The Copenhagen COP-15
was not a stand-alone event. It was a product of years of ongoing work around the globe, from the trenches of climate research laboratories to the highest levels of government. As a result, apart from anything else, it gave valuable insight into the current state of two of the most dynamic and overarching issues of the coming decades: the science of environmental change (and in particular the potential impacts) and dynamics of shifting geopolitics.
In both cases, based on what was seen in Copenhagen, the situation is disconcerting.
In terms of the science, the COP-15 had a dangerously narrow focus. Carbon emission-related issues, the main topic of the COP, are just one component of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). Other include, for example, livestock-related methane emissions and the release of exponentially potent industrial GHGs.
Due to feedback loops and other factors now in play, anthropogenic GHG emissions themselves are just one component of changing atmospheric GHG concentrations. Others include, for example, methane released from thawing permafrost and CO2 saturation in the oceans.
Meanwhile, GHG concentrations in the atmosphere are themselves just one potential component of major environmental change. Others include, for example, massive changes in consumption patterns, soil exhaustion, and groundwater depletion. Even without climate change, those factors alone are destabilizing.
While unquestionably important, from a scientific point of view, what was on the table at Copenhagen was severely limited. This was acknowledged by those involved, many of who talk in terms of a 2 degree C temperature rise as being a win.
The implications are staggering. Already, critical energy infrastructure, for instance, is feeling the effects of environmental changes. In some cases, such as French nuclear power stations, U.S. Gulf Coast infrastructure, and Indian hydroelectric installations, environmental change periodically severely affects production.
If an infrastructure that is as well-designed and funded as the energy sector is starting to feel the effects, it is hard to imagine the potential for disruption that the science now tells us is inevitable.
Meanwhile, geopolitically, the conference quickly took on the developed-versus-developing world framing that has increasingly paralyzed other global negotiations. As one Zambian delegate told me, “This is even worse than the WTO.”
While the Financial Times called Lumumba Di-Aping, the Sudanese head of the G-77 group of developing countries, “belligerent,” the largest circulation English language newspaper in the world, the Times of India, ran a headline reading: “India suspects foul play on draft declaration.”
In some cases the day-to-day management of the COP incited and inflamed the feeling of fragmentation. The location itself was criticized from the start: Copenhagen is lovely, but very expensive. Many stakeholders from the developing world could not afford to attend, assuming they could get visas.
Once they did arrive, the long registration lines in the cold took a toll on those just off long flights from the tropics, and some just gave up as coughs set in. It is worth noting that on several key days, members of negotiating parties had to wait in line with the NGOs, severely limiting their ability to contribute to the work going on inside.
Some of those who braved the lines, including an Indian journalist colleague, got inside and to the registration desk after hours only to find that their accreditation had been unilaterally cancelled.
The restrictions on NGOs hit the developing world particularly hard, as many of the government negotiating teams were actively supported by think tanks and others who were registered as NGOs.
In an atmosphere already rife with distrust, those sort of organizational issues were not helpful, to say the least, and they fed into conspiracy theories about a deliberate concerted effort by the developed world to bulldoze through secret drafts. It doesn’t matter if it is not true, what matters is that it is now widely believed – and on the front page of the Times of India.
The implications are troublesome. The government officials and negotiators involved will be sitting across the table from each other in a wide range of other treaties and agreements. The distrust resulting from COP15 will feed into existing geopolitical tensions and will be carried in the hearts and minds of those involved for years.
This is not good. When we combine the two trends – a failure to manage (or even acknowledge) the scientific importance of non-carbon environmental change factors and increasingly polarized geopolitics – it is easy to see some very unsettling times on the near horizon.
As we start to experience accelerating problems with everything from water scarcity (including in the United States and Europe) to infrastructure failure (including along the U.S. coasts), we are all going to need as many friends as we can get. If the Titanic is going down, it doesn’t help to compete over who can steal the most silverware.
The sort of behavior on show in Copenhagen may suit some narrow interests, but unless the full complexity of environmental change is addressed, those interests will lose out—as will we all.
Cleo Paskal is a fellow at Chatham House, a consultant to the Department of Energy’s Global Energy and Environment Strategic Ecosystem (GlobalEESE) and author of Global Warring: How Environmental, Economic, and Political Crises Will Redraw the World Map.