understand what is happening to our planet, and continuous effort to share that understanding.  An era of nations being forced to collaborate, more and more closely, and over several decades, on planetary management.  In the hindsight of future history (especially environmental history), CoP-15 will likely loom large indeed as an inflection point, a time when everything changed — or rather, was finally seen by all as changed.

As in all earthquakes, some structures were probably destroyed during this event. But as in all earthquakes, these were mostly the older, more rickety structures — mental models and international patterns that have outlived their usefulness.

And as in all earthquakes, there will be a time of mourning losses, regretting the “we-should-have-knowns,” and blaming those who, after the fact, are seen as not having prepared adequately for the inevitable. But soon, very soon, the rebuilding will begin.

And for that rebuilding to succeed, all of us will need to pitch in and help.  Indeed, pitching in is not really an option.

It’s a “We must.”

6 Comments on “The Earthquake in Copenhagen: Reflections on CoP-15 and its Aftermath

  1. Alan
    This is the most sanguine reportage from Copenhagen I have seen. I had viewed that Copenhagen was a failure but not a disaster and that this was all I had expected at the outset with so many different views and levels: developed, developing and yet to be developed. It seemed to me that there had to be a step change (if you will, the quantum leap) and I could not see that the developed countries were willing or indeed able to step back in time and give up their energy consuming habits and I still believe this is the case. To me Transition Towns etc are middle class nice ideas and worth pursuing but never going to provide the 42% (the answer is always 42) that Scotland has committed itself to by 2020. But your article has given me my sought after step change – a change from the old world to the new (though the Chinese and Indians would argue about being the new world!). I will follow your blog with interest from now on.
    Thanks for your insight
    Mike Vickers


  2. Thank you very much for this post – it’s a valuable and new perspective. I’ve struggled to understand what the outcomes of CoP-15 were, and this gives me hope for the future.


  3. Pingback: A different take on the Copenhagen conference | Mutate

  4. I like the idea the world in moving towards a multilateral one and some sort of planetary consiousness emerged from Copenhaguen. Fact is that the UN system is lacking the structure to enforce and carry over laws emerging from a sort of international parliament and the crisis of the UN System has been underpined during and after the meeting over and over again. Interesting also the view that China opposed everything moving in the direction of global governance. now, four of five months after Copenhague I am wondering what was the real output of this meeting, when all BRICS have in one way or another endorsed the agreement. What are your views in connection with the effects on emission reductions?


  5. Pingback: Wailing on the Road to Cancún « Alan AtKisson – Words & Music

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