5 common mistakes in the coverage of the Copenhagen Accord
With the exception of a few hours of shut-eye, I stayed up all Friday night to watch the last hours of the COP15 negotiations. It was absolutely gripping, shocking, heart-wrenching, inspiring and in the end came with some measure of relief. (BTW — for anyone that would like to watch any part of Friday night’s negotiations it is all online here. I have found this partial transcript useful for skipping around in the many hours of footage.)
I have not seen a single news article that has done justice to what happened overnight. In fact, I’ve seen many that I feel misunderstand or mischaracterize what happened. Watching the questions journalists asked during the final press conferences, I kept saying to my computer screen “Were you not watching!?” so I suppose it should come as little surprise that I, as someone who watched the entire thing, feel a number of the articles written thus far leave readers with misimpressions.
In particular, I would like to address five things that I’ve seen reported or opined in various media (primarily on the left) over the last two days that I believe are fallacies, based on what I witnessed.
Fallacy #1 — The “Copenhagen Accord” text preempted a better agreement from being adopted at COP15.
For Venezuela or Cuba or Nicaragua or Sudan or Tuvalu to suggest that continuation of the deadlocked plenary with the negotiators of the 193 countries could have produced an adoptable document contradicts the evidence of the last two years and two weeks of negotiations. According to what I heard negotiators saying, many proposed texts had been floated but nothing had achieved the kind of support that would make it signable. This was pointed out in very diplomatic terms by the negotiators from Grenada (AOSIS representative), Ethiopia (AU representative), the LDC representative, the Maldives, Norway, UK and many more. As the COP15 began its last day, there was *no deal* of any kind ready for the many world leaders present that day to sign. Why any reporters or commentators would give air-time to the suggestion that the UNFCCC negotiation process had produced something better, I’m having a hard time understanding. If that something better wasn’t going to get signed, it wasn’t better.
I think the Norwegian diplomat said it best when speaking to the full plenary of negotiators saying (I paraphrase) that the negotiators as a group needed to be able to be self-critical and recognize that after two years and 2 weeks of negotiating *they* had failed their heads of state and the world by failing to have something ready for their leaders to sign when they came to Copenhagen. Given that reality, he said, the heads of state made an “unprecedented effort” talking directly to each other and brokered a deal where there had been *none.* (You can find his excellent comments at 1:26 into the plenary video linked above.)
Fallacy #2 — The poor countries of the world rejected the Accord.
The claim I’ve seen in some early articles that “the poor countries of the world rejected” the deal is totally inaccurate. It is deeply unfair to throw all the developing nations in an undifferentiated block like this. Sudan, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Cuba and Tuvalu quite vociferously opposed the Accord on both procedural and content grounds. But among the dozens of developing nation representatives that took the floor Friday night, they were in a clear minority.
While recognizing the many short-comings of the Accord, one developing nation after another pleaded with the countries mentioned above to drop their opposition so that the Accord could be adopted. This pleading was truly heart-wrenching. I will never forget the desperate words of the President of Maldives literally begging these nations to drop their opposition to the Accord. (2:52 into the overnight plenary video) His pleading was followed by a long applause and similar appeals by negotiators from dozens of other countries and the representatives of nearly every major UN coordinating group, each stating that the parties in their group, through them, wished to express their support for the passage of the Accord. Those bodies include the Alliance Of Small Island States (AOSIS), the Least Developed Countries (LDC), the Africa Group, and the African Union (AU).
Notably, the G77 (a caucus which represents 130 developing nations) did not make a statement in support of the Accord. However, that may have been more of a result of who was representing them than a sign of their collective will. The official G77 representative was from Sudan. After prefacing his remarks by saying he was speaking only on behalf of Sudan, he rejected the Accord with a hyperbole-filled, cynical statement that included a claim that the Accord had the “same values” that created the Holocaust. (You can find his remarks 32 minutes into the recording linked above.) His Holocaust comparison was roundly condemned by nearly every nation that spoke afterward, and several other aspects of his remarks were objected to as well. After that, many G77 countries took the floor to independently endorse the Accord.
Unfortunately, because the handful of opposing nations could not be convinced to support the adoption of the Accord as a decision of the COP15, instead a decision was unanimously passed for the COP15 to “take note” of the Accord. The COP also agreed that individual countries should have the opportunity to associate themselves as parties agreeing to the Copenhagen Accord, listing their names in an addendum to accompany the Accord. Until that addendum is prepared, we won’t know the exact tally of who was for and against the Accord’s adoption. But judging by the statements made on the plenary floor, I think the final tally will show that many more developing nations supported it than opposed it.
In conclusion, it is my opinion that the more accurate record of what happened is that while many developing (and developed) countries were disappointed by the COP15’s inability to produce a signable text better than the Accord, the overwhelming majority of them were in support of adopting the Accord as a decision of the COP.
Fallacy #3 — The Accord came out of an undemocratic backroom deal that minimized the voice of developing nations.
Initially, the strongest and most compelling argument raised by the handful of nations actively opposing the adoption of the Accord was that the Accord had come out of an undemocratic, non-representative backroom deal that had circumvented the UNFCCC process. They are without-question correct on one of those points: it is true that the Accord was brokered outside of the UNFCCC negotiating process by a body made up of less than the 193 countries assembled. With the COP15 in total deadlock (according to many of the negotiators who spoke last night) and with many heads of state on the scene, the President of the COP, Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen, invited 28 heads of state and their lead negotiators to a series of “Friends of the Chair” meetings to try to break the impasse. Obama was a participant in some of these meetings.
According to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who also participated in many of those meetings, the 28 nations selected were intentionally representative of all the major UN negotiating groups, the major carbon emitters, the major economies, diverse regions and the majority of the world’s population. I can’t find a complete list of the participating nations online anywhere but the representative of Grenada listed 23 in her remarks:
- Sweden (outgoing President of the EU)
- Spain (incoming President of the EU)
- Saudi Arabia (head rep for OPEC)
- Russian Federation
- Norway (leader in climate funding)
- Lesotho (head rep for LDCs)
- South Africa
- Algeria (head rep of the Africa Group)
- Denmark (COP15 President)
- Mexico (COP16 President)
- Ethiopia (head rep for the African Union)
- China (largest national population)
- India (2nd largest national population)
- US (3rd largest national population)
- Grenada (head rep for AOSIS)
The representative nature of the group was defended and presented in persuasive fashion by a number of negotiators, particularly the lead negotiator of Grenada. As the official representative of the Alliance of Small Island States, the Grenada negotiator said about the Friends of the Chair meeting (paraphrasing) “We were there; we saw the process as legitimate,” “Everyone was negotiating in good faith,” “It was a difficult session, in which AOSIS fought for every single thing, but as you can see we did not get much,” “we regret that this meeting is dividing us… but we stand by the document and we stand by the process.” (Her full remarks can be heard 1:11 into the overnight plenary video.) In his post COP press conference, the UN Secretary General also stood by the process.
The convening of the Friends of the Chair meeting does not represent an undemocratic process. The role of the nation convening an international conference is to do everything possible to make the conference a success. With the conference on the verge of total failure, it was entirely appropriate for the Prime Minister of Denmark to convene these heads of state and try a new strategy for producing a document that could be adopted. (The characterization of this move as somehow throwing out all the groundwork laid over the last two years is specious. The Accord, while sadly lacking the details found in other draft texts, clearly builds on issues and texts that have been deeply explored in the international climate policy negotiations these last two years.) The Friends of the Chair process would have been undemocratic if the resulting document had been adopted as a COP decision without its being proposed to all countries for consideration and consensus. That was not the case.
While I think the Danish Prime Minister’s attempt to present the Accord to the general body and call for a vote 1 hour later (with regional caucusing to take place during the intervening hour) was ambitious, naive, misguided or manipulative, depending on your perspective — plenty of complaints were aired in the press about the Danes’ facilitation of the negotiations throughout the COP — I think it is worth noting that while the Prime Minister came in for hot criticism by the dissenting countries, he was commended generously for his good faith efforts by many more.
Fallacy #4 — The Accord is a worthless “sham” and failure.
Consider this for a moment: Would the President of the Maldives and representatives of so many other nations have spent hours begging the dissenting nations (listed above in Fallacy #2) to unblock the passage of the Accord if it were truly worthless? True, it is not nearly the agreement we need. Everyone, from the COP President himself to Ban Ki-Moon to Obama to every single negotiator on the floor last night acknowledged as much. Critically important things did not make it into the text, such as legally-binding reduction targets and a commitment to reduce emissions quickly enough to possibly achieve a less than 1.5 degrees Celsius warming. And the funding that is pledged in the Accord is paltry when compared to the recent bank bailouts (a common refrain heard in the debates over funding). But when the conference was about to end with absolutely nothing, it’s foolish to say it would have been better to adopt nothing. That would have been truly worthless.
I’m tempted to elaborate here the numerous merits of the Accord that I heard delegates reference in the overnight session and that I understand from what I read in it, but there are certainly many people more qualified to do that. The best enumeration of the Accord’s accomplishments that I’ve found thus far is on Politico.com’s COP 15 “Arena.”
But there is just one thing I have to exclaim: the importance of getting an agreement under which the major developing nation emitters recognize they have a responsibility to act cannot be overstated! This undermines a major rallying cry of US political opponents of climate legislation who rile the American public up by denouncing the fact that (up to now) the UNFCCC negotiated texts would require the US to act while China, Brazil, India and other big [current] emitters aren’t. Recall that this “disparity” is *the* grounds on which the Kyoto Protocol was rejected outright by a 95-0 vote in the US Senate in 1997. It has taken 12 years and an unprecedented level of negotiations to get that disparity rectified through the Copenhagen Accord. Nothing to sneeze at.
Fallacy #5 — Obama is to blame!
I have hardly read a positive word about Obama in regards to the Accord. On the right, Obama is being trashed for having agreed to spend billions of dollars, going along with the “global climate hoax” and taking his eye off the economy for 10 seconds. On the left, activists are calling Obama a sell-out and an underminer of the UN. In the case of progressive activists, I think the critique shows a sincere misunderstanding of where the hold-up is when it comes to getting the US to act on climate issues. The hold-up is and has been in the US Senate for nearly two decades. I’ve often wondered why Obama doesn’t just come to the podium and point that out: “Hey everybody, I’d just like to say that the Executive Branch and the House of Representatives are ready to act but we can’t do anything as long as you let your Senators filibuster and block every meaningful climate bill proposed.” I understand he probably doesn’t do that because it would make working with the Senate testy, but I don’t understand why the activists that are currently trashing Obama can’t make the Senate their rallying cry and point of emphasis. It’s clear to me from the way Obama has directed stimulus money that he wants to act on climate issues (not just talk, as some have accused), but that he knows he can’t without the US Senate’s cooperation.
There’s something else, though, that I didn’t understand until this week: Only the Executive Branch has the authority to represent the US Government in international affairs — not any member of Congress or the Supreme Court. So, Obama can’t say at the negotiations “go talk to the Senators about why they won’t agree to a carbon cap.” Instead, he has to represent why they won’t agree to a carbon cap and try to get those obstacles addressed in some way. (As I mentioned in Fallacy #4, the Accord removes a stumbling block that has been the grounds for inaction by the US Senate for the last 12 years!)
The other thing the Executive Branch’s authority in foreign affairs means is that it would be incredibly unwise for Obama to agree to anything that would be rejected outright by the US Senate. Besides being fruitless (recall: Senate rejection of the Gore-endorsed Kyoto Protocol), it would undermine confidence and trust in his ability to faithfully represent the US Government in international affairs.
Finally, why should Obama get so much blame given that he did not broker the Accord by himself (as he himself acknowledged)? Clearly, his role in the Friends of the Chair meetings was significant. I wasn’t there, of course, but by most accounts (Ban Ki-moon, Rasmussen, Obama, the Grenada negotiator, and others) the meetings were a collective, good faith effort in which different leaders stepped forward at different times to make the Accord possible. Robert Orr, UN Assistant Secretary for General Policy and Planning, gave a fascinating description of those meetings when asked by Andrew Revkin of the NY Times about Obama’s role. Here are some excerpts: “Certainly at key times President Obama played a key role, meeting with leaders from large developing countries. It is equally safe to say that at other parts of the negotiations other leaders were central. There were key moments where African leaders, small island developing state leaders took the lead… It was not driven by one leader, or two leaders, or three leaders. I would [use] two hands to count the number of leaders that played key roles.” (you can watch his full description beginning 35 minutes into this press conference)
Cause for Hope
The things I saw, in every segment of the COP15 negotiations that I had the opportunity to watch, gave me hope. Clearly, the Accord is not the climate deal we need to avert increasing climate-related crises and catastrophes. Everyone I heard negotiating was in agreement on that. However, there were several things I witnessed that that may not have been codified in a deal, but which gave me much hope:
- Many countries in their delegation press conferences or in the speeches by their heads of state enumerated steps that they are already taking, even without a legally-binding, global agreement with caps and targets.
- Representatives from developing nations described how they are more than ready to go low-carbon, but their main limitation is access to technology — both funding and know-how. (Under the Accord $23 billion of short-term funding has already been pledged over the next 3 years.)
- Observers noted that the gap between scientists and politicians has closed significantly over the last two years — to the point where heads of state were debating 1.5 vs 2 degrees Celsius with high levels of scientific acumen. (also 35 minute mark in Robert Orr press conference)
- The fact that 133 heads of state came to COP15 signals a huge commitment of global political emphasis and attention.
- Yver de Boer reported that 50% global emissions reductions by 2050 and 80% by 2050 from industrialized countries was very much on the table with plenty of willingness from the heads of state to make it happen, but that there simply wasn’t enough time to get it into the Accord in a politically “responsible way.”
- The last-minute, hands-on negotiations of heads of state was an unexpected development that produced significant confusion but also delivered an incredible breakthrough that has opened a new way forward for climate negotiations.