Grist's coverage of Copenhagen climate talks

tangled cordsLet the untangling of Copenhagen begin!Photo: Adam Selwood via Flickr Creative CommonsLast week was absolutely extraordinary, full of more drama and consequence than anything I’ve witnessed in the green world in the six years I’ve been covering it. It was the coming together of so many forces and narratives that the tangle will likely be unpacked over years, not days.

For a close look at the details of the Copenhagen Accord, see Robert Stavins. For a wonderful tick-tock of how the last day unfolded, see John Vidal and Jonathan Watts. For more analysis, see Andrew Light, Michael Levi, Jeremy Symons, Julian Wong, Jake Schmidt, and Noah Sachs.

Having had a chance to catch my breath after a manic couple of weeks, here are a few of the more striking narrative threads that have stayed with me.

Clash of expectations

What made Copenhagen such a charged atmosphere was the clash of two forces. On one side: the rising expectations, engagement, and intensity of civil society. Activists have spent the last two years characterizing COP15 as humanity’s last chance to save itself; success was characterized as a full legally binding treaty targeted at 350 ppm of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. On the other side: a set of political circumstances and leaders that rendered activist aspirations all but impossible.

A situation like that is bound to end in strife, and it did: civil society groups were locked out of Copenhagen’s Bella Center during the crucial final two days of negotiations and ended up mounting marches and demonstrations in the streets. Who knows if it was intended as a direct insult by the UNFCCC or the Danes — if reports on the ground are to be believed, one can’t discount managerial and logistical incompetence — but it created a disastrous visual: a vibrant, diverse youth movement locked out while heads of state negotiate their future behind closed doors.

The limits of politics became “official,” as it were, in isolation from the people whose lives are at stake. You couldn’t haven engineered an outcome more likely to generate fury and despair among activists, and there’s been plenty. The anger at Obama and other world leaders, the sense of betrayal, is palpable, and it shouldn’t be discounted or minimized.

At the same time, that anger shouldn’t cross over into self-indulgence. Nor should it serve to obscure the more systemic or institutional features of the challenge ahead.

Leaders up in it

One of the most unusual and fascinating stories of the summit is the fact that heads of state got down in the muck and negotiated text. This never happens. When leaders arrive at international negotiations they typically expect to sign something that’s already been hashed out, call it a victory, and fly home. At most there are a handful of remaining issues. Last Friday at Copenhagen there were dozens, large and small, remaining when over 100 heads of state arrived. That left them in a frantic game of phone calls, leaks, and meetings, sometimes with mid-level negotiators, sometimes one-on-one, sometimes even unexpectedly, as when Obama famously barged in on a meeting with China, India, and Brazil.

At a press conference afterwards, U.N. Assistant Secretary-General Robert Orr spoke about what had transpired with something close to awe. He said he’d never seen so many heads of state at a negotiation, much less directly involved in textual details. To boot, he said, they knew what they were talking about, even down to the nitty-gritty details.

Activists point out that Kyoto is legally binding and this new accord isn’t, but it can reasonably be responded that even a legally binding treaty isn’t worth much without serious, high-level commitment from the countries involved. (Kyoto hasn’t exactly been a wild success, after all.) Whatever the weaknesses of the document that emerged, there can no longer be any doubt that the leaders of the world’s major economies are directly engaged on the subject. That may prove as significant as any treaty in the long-term.

China fail

Obama being the hypnotizing, endlessly fascinating figure that he is, much attention has focused on his role in the talks. To hear some green lefties tell it, Obama is single-handedly responsible for failing to secure a full, legally binding treaty.

Sign Up for More News from GristBut if there’s a party to blame, it’s China. It’s China that was off meeting with India and Brazil, trying to avoid getting ensnared in any commitments at all, forcing Obama to track them down. It was China that refused to sign off on the target of 50% global reductions by 2050. It was China that forced rich countries not to commit to 80% reductions by 2050, lest it some day have to live up to that target. (Yes, China forced rich countries to trim their ambitions. “Ridiculous,” said Merkel.) It was China who, up until the very last minute, refused to agree to any international verification at all, and only upon the personal intervention of Premier Wen Jiabao agreed to accept a voluntary system of reporting. (Read The Washington Post for that extraordinary story.)

It’s China, in short, that was unwilling to sign onto anything but the most bare-bones framework. But it’s China without which no international climate system can work — it is, after all, the top emitter in absolute terms. By all accounts Obama practically knocked himself silly against the wall of Chinese intransigence, with two extended one-on-one meetings with Wen, but in the end he could only get what he could get, and it sounds like it was something of a miracle he got anything at all.

UN fail

Here’s what you need to know about the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change: it’s based on a framework that can’t solve the problem, but changing the framework requires unanimity among 192 wildly diverse nations, so it’s stuck.

The Kyoto Protocol requires nothing of “developing nations,” an unwieldy and utterly outmoded category that now includes such wee economies as China, India, Brazil, South Africa, Mexico, and Korea. Obviously those countries are going have to participate somehow. But poor and island states don’t want to let go of Kyoto, because it’s legally binding and takes their interests into account. The rich developed countries want a new, post-Kyoto framework that requires emission reduction commitments from emerging economies. And emerging economies, led by China, are in the catbird seat. They know they’ll have to accept some responsibility of some kind at some point, but they can absolutely dictate what shape it takes. Other countries have little leverage over them, since they’re protected by the current framework, and that — see above — is almost impossible to change.

That is the stalemate climate talks have been in for years. It didn’t budge in the run-up to Copenhagen, making the hope of a full-fledged post-Kyoto treaty forlorn (thus the “two-step” process that begins with a political agreement). And it didn’t budge during Copenhagen: in the middle of last week, after a week and a half of negotiations, the process was on the verge of total failure. No progress had been made on the key issues and there was every sign that the deadlock was terminal.

It was only by forging a non-UN side agreement that Obama and other national leaders averted disaster. The UNFCCC “took note” of the accord, but since Sudan, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Cuba wouldn’t sign on, it couldn’t formally adopt it.

That’s right — a clutch of hostile Latin American kleptocracies practically derailed the entire process. This can’t help but raise serious questions about whether the UN is the proper venue to hash out emission reductions. Does it really make sense to give 192 nations veto power when the vast bulk of emissions come from under 20 of them?

Watch for more of the action to move to groups like the Major Economies Forum and the G20. This will leave poor developing countries more exposed than ever. The climate justice movement has its work cut out for it.

Senate fail

In retrospect it might not have mattered, given Chinese intransigence, but the reason Obama went to Copenhagen with such weak targets is that he couldn’t promise anything the U.S. Senate — the world’s most dysfunctional legislative body — wouldn’t deliver. Even the 17% by 2020 that Obama promised was a little risky, given the lingering possibility of failure in the Senate.

Conversely, the reason Obama engaged so intensely and personally to get some kind of deal is that he knows failure in Copenhagen would mean failure in Congress. There’s no way in hell the U.S. Senate will pass a bill after the rest of the world makes it clear they can’t get their sh*t together.

Will the agreement in Copenhagen be strong enough to positively affect the Senate debate? Given how isolated and self-regarding most senators are, that strikes me as unlikely. But it will be something to watch over the next few months as the bill nears the floor.

Twitter win

For the green world, Copenhagen marked a real coming of age for social media. The NGOs made unprecedented use of Facebook and Twitter to mount campaigns and keep in touch, but for me as a journalist the real story was Twitter.

Far from the silly diversion it began, Twitter has become an indispensable tool for reporting. It was through Twitter that I kept up with journalists and NGO reps on the ground, tracked breaking developments, and found my way to the best analysis. It was where I spent most of my time tracking and where I did the bulk of my writing — distributing good information and links and tossing in bits of analysis, context-setting, and humor. (Follow me!)

Obviously there are many things Twitter can’t do, but in terms of keeping a broad eye on the latest developments, it’s arguably superior to being on site. Many reporters in Copenhagen themselves gleaned the latest details from Twitter. There’s no replacing reporters digging behind the scenes, but Twitter opens a kind of second-level reporting that’s accessible to everyone.

It struck me at, oh, 3am Saturday morning that I was living an extraordinary moment. While a fateful debate among the world’s countries took place, I watched it on live, streaming video and reported the important details to thousands of people in real-time. And while I’m a journalist by title, there was nothing preventing anyone from doing exactly the same thing; indeed, many non-journos were.

All the information is available all the time, and anyone can distribute it — we’re all media now.

Looking forward

As an exhausted Obama said before leaving Copenhagen:

One of the things that I’ve felt very strongly about during the course of this year is that hard stuff requires not paralysis but it requires going ahead and making the best of the situation that you’re in at this point, and then continually trying to improve and make progress from there.

Along similar lines, Matt Yglesias has been drawing attention to the last paragraph of Max Weber’s “Politics as a Vocation“:

Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective. Certainly all historical experience confirms the truth–that man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible. But to do that a man must be a leader, and not only a leader but a hero as well, in a very sober sense of the word. And even those who are neither leaders nor heroes must arm themselves with that steadfastness of heart which can brave even the crumbling of all hopes. This is necessary right now, or else men will not be able to attain even that which is possible today. Only he has the calling for politics who is sure that he shall not crumble when the world from his point of view is too stupid or too base for what he wants to offer. Only he who in the face of all this can say ‘In spite of all!’ has the calling for politics.

What came out of Copenhagen is nothing but a faint promise. To make it something real, much less what’s needed, will require intense pressure from civil society, elites, businesses, enlightened governments, and ordinary citizens. And guess what? If there is a robust, legally binding treaty signed in Mexico next year, with sufficient targets and timetables … intense pressure will still be required.

This will be a century-long fight. If the green movement is going to sustain itself over time, it might be wise to try to avoid the emotional roller coaster of “last chances” and “historic failures.” That’s a recipe for burnout. There will be no cathartic moment, no final breakthrough, only a war of inches won by sheer persistence and creativity.

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