Saturday, Dec. 19, 2009

Obama's Climate Compromise Leaves a Bitter Aftertaste

It might have seemed safe to assume that the drama of the U.N. Climate Change summit in Copenhagen had finally ended when President Barack Obama emerged from a last-minute bargaining session with leaders of major developing nations to announce a deal. Obama quickly left town, aides saying Air Force One had to rush to beat the major snowstorm bearing down on Washington. Having agreed terms with the leaders of the U.S., China, India, Brazil and South Africa — the major carbon emitters of today and, even more importantly, of tomorrow — the President would have seemed to have brought two weeks of often fruitless negotiations, including at least one all-nighter, to a successful conclusion. Instead, Obama's announcement marked the beginning of the all-nighter that never ended.

Because the U.N. body that oversees the climate negotiations works by consensus, every country present had an opportunity to voice their disproval of the proposed deal. And many took full advantage of that opportunity. The summit's final negotiating session dragged on for more than 30 straight hours, concluding on Saturday afternoon with the parties agreeing simply to "take note" of what had become known as the Copenhagen Accord. Although the refusal of several nations to endorse the deal meant it fell short of formal approval, according to the U.N. the outcome was enough for aspects of the agreement to become operational. "It may not be everything we hoped for, but this decision of the Conference of the Parties is an essential beginning," said an exhausted U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon. "Finally, we sealed the deal."

The deal appeared to be in doubt for much of Friday morning, after a small group of countries including Cuba, Sudan, Bolivia and Venezuela worked to block the accord. They complained that the deal brokered by Obama and his interlocutors lacked specific emission-reduction targets, and only included a vague pledge to attempt to keep global warming from rising above the upper safe limit of 2 degrees celsius. The dissenters also attacked the climate finance for poor countries promised in the deal — around $30 billion for the period to 2012, and $100 billion annually by 2020 — as far short of the needs of the nations hardest hit by global warming. Perhaps most of all, they were angry because the deal was struck behind closed doors by a handful of powerful nations, and then presented to the rest as a fait accompli. "This events of tonight represent the worst development in climate change negotiations," said Lumumba Stanislaus Di-Aping, Sudan's ambassador to the U.N. and the lead negotiator for the G-77 group of developing nations. "The deal is nothing short of climate change skepticism in action."

The final plenary saw an outpouring of frustration over two weeks of negotiations, long hours and a generally poorly planned event. Di-Aping said the Copenhagen Accord would destroy Africa, and compared the agreement to the Holocaust — perhaps not the smartest metaphor that could have been used by a representative of a government accused by some of conducting genocide. That statement set off a free-for-all, but eventually, even the parties most critical of the deal begged for consensus. "Papua New Guinea supports this document, even though it is flawed," said delegate Kevin Conrad.

The compromises involved in getting even a deal that delegates could only agree to "take note of" may have stripped it of much of its operational significance. The accord contains no deadline to draft a legally binding treaty, no emissions-cut requirements, and only the vaguest reference to helping countries cut back on deforestation — a goal that many had hoped might be one of the few concrete achievements from Copenhagen. The Europeans, still the only bloc of nations with truly binding carbon caps, were unhappy, hoping for a far stronger agreement. "There is light and there is shadow," said German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a strong proponent for ambitious climate action. "The only alternative to the agreement would have been failure."

Far from saving the world, the Copenhagen Accord only begins the battle — diplomats will start almost immediately fighting over its details and working towards a better treaty. If a true compromise is an agreement that makes everyone leave the table a little unhappy, but offers them enough reason to keep the process going, Copenhagen achieved that much. Credit should go to President Obama, who arrived in Copenhagen with the negotiations in shambles and forced through what may have been the only deal within reach. For that, of course, he will also get the blame. Outside the Bella Center as delegates departed, a small group of protesters against the deal carried photos of Obama, with the words "climate shame" across his forehead. That may not be how many had expected the summit to conclude, but it may have been the only ending that was possible.