Reading about the Copenhagen climate talks has been like tuning into a telenovela: Crossed signals! Secret betrayals! Tempestuous threats! The entire UNFCCC climate framework has seemed to teeter continually on the brink of implosion.

But for all the noise and fury, the there was, in my opinion, only one genuinely new story of significance and interest to come out of the first week. You gotta read to the bottom to find out what it is, though!


In a hothouse environment like this, it is important to remember that pretty much everyone in the city of Copenhagen — save its beleaguered residents — has incentive to maximize drama.

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In the weeks and months leading up to the talks, there was quite a bit of forward movement from several of the most significant countries involved in the talks, including China, India, the U.S., and Brazil — clear signals that they were ready to put commitments on the table. But the very next minute, countries began sh*t talking and pointing fingers. Why? Andrew Light gets at the dynamic:

Consider the run up to [Copenhagen]: Both China and India had major presidential-level summits with the United States in Beijing and D.C. last month. Both agreed to major bilateral agreements …

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But these countries also met prior to Copenhagen, along with the leaders from Brazil and South Africa, to reiterate their position that they would never agree to any emissions cuts. Why? To reset the negotiating clock to zero lest developed countries take it for granted that they could get even an interim agreement out of this meeting without some hard negotiations. [Emphasis added.]

That’s what this first week has been about: negotiators demanding as much and conceding as little as possible, posturing and bluffing, leaking discussion drafts, issuing ultimatums. Nobody concedes anything during the first week; everyone wants to be courted. It’s all positioning.

Then there’s the media — 5,000 reporters in Copenhagen, probably several thousand more people blogging, not to mention the tens of thousands covering the talks obsessively from elsewhere. That’s a lot of column inches (pixels?) to fill, so every conflict is covered in breathless terms and every discussion is turned into a conflict. More often than not, the media is used as a negotiating tool, serving to ferry messages from one delegation to another.

Despite the drama, however, at the end of week one we are, in substantive terms, roughly where we’ve been for a while now. Developing countries want $100 billion a year in climate assistance from developed nations, who are offering around $10 billion a year, much of it repurposed foreign aid, and they’re not keen on any of that money going to fast-growing competitors like China. Developing nations want an extension of Kyoto, which puts no emission-reduction obligations on them, while developed nations want a new treaty that loops in all the big emitters. (Africa is currently threatening to walk out over this — yet more drama.) Everyone wants the U.S. to put a more ambitious 2020 target on the table. The U.S. wants China to make its emission reductions measurable, reportable, and verifiable (MRV), while China doesn’t want any such thing.

These are serious disputes, and many of them will end up going all the way up the chain to national leaders, who are arriving later this week. But they are basically the same serious disputes that have plagued the process for years. On many of them, nations appear no closer to agreement than they were two years ago, but that has quite a bit to do with the game-theoretical imperative to play one’s cards close to one’s chest. There is likely quite a bit happening behind the scenes, which the public won’t see until the last day or two of negotiations.

The story: Tuvalu, 350, and the moral imperative

The one significant new feature of this treaty round is the emergence of a distinct voice for small island nations and the poorest states — the folks for whom climate change is an existential, not just economic, problem. Inside the talks, this manifested in the tiny island state of Tuvalu’s call for a new, post-Kyoto treaty that would require mandatory reductions not only from rich countries but from the biggest and fastest-growing developing nations, including China and India. It would also set 1.5 degrees C as the target for limiting the rise in global temperature, rather than the 2 C agreed upon in previous talks (and still maintained by big emitters). This amounts to the first big public eruption of the simmering tensions between major developing countries and their smaller/poorer brethren. Whereas China and India want to shelter their economic development above all else, Tuvalu, well, might go under water soon.

Outside the talks, at-risk nations were given voice by a global grassroots movement that exhibited its extraordinary new power in the largest distributed global climate protest ever on Saturday, which ultimately involved over a million people. The movement is calling for a target of 350 ppm atmospheric carbon, up to $400 billion a year in long-term adaptation aid to the developing world, and ambitious, mandatory targets from all big emitters.

With their combined push, threatened states and the grassroots movement have pushed the moral imperative back on the table even as mealy-mouthed politicians scramble to push it off. They have significantly shifted the Overton window: 450 ppm — itself wildly ambitious — is now seen as the moderate fallback position.

Will the existential threat facing island nations be enough to prod negotiators to action? Will the growing global call penetrate the tired thinking still at work behind meeting-room doors? We won’t know until the end of the week, if not into the weekend.

I for one am eager to find out, if for no other reason than I’m sick of getting all these press releases …