Copenhagen Climate Summit 2009: A Failure of Potential

While few would disagree that the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference held in Copenhagen from December 7-18 was a failure, assigning responsibility for that failure is not so simple. Critics have latched on to the paucity of organization inherent in a gathering that certified 45,000 delegates while providing seats for only 15,000. Thousands of those same delegates and journalists were left outside the gates in freezing temperatures for ten hours and more due to security snafus. Inside, the proceedings were plagued by controversies between the developed and underdeveloped world that in the end achieved only a non-binding "accord" rather than the comprehensive, cooperative instrument advocates around the world envisioned.

It's difficult not to liken the Copenhagen Accord to the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact, a meaningless agreement ultimately signed by most of the world's nations optimistically outlawing war. Three years later Japan invaded Manchuria, committing the first in a series of fascist aggressions culminating in World War II. The pact was derisively dubbed nothing more than an "international kiss," and it's tempting to say the same of Copenhagen.

The Accord asks countries to submit emissions targets by the end of January 2010, but lacks the bones to enforce those limits. Hopes are now pinned on further talks at the UN climate change conference scheduled for November 29 in Mexico. Theoretically, if the various nations sign on to the Accord by the February 1 deadline, some $10 billion will be distributed over the next three years in "mitigation and adaptation" projects to help poorer states cope with climate change. By 2020, a full $100 billion will hopefully be directed toward these efforts. But, given the vague and insubstantial language of the Accord and the lack of enforcement provisions, it would seem the world is in for more talk and less action.

Unquestionably the smaller, undeveloped nations are the ones who will suffer most from inactivity as climate change scientists sift the data and try to figure out what is actually going on with the planet's ecosystem. One school of thought, working with climate models, predicts catastrophic disasters if warming is not held to 2 degrees C, while empiricists insist we are seeing cyclical climate shifts that cannot be halted or altered by emissions controls. Regardless, we are are seeing a change in ocean levels, widespread drought, and unprecedented temperature shifts in given regions.

All the goals of the environmental movement -- cleaner air and water, energy independence, and more responsible land management -- will unquestionably benefit mankind, but the jury is out as to whether they will halt global warming (which may or may not exist.) It's a compelling debate that drought-stricken, starving farmers in Africa and residents of flooding island nations could care less about. They simply want help from their richer, more developed neighbors. It's an age-old story of large vs. small states and haves vs. have nots.

These factors provide much of the driving impetus to make China the bad boy of the Copenhagen Conference. Both China and India have been accused of fighting efforts at emissions controls to protect their own emerging economies and the Chinese, traditionally isolationist in their social and foreign policies, have resisted oversight clauses in climate agreements. As the world's largest producer of greenhouse gases, China is in a natural position to be painted as a villain.

Some numbers on that portrait, however, speak to a different conclusion. China has increased its renewable energy resources 51% since 2008 and has put in approximately 20m hectares of forests in the past five years. At the end of the conference, China did accept an international presence in the monitoring of emissions and did commit to lowering "carbon intensity" by 40-45% by 2020. While their attitude in the negotiations may have come off as obstructionist, it's difficult to argue that America was not equally damaging to the effort given the inability of the Obama administration to push a climate bill through the U.S. Senate before the talks began.

The more likely culprit in dooming the Copenhagen effort was the growing monetization of cap-and-trade schemes. In the wake of the conference, the value of carbon credits in the European Union fell to a six-month low, clearly illustrating that an emerging commodities market is directly tied to the new politics of climate change. With revelations that climate science may have been manipulated to preserve both funding and plumb academic positions thanks to the Climategate episode, fewer people are willing to accept global warming as a foregone conclusion. At the same time, more are taking a second look at which companies and which governments stand to benefit the most from cap-and-trade scenarios.

Perhaps the most disappointing outcome of the Copenhagen Conference is the fact that once again politics and profit potential have outweighed valid environmental goals. It is a foregone conclusion that we have treated the health of our planet poorly and that damaged ecosystems -- like the South American rain forests and the disappearing Arctic -- are in need of responsible management. Every day around the globe local efforts toward a cleaner, more energy-independent world move forward in spite of the activities of governments whose sights seem more firmly placed on economic gain than environmental progress.

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2 Responses to “Copenhagen Climate Summit 2009: A Failure of Potential”

  1. Mark E. Gillar Says:

    Watch these free online documentaries to learn more about climate change:

  2. Climategate – Shoddy Scholarship and Sensationalism Hamper Climate “Science” Says:

    […] level claims made by a professor of ocean physics at Potsdam, Stefan Rahmstorf. Just prior to the Copenhagen Climate Conference in December 2009, Rahmstorf published research indicating sea levels will rise six feet by 2100, an event that would […]

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