Grist's coverage of Copenhagen climate talks

It’s too weak! … No, it was a fool’s errand to begin with … China is to blame! Of course not, it was the United States that brokered a bad deal for the world’s poor … There’s no hope … Progress was made, there’s more to do … Despair … Hope …

newspaperstheogeo via FlickrSuch was the general tone struck by newspaper editorial boards over the weekend about the climate accord announced late Friday from Copenhagen. Below is a roundup of Copenhagen editorializing. As the product of pre-1990s public education in the United States, this author is only able to read and speak English, so this is heavily weighted toward American and British publications, with a heavy smattering of newspapers based in Commonwealth nations (aka former Brit colonies).

Here we go:

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Editorials in American papers tried their best to find the positive in the Copenhagen deal. Take, for example, The New York Times:

[f]or the moment it is worth savoring the steps forward. China is now a player in the effort to combat climate change in a way it has never been, putting measurable emissions reductions targets on the table and accepting verification. And the United States is very much back in the game too. After eight years of playing the spoiler, it is now a leader with a president who seems to embrace the role. — Copenhagen, and Beyond

The Washington Post editors said the Copenhagen deal, imperfect though it may be, should prompt Congress to finish work on comprehensive climate and energy legislation:

[R]educing America’s dependence on foreign sources of energy and tackling domestic pollution are strong enough reasons to pass a bill. Vigorous debate should commence. Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) have released a framework for legislation similar to a cap-and-trade bill the House passed, which requires a lot of fixing. Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) have their own, much simpler bill that would rebate carbon auction revenue directly to taxpayers. It is appealing, and it warrants attention, too. — One Cheer for Copenhagen

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USA Today‘s editors also chose to use Copenhagen as a way to prod Congress:

Beyond Copenhagen, the domestic action shifts to Capitol Hill, where the Senate is weighing “cap and trade” legislation already passed by the House. This complex but proven way to reduce pollution would use market forces to limit carbon emissions. Global warming aside, the U.S. has strong reasons to wean itself from its ruinous dependence on foreign energy sources and to become a leader in the emerging “green” technology. But, as with trade talks, the U.S. can’t go it alone. China, in particular, is the key player on climate change: It and the USA emit almost 40% of the world’s greenhouse gases. Effectiveness depends on the cooperation of the world’s major emitters. Senate action and leadership by example would give U.S. negotiators a stronger hand going into the next round of climate talks, scheduled in Mexico City a year from now. — Climate talks fall short, but some progress beats none

The San Francisco Chronicle editors creatively used the failure to reach a binding international climate accord as an opportunity to signal out and encourage the state of California’s efforts to transition to a clean-energy economy:

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Here’s where California comes in. This state has become a test lab, standard-bearer and economic visionary in the climate-change fight. If world leaders can’t get together, maybe this pioneering state can pick up the reins. The message from Copenhagen shouldn’t be the futility of global progress. The spin also shouldn’t suggest it’s time to roll back California policies on greenhouse gas emissions and renewable energy. These are strong commitments that can show the way forward. Climate change remains the major challenge of the future. Copenhagen is no argument for giving up. — Amid the heat, a few rays of light

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The Boston Globe‘s editors opted for a grudgingly positive headline — 11th-hour Copenhagen pact better than none, but barely — but were sure to make clear their overall disappointment: “Obama administration officials call the agreement ‘meaningful’ and ‘an important first step.’ That is putting the best face on it. In Copenhagen, the world has collectively kicked global warming down the road.”

The über-conservative Wall Street Journal editorial board took great delight in slamming the Copenhagen outcome:

No doubt under the agreement China will continue to get a free climate pass despite its role as the world’s No. 1 emitter. At Copenhagen the emerging economies nonetheless proved skilled at exploiting the West’s carbon guilt, and in exchange for the nonconcession of continuing to negotiate next year, or the year after that, they’ll receive up to $100 billion in foreign aid by 2020, with the U.S. contributing the lion’s share. We can’t wait to hear Mr. Obama tell Americans that he wants them to pay higher taxes so the U.S. can pay China to become more energy efficient and thus more economically competitive. — Copenhagen’s Lessons in Limits

Surfing north toward Canada, The Globe and Mail used the outcome to contrast how Canada’s conservative government and the United States approached Copenhagen:

The difference between American and Canadian leadership was clear in the press conferences its two leaders held [Friday] night. Mr. Obama hailed the deal, but communicated urgency, saying, ‘We have much further to go.’ Prime Minister Stephen Harper was defensive, and seemed glad to have simply endured the ordeal. As Canada prepares to host the G8 and G20 countries, it will need to do much more. — The Work Must Continue

The National Post, a conservative-leaning paper in Canada, opted for the usual right’ish criticism of the United Nations as the best friend of despots and corrupt governments in the developing world:

Thanks to speechifying by a who’s who of dubious gurus, self-promoters and self-declared ‘activists’ — a staple of international confabs these days — the event progressively took on the hypocrisy and surrealism of a UN Human Rights Council meeting, where the developed world meets to endure sermonizing from the likes of Cuba and Sudan.

Oh, and of course the National Post editors took a parting swipe at cap-and-trade:

The debate over emissions is a complex one, stuffed with conflicting claims and data all but incomprehensible to the non-expert observer. In trying to sort out what’s true and what isn’t, Canadians could hardly be blamed if they took one look at the childish antics and fatuous posturing by those supporting large-scale economic experiments as a possible remedy, and concluded they wanted no part of it. — Copenhagen Fizzles Out

Over in the United Kingdom, where newspapers carry a much more overt political viewpoint, there was general agreement that Copenhagen was one big letdown.

The Independent‘s editors were perhaps the most forthright in their anger over Copenhagen, leveling the blame directly at two nations:

[I]t is important to be clear from where the opposition came. The immediate reaction against Barack Obama smacked a little of a pre-written liberal script, combining anti-Americanism with the certainty that progressive leaders will betray their cause. The real obstacle to a better deal, as Michael McCarthy reports, was China, with India hiding ‘behind the Chinese shadow,’ in the words of one participant. The US President declared a target for his country of an 80 per cent cut by 2050 – we can be doubtful about the mechanisms for achieving it, but not about its ambition. But the Chinese refused to have any targets in the accord at all – not even the targets that other countries were willing to set themselves. This requires a rethink about the realities of geopolitics in the remaining decades of the 21st century. In the economics of carbon, we are back in a bipolar world, with China the pre-eminent power. China has moved a long way towards its green responsibility in recent years, but the failure of Copenhagen has exposed how large a gulf remains between Beijing and the rest of the world. — Copenhagen: Our Lost Chance

The Financial Times was brutal in its assessment, chiding the conference organizers for mishandling the entire process:

Governments need to understand, even if they cannot say so, that Copenhagen was worse than useless. If you draw the world’s attention to an event of this kind, you have to deliver, otherwise the political impetus is lost. To declare what everybody knows to be a failure a success is feeble, and makes matters worse. Loss of momentum is now the danger. In future, governments must observe the golden rule of international co-operation: agree first, arrange celebrations and photo opportunities later. — Dismal outcome at Copenhagen fiasco

The Observer, the Sunday edition of liberal Guardian, struck a more realist tone:

Of course the accord is a disappointment for those who hoped to see the dawn of a new global climate order. It sets the right parameters, but they should have been in place at the start of the summit, not hastily approved in its eleventh hour. Precious time has been lost, but not hope. This is the only process we have to agree global carbon reduction. This is the dialogue that has been opened, in a spirit of goodwill worth admiring, between nations with vastly different strategic objectives. This inelegant compromise is what multilateral progress on climate change looks like. We cannot dismiss it in the vain hope that something more beautiful will appear in its place. But nor should we pause to applaud its authors. Instead, we must send them straight back to work. — The outcome at Copenhagen was disappointing. But if we work hard, there is still a way forward

The Guardian itself seems to be going through several of the classic stages of grief. On Saturday, it was outrage in an editorial headlined, “The grim meaning of ‘meaningful’.” A choice excerpt:

The threadbare agreement thrashed out last night has not even laid the foundations. The progress on financial assistance over the fortnight is welcome, but with much of the money earmarked for climate adaptation, the global community is left resembling an alcoholic who has decided to save up for a liver transplant rather than give up drink.

By Monday, the editors had cooled a bit:

While the Copenhagen product is every inch the sham that campaigners say it is, the Copenhagen process has set important precedents. Most obviously, although the haggling proved fruitless, the sheer fact that it took place – and at such a high political level – means it will probably do so again. … The silver that glistens within the dark cloud of Copenhagen’s failure is the west’s recognition that the world will not be rescued by diktat, but only through genuine dialogue. — Beyond Copenhagen: Dialogue, not diktat

The venerable Times of London, noting the accord’s many weaknesses, managed to end on a positive note:

Copenhagen has proved a milestone, with much success. A deal looks in place to prevent deforestation. There has been a recognition of the problem of acidification in the oceans. Pledges from China and the US to reduce emissions are big news, and the presence of President Obama at the heart of these negotiations can only be welcomed. We should also be upbeat about emerging consensus that the developed world should help to compensate for the limiting of emissions of the developing world, provided it comes with effective checks so that the right money goes to the right places. Most importantly, at the time of writing, the world’s major nations did seem to be closing in on a deal; and this against a backdrop of broad agreement among international policymakers, all aware of lingering doubts among the global public. If Copenhagen has produced an agreement on climate change, it is now the task of those policymakers to go back home and win the argument. — Not Just Hot Air

Heading toward the antipodes in our editorial roundup, first stop Australia where the Sydney Morning Herald tried to look at the bright side:

[A]fter days of grandstanding and ill-tempered haggling, first between bureaucrats, then ministers and finally leaders – the majority of attending nations did agree grudgingly to ‘take note’ of a fluffy, last-minute compromise document cobbled together behind closed doors by the US President, Barack Obama, and the leaders of four major emerging powers: China, India, Brazil and South Africa. Such is the magic of multilateral democracy.

Yet it would be wrong to dismiss the Copenhagen capers as wasted time. Obama exaggerated when he described the 12-paragraph final document as a ‘breakthrough’, but it delivered modest progress on a continuing hard journey. The proposed funding to help vulnerable nations meet the challenges of global warming – $US30 billion ($33.7 billion) over the next three years building up to $100 billion a year by 2020 – would, if delivered, make a real difference. While the document lacks emission-cut targets, it acknowledges the need to limit temperature rises to less than 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels. Crucially Copenhagen, and the lead-up, have seen big developing countries such as China accept that if major developed nations are to cut their emissions they must curb the rate of growth of theirs, and allow some monitoring. — One cheer for Copenhagen (Editor’s question: How did WaPo and SMH wind up with same headline for their editorials? Conspiracy!)

The Age of Melbourne leveled blame at China:

The deepest reason for Copenhagen’s failure to produce a binding agreement is to be found in the evasiveness of China, one of the world’s two largest greenhouse-gas emitters. It was always recognised that a satisfactory outcome would depend on the ability of the other big emitter, the US, to reach agreement with China, and the accord announced by Mr Obama was indeed reached through negotiations between the US, China, India, Brazil and South Africa. Yet China has sought to be recognised both as an emerging industrial superpower and as a developing nation, labels that simply do not match. If China wants recognition as the former, it cannot also demand the special consideration given to the latter. — Hopes for humanity wilted before national self-interest

The Australian, owned by Rupert Murdoch and not to be outdone by its rivals in the Fairfax chain, aimed its tirade at just about every other country before concluding, interestingly, that bilateral deals are probably the best way forward on climate change:

The way forward may be similar to global trade talks. While negotiations for a worldwide agreement have stalled, free traders like Australia are developing bilateral and regional arrangements. This is not optimum, but it is the best arrangement available and something similar could occur to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Under the Copenhagen Accord, countries, including Australia, that have made unilateral commitments to reduce emissions and are prepared to increase them in co-operation with other nations will submit pledges by the end of next month. The discussions that will follow will offer developed economies the chance to commit to emission reductions in a practical timeframe, say by 2020. It is an opportunity many nations will want to take. The European Union, which already has an emissions trading system, will want other economies to follow its lead. It will be impossible for China to pretend global carbon emissions are not its problem for they cannot sit quietly while Third World states rage against the US, as occurred at Copenhagen. And after the shambles in the Danish capital, the world will want to know whether the US will deliver, or even improve, on President Obama’s offer of a 17 per cent cut by 2020, based on 2005 levels. — New approach on global warming needed now

Across the Tasman Sea, the New Zealand Herald said the fate of the world is in the hands of two nations:

The task between now and the next climate change conference in Mexico City in 2010 will be to find a way to make China willing to accept targets. Its rapid development, and the huge increase in its emissions, means its obstructiveness must be overcome. Business as usual for it and countries such as India is not a viable scenario. At some point, all nations will have to accept their share of responsibility for global warming and bear their part of the burden of tackling it. — Response from world leaders sad and stilted

So what do editors at one of China’s English-language newspapers think about all this? The China Daily glossed over the country’s obstructionist role at the conference and offered general encouragement for seeing the process through next year in Mexico:

[l]eaders who turned up at Copenhagen still deserve credit for inking a sub-optimal deal, rather than leaving with nothing at all. Unsatisfactory as it is, the new accord represents an essential step forward in our response to the long-term challenge of climate change. As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon put it, “this is just the beginning” of a process to craft a binding pact to reduce emissions. — Small but essential step

While we’re in the neighborhood … The Japan Times stressed the human side of the climate equation, noting that not enough attention has been played to matters of public and reproductive health in the developing world:

Japan has been aiding developing countries in the area of public health, including the fight against infectious diseases. From now on, it should help work out not only measures to increase transfer of low-carbon technologies to developing countries but also those that take into account population dynamics, gender equality and poverty reduction. — People and Climate Change

And the Korea Times editors offered some general hand-wringing:

The climate change summit showed how difficult it is to narrow differences between developed and developing countries over emission reduction targets, historical responsibility for global warming, and fairly distributing the burden of addressing climate change. At the start of the Copenhagen conference, some negotiators and experts cautioned that no deal would be better than the wrong deal. In this sense, the summit paid heed to the caution and only succeeded in avoiding a wrong deal. But what a disappointment it was for more than 100 heads of state to gather and no binding deal to have been made! World Faces Uphill Battle to Reach New Climate Change Treaty

Now, over to India where, surprise, there was a bit of finger-pointing back at the world’s rich countries. Here’s the Times of India‘s take:

What are the quantifiable targets for rich countries to reduce emissions? What is the time frame? How will the UN ensure that the promised $30 billion between 2010-2012 and the $100 billion a year from 2020 onwards as assistance from the rich to poor countries (announced by the US, not the UN) are deposited in the fund and disbursed equitably? … The 2010 Mexico summit has to produce a plan that works out the mechanisms involved including emissions targets, deadlines and penalties for failure as well as rewards for achievers. With only a token agreement at Copenhagen, the ball has just been pushed down to Mexico. One can only hope the Americans are more forthcoming there. — Token Agreement

The Indian Express, meanwhile, wasn’t shy about blasting India’s government for not playing a proactive role at Copenhagen: “India will have to realise at some point soon that hanging on to China’s coat-tails, instead of isolating its obstructionism internationally, is not helping the world closer to a solution.”

And the Economic Times, sort of the Wall Street Journal of India, puts the whole Copenhagen mess in the context of the growing China-India rivalry:

The US-BASIC agreement envisages $30 billion will be made available to developing countries for fighting climate change by 2012, and larger sums thereafter. More significantly, the agreement says that both developed and developing countries will list their climate change actions, and, crucially, provide information on these actions through national communications and international consultations and analysis ‘under clearly-defined guidelines’. This is likely to get the goat of many high-minded nationalists in India, who will fault the government for submitting to ‘imperialist’ pressure. This Pavlovian reflex completely misses the advantage it bestows on India. While the Chinese make grand commitments to fight climate change but insist on remaining stereotypically inscrutable on vital questions of how and how much, even as parliamentary democracy keeps such information transparently in the public domain in India, India’s international competitiveness would suffer should the Chinese choose to fudge their figures. That the Chinese have agreed to international consultation under defined guidelines offers some insurance against this risk. India must refine its position to become an even more aggressive climate negotiator. Let us put more ‘no regrets’ commitments unilaterally on the table and then demand reciprocal action by developed and competing developing countries. — Copenhagen Fails

Across the border in Pakistan, The Dawn, one of the country’s major English-language dailies, eloquently noted that it’s the world’s poor who suffer most from global warming:

The unkindest cut for many developing countries is that they will be hardest hit by climate change even though their emission levels are negligible on the global scale. Take the case of Pakistan. Our contribution to global warming is almost irrelevant, yet we are already facing the reality of erratic weather that is playing havoc with an agro-based economy. Sea levels are rising and vast swathes of arable land have been lost to intrusion, for reasons of climate change as well as reduced flows downstream of Kotri. Our glaciers are melting at a rapid rate, which means inundation in the medium term and ultimate drought. It must be accepted, sooner than later, that there is no Planet B. A global solution needs to be found. — The Deal That Wasn’t

In the early hours after the Copenhagen talks ended, some commentators in the developed world complained vigorously about how Africa’s representatives negotiated at the conference, charging that Africa focused too much on adaptation financing at the expense of trying to broker a compromise. Well, they don’t really see it that way on the continent. Here’s what the editors of the East African in Kenya had to say:

For Africa, however, the devil as usual lurks in the detail. If traditional aid disbursements are anything to go by, it will be a very lucky continent indeed if releases of this money [the $100 billion promised by rich countries for climate adaptation and technology transfer] are structured in a manner that allows any meaningful development to take place. It will be an even more fortunate Africa if the local buzzards muster the moral courage to allow what little will trickle in to be put to its intended use. Otherwise, it all looks like theatre with the powerless masses as mere spectators. Little has really changed. One way or the other, poor Africa will pick up the tab for global warming while its richer cousins hide behind meaningless tokenism. — Copenhagen: Africa picks up the tab

With that context set, the last word goes to an unlikely world leader — the bloodless despot Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, whose words were (surprisingly) echoed by the editors of the Johannesburg Mail and Guardian:

Robert Mugabe said at the conference that he couldn’t understand why Western nations were so concerned about human rights and so blithe about climate change. He was right to ask — and that should deeply shame the opponents of a deal. Let’s hope they don’t let his question stand as the epitaph to Copenhagen. — Conference of villains

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