Copenhagen as a Sesame Street Episode

If the Copenhagen climate conference were an episode of the popular children’s show “Sesame Street,” one might imagine the following announcement at its conclusion:  “This show was brought to you by letter F”—F for farce, failure, fiasco.

The Financial Times rightly asked: “One wonders how a conference to conclude two years of detailed negotiations, building on more than a decade of previous talks, could have collapsed into such a shambles. It is as though no preparatory work had been done.”

The decision to marginalize civil society and the secretive manner in which a handful of leaders struck the controversial“Copenhagen Accord” marked obvious ineptness and failures of process. But the shortcomings revealed by COP15 are far more fundamental than the particular maneuvering in Copenhagen.

The major actors continue to play a potentially fatal game of diplomatic hide and (not so much) seek. For years, the Europeans, Chinese, and Indians were able to hide behind George Bush’s climate denialism. In Obama’s Washington, that’s no longer so easy. And yet, Obama himself has in effect chosen to hide behind Congress—arguing that he cannot possibly make any commitments beyond what the Senate will endorse (while studiously avoiding the use of his bully pulpit to expand his domestic maneuvering space). The Chinese have been able to hide behind the West’s failure to put truly ambitious climate goals on the table and to acknowledge their climate debt to the rest of the world. The Indians, to some extent, hide behind China. The West, in turn, hides behind China and India’s recent and rapid emissions rise. And on and on and on…

With Copenhagen largely a failure, hide and seek is now turning into a blame game—all designed to shift responsibility to…someone else. This is largely driven by two factors:

  • One, a fear by any of the leading economies to be caught too far out on the climate limb, undertaking ambitious and initially costly measures while others choose the low road. In a world economy that has extensive rules governing trade, but precious few that address environmental needs, this is a real risk.
  • Two, the often corrupt domestic political processes that are driven by narrow corporate interests and short-term profit-seeking instead of the public good. This is expressed in two ways: one, the influence of corporate money on elected officials, and two, the ever-present threat to move factories elsewhere if environmental rules become too strict.

How to move forward from here? We should disabuse ourselves of the false hope that if political will couldn’t be marshaled this time, then somehow, miraculously, it will materialize at the next climate gathering. We’ve been treated to this kind of wishful thinking at Bali in 2008 and in Copenhagen in 2009, and there is no point in projecting such fanciful assumptions forward to COP16 in Mexico City in 2010.

For one thing, unless you subscribe to the “big man” theory of change that rests solely on the vision and leadership abilities of elites, political will does not materialize out of thin air. In large measure it depends on a vibrant public discourse, which in turn depends on bottom-up pressure and public awareness.  It is incumbent on environmental organizations to turn up the heat, especially in countries like the United States that continue to be laggards on the climate policy front.

But another huge part of the problem is the focus on emission-cutting burdens. As long as the options before us are portrayed in negative, undesirable terms, there is every incentive for government and corporate officials to limit their own commitments and undermine serious reduction goals.

While we cannot abandon the quest for a multilateral policy architecture that leads to meaningful, mandatory emission cuts and does so in a reasonably equitable manner, we need to think in terms of positive change in pursuit of an attractive, clean economy that works for everybody.

Let’s have a race for breakthrough innovations in renewable energy, energy and materials efficiency, in more intelligent and more livable settlement structures and transportation systems, and so on. Let’s understand that this is where the jobs of the future lie. Let’s devise ways to jointly develop and share climate-friendly technologies.

More ambitiously, let’s think creatively about the kind of economy that satisfies needs instead of creating endless wants, cultural change that combines material and spiritual wellbeing, and ways to revitalize communities.

In other words, we need a post-Copenhagen era, an episode, brought to you and me by the letter I—for inspiration, imagination, innovation. And that won’t happen without letter P—for public discussion, participation, and (bottom-up) pressure.

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