Good COP, Bad COP?

Catalyst / by Maywa Montenegro /

Four experts discuss the rising influence of China, the coming test for President Obama, and whether the Copenhagen Accord will doom or save us.

The Catalyst: Driving Reactions to Issues in the News

What did the world learn from Copenhagen?
Our Panel Responds:

COP-15, the conference described by UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon as the last chance to “secure the future of our planet,” went out with a whimper.

Last month, the 193 nations attending the summit signed a “note of accord,” the terms of which mostly reflect a series of final-hour negotiations that took place on the final day, after US President Barack Obama arrived in Copenhagen for a series of closed-door sessions with Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and the leaders of Brazil, India, and South Africa.

Under the terms of the deal, spelled out in a three-page document, countries commit to pursuing their own domestic carbon cuts, and to outside monitoring of this progress. This latter requirement was a major sticking point for China, which argued until the last minute that such verifications were unnecessary. The US and major developing nations vowed unspecified action to prevent global temperature rise of more than 2º C. Financing was also part of the package: Wealthy countries have promised $10 billion over the next three years, and $100 billion per year by 2020, to help developing countries curb their emissions and adapt to the imminent effects of a warming world.

There is little to celebrate in these pledges. While each nation has stipulated its emissions targets, cumulatively those cuts won’t limit warming to the agreed-upon thresholds. Instead, according to most estimates, they put us on a path towards 3-4º C of warming. The draft contains no deadline for reaching a formal international treaty, and even the financing measures are short on specifics, with little clarity on where funds will come from after 2013. Some cash could be generated by REDD, a program through which wealthy nations compensate poor nations for forest conservation. But while agreement on REDD seemed a near-certainty early in the summit talks, it too was shelved on the final day.

Responses to Copenhagen’s outcome have been overwhelmingly negative, ranging from jaded “I told you so,” to outright indignation. Much of the dismay has been directed at the US. As Sudanese diplomat Lumumba Di-Aping put it, “Obama has eliminated any difference between him and Bush.” Inside the conference’s Bella Center cafeteria, one German journalist demanded of American reporter Amanda Little, “What do you have to say for your president?”

But others argue that the deal, while far from perfect, is the best we could have hoped for—and the best President Obama could have secured—given the political circumstances. Had Obama pushed for a more ambitious US emissions target (he pledged greenhouse gas reductions of 4 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, as compared with Europe’s 20-percent goal) or for a deadline to reach a binding deal, he would have risked infuriating Congressional members back home, putting US climate legislation in limbo. Obama’s greatest fear, some say, is a reprise of the events of 1998, when the Clinton Administration brokered a Kyoto Protocol that “had no support” in the Senate. Although Clinton signed the protocol, he never even brought it to a ratification vote in the Senate because he knew it would never pass.

Should Obama have taken more-aggressive unilateral actions, in hopes that other leaders would follow suit, or is he largely handicapped by a reluctant Congress? Is this a matter of pragmatism, a best-case scenario given the political and economic circumstances, or should more have been accomplished? In terms of the larger effort to combat climate change, what, in your estimation, is the major takeaway from the Copenhagen talks? As we look forward to COP-16 in Mexico City next year, what should our priorities be?

A Litmus Test for Obama

KC Golden is the policy director at Climate Solutions and board member of 1Sky, US Climate Action Network, and Renewable Northwest Project.

Copenhagen was a galvanizing moment for Americans’ growing commitment to climate solutions. After nearly a decade of hostility to the international climate treaty process, the US was back at the table. Six cabinet secretaries—including energy secretary Steven Chu, interior secretary Ken Salazar, and agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack—were on hand to highlight the Obama Administration’s resolve. Governors and mayors showed an engaged, determined face of America. President Obama’s personal intervention saved the talks from disintegration.

The US youth contingent raised the bar for everyone with its high energy and unyielding aspiration. Their expectations were science-based—which is to say morally justified, geophysically sound, and politically unrealistic. Though they were crushed by the outcome, they will emerge stronger and more determined than ever. Because they accept no excuse for doing less than what’s right and necessary, they are the movement’s leaders.

But while Copenhagen showcased Americans’ good intentions, it laid bare the reason for our continued feeble standing in the international negotiations process: The nation that has contributed the most to global warming still has no national climate policy.

It’s no exaggeration to say that other nations are aghast at this conspicuous failure of US policy and politics. The fate of the world, it seems, “lies in the hands of a few US Senators,” as Tuvalu negotiator Ian Fry lamented in his plea for a real, science-driven deal.

Who are these people? How can a couple of Senators from North Dakota, representing 600,000 people (about 9 percent of the population of Mumbai’s slums), prevent the world from responding to an emergency? A clear message was sent to the Americans in Copenhagen: How could you let this go on?

The failure of Congress to deliver a climate policy is hardly the only reason COP-15 produced such a weak result. But for many of us it is the essential takeaway, because it’s our job to fix it in the next few months. And in his speech in Copenhagen, President Obama implied we would:

“America has made our choice. We have charted our course, we have made our commitments, and we will do what we say.”

To be clear, “what we say”—the President promised emission reductions of 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020—is not nearly enough. But that was the constraint that Congress imposed and that the President accepted on our negotiating posture in Copenhagen. So the first post-COP litmus test is: Will the US deliver?

The answer will soon be apparent: For the President to make good on his pledge, the Senate needs to get cracking in January and finish before summer. And they won’t do it unless Obama leads the charge with more gusto than he has shown so far.

Senate leadership is afraid of losing seats in the midterms. They’re afraid of another bruising political battle after health care. But while they cower, they are squandering their most effective, politically galvanizing strategy for job creation and economic renewal. Opponents are filling the void with all manner of lies about climate science and energy economics. The naysayers’ arguments are weak, but their resolve is firm. The opposite is true of the proponents (if we can even call them that yet).

Americans know that fossil-fuel dependence is a dead end. They’re ready, hungry, for leaders to get real about solutions. The President has already demonstrated that this restlessness can be leveraged: Democratic and Republican rivals offered campaign lollipops in the summer of 2008—gas tax holidays and drilling binges—while candidate Obama called for a bold energy transformation. We all know, of course, who won.

Obama understands the transformative economic power of the energy and climate issues and the moral imperative to tackle them. As a candidate he mined the rich political ore of our frustration with Washington’s chronic failure to address our fossil fuel addiction. Will he now forge it into the resolve he’ll need to get an effective climate and energy bill done?

The surest way to lose this fight is to recoil from having it—the strategy that Senate leaders pursued last year. But allowing the Senate to duck this issue again would undermine the President and betray his promise in Copenhagen. Obama was elected in part because he picked this fight. Now he needs to have it and win.

The US and China Pursue Inverse Strategies

David Roberts is the senior staff writer at

The heart of the Copenhagen climate talks was a clumsy pas de deux between the U.S. and China, part of an ongoing dance with enormous consequences for the battle against climate change. From where I’m sitting, it looks like the US is getting badly out-performed.

The UN climate process is currently governed by the Kyoto Protocol, which contains a sharp distinction between developed and developing countries; it calls on the former to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions but requires nothing of the latter.

China is classified under Kyoto as developing, but the designation is increasingly ridiculous: China’s economy is expected to overtake Japan’s this year, making it the world’s second largest, and it recently passed the U.S. to become the world’s top emitter. The central dilemma of international climate politics, which has the leaders of rich nations chewing their nails, is how to draw China (along with “developing” countries Brazil, South Africa, and India) into the international effort in a serious way.

It’s not clear how to do so. The Chinese Communist Party is overwhelmingly focused on maintaining the country’s rapid economic growth, which for now is largely powered by coal. Unlike poor and small island nations, it doesn’t particularly need monetary aid; it has said publicly that it won’t try to tap into any adaptation financing from industrialized countries. In short, as long as China is protected by Kyoto, it seems to have no incentive whatsoever to commit to anything beyond what it plans to do for purely internal reasons.

And that’s more or less what came out of Copenhagen. China agreed to what it was already planning: a 45 percent reduction in “carbon intensity” that would leave its emissions rising for at least 20 years. The one concession it made is to report on those efforts to the international community every two years (which isn’t nothing, as we’ll see below).

The way it’s usually presented, the US and China are using each other as an excuse not to act. But that’s not exactly true; in fact, the countries’ strategies are the inverse of one another.

The US is talking big talk in international negotiations but doing very little back home. Obama is achieving what he can via executive branch actions, such as boosting fuel-efficiency standards, but serious action awaits legislation. As it happens, a climate bill has finally reached the US Senate. China’s intensity pledge and concession on reporting may be enough to goad that sclerotic, dysfunctional body into passing it, but given the bruising experience with healthcare reform, it must be considered unlikely. Even if it does pass, it’s a fairly weak bill, with a tepid short-term target (putting carbon emissions 4 percent below 1990 levels by 2020), a plethora of loopholes, and in all likelihood a boatload of subsidies for oil and coal.

China, by contrast, is a determined minimalist in international negotiations, as Copenhagen demonstrated, but it’s taking extensive action back home. It has invested hundreds of billions of dollars in advanced research, clean-energy industries, and low-carbon infrastructure from smart grids to high-speed trains. It is striking bilateral deals with the US that would allow it to benefit from American energy research and learn from the EPA about how to track emissions. Reports from inside China say the government expects to easily exceed its 45 percent intensity target.

In short, the US is over-promising and under-delivering; China is doing the opposite. The US can look forward to being vilified as a destroyer of hope, while China can look forward to eating America’s lunch on the most important growth industry of the 21st century.

By now, members of the international community should have learned two things. One is that targets, timelines, and declarations don’t mean much in the absence of national commitment to real action on the ground. The other is that national efforts to combat climate change are an economic and political advantage, not something to be accepted grudgingly at the end of a protracted game of You Go First.

There are increasing indications that behind its placid, implacable, and often maddening facade, China has learned those lessons. I’m not sure the US has.

The End of a “Unified Framework”

Mike Hulme is a professor of environmental sciences at the University of East Anglia, UK, and author of Why We Disagree About Climate Change.

Many have lamented the outcome of the Copenhagen climate summit. For example, the head of communications at Greenpeace UK described it as “an historic failure that will live in infamy.” The “holy grail” of a comprehensive, legally binding agreement on emissions caps was nowhere to be seen. There was not even a political agreement to which all parties concurred, merely an accord to which parties can opt-in if they so choose. There were few ambitious targets, even fewer timetables for achieving them, and no sanctions for missing them.

But the Copenhagen outcome is a disappointment only to those who have been dwelling too much on the non-negotiable (if still imperfectly understood) physics of the Earth’s systems and not enough on the equally compelling (and perhaps better understood) politics of the vociferous, divided, and unequal societies who inhabit the planet. What we saw at Copenhagen—just as we saw at Kyoto 12 years earlier—was an exercise in global power politics. No more, no less. And, as with everything else, politics trumps science, as surely it should do unless we wish to live in one of Huxley’s undemocratic brave new worlds.

Twelve years ago, following the outcome of the Kyoto climate summit, the science journal Nature remarked in an editorial: “As the Clinton administration attempts to prepare the ground for ratification by the US Senate, the onus will fall on scientists to convince both Senate and the wider public that scientific knowledge of climate change is sufficiently robust for the economic upheaval required to implement the targets agreed at Kyoto.”

Now, in 2010, the Obama administration is in a similar place, but with two key differences. One difference from 1998 is that, by lowering the emissions bar, Obama has made a considered political judgement about what is achievable with his unruly Senate. We will see whether his political acumen is greater than Clinton’s. The other difference from 1998 is that I do not believe it is still in the power of scientists to do the necessary persuading (even if it once was, then the fallout from “ClimateGate” suggests otherwise). The needed persuasion must be achieved by good old-fashioned political argumentation, compromise, and deal-making. This is how politics works, whether scientists like it or not. Climate change is far too complicated a phenomenon to be remedied and brought under control simply through the persuasive powers of scientists. 

The important lesson that must be taken from Copenhagen is that the way we have constructed climate change as a global problem, with its attendant political machinery—modelled unfortunately on the less-than-perfect analogy of the Montreal Protocol—has finally been shown to be self-defeating. After fifteen rounds of annual multilateral negotiations in which the top-down, targets-and-timetables approach to emissions limitations has been pursued, we can now see clearly that less ambitious and more diverse, pragmatic and bottom-up approaches are necessary.

Rather than tackling climate change through a “unified framework” approach, we must first break climate change down into its varied and multi-scale component problems and then design different policy frameworks and incentives to tackle each of these problems. It will be messier but, paradoxically, more effective. We should seek clumsiness over elegance. For example, why lump black soot, methane, halocarbon, and carbon dioxide emissions control together into the same policy framework? Why lock the urgent development needs of the world’s bottom billion into the conundrum of dissipating anthropogenic climate change? Why seek to manage the unique assets of tropical forests through the same framework that is seeking to promote solar-energy technology?

We must use the 12 months until Mexico City to cut our losses and rethink a more pragmatic set of approaches for managing climate and its attendant risks. This will require us to understand afresh the differences between the physical realities of how the planet functions and the political realities of how humans and their societies function. Science always seeks to universalize; politics usually makes progress by particularizing.

A Weak Accord Could Be a Good Thing

Michael Levi is the director of the Program on Energy Security and Climate Change at the Council on Foreign Relations, based in New York City.

Much criticism of the Copenhagen conference has focused on the claim the country-by-country emissions pledges made there put the world on a path to warming between 3-4º C. This contrasts sharply with the broad goal, affirmed in the Copenhagen Accord, of holding the global temperature rise to no more than 2 ºC above pre-industrial levels.

This line of attack misses the mark. It is at once too strong—nothing in the accord consigns the world to 3-4º C of warming—and too weak, since the accord does not actually guarantee that temperature rises will be limited to 4º C either.

On the last day of the Copenhagen negotiations, people began pointing to a “leaked UN memo” as evidence that the commitments made at the conference were inadequate. But the memo had severe flaws. The analysis, like many others published around the same time, was based on the pledges that countries had already offered. In most cases, those promises were for emissions cuts between now and 2020. The EU, for example, promised to cut its emissions to 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020; China offered to cut its carbon dioxide emissions per unit GDP to 40-45 percent below 2005 levels by the same date. Those countries would, presumably, continue to cut their emissions beyond then, but since those further cuts aren’t part of their formal pledges, modelers can’t incorporate them. (The United States was the only big country to spell out its cuts through 2050.) The result is higher projected emissions than would actually happen if those countries hit their targets, and hence a higher projected temperature rise.

The estimate could, though, also easily turn out to be low. There is nothing in the accord that comes anywhere close to guaranteeing that countries will actually deliver on their pledges. This is not because the deal is not legally binding—the Kyoto protocol, after all, was legally binding, and Canada has blasted through its promised limit. It is because cutting emissions can be hard. It requires not only political will and economic investment but also the institutional capacity to deliver. We have no way of knowing now whether countries will be able to produce the emissions cuts that they want to, regardless of whether they commit to them in an international deal. In that context, perhaps the thinness of the Copenhagen Accord is a good thing: no one will kid themselves into thinking that the deal guarantees any particular outcome, which might make them invest more effort in ensuring that each country actually delivers.

Which gets to the heart of the Copenhagen Accord: People are making a mistake when they try to decide whether it will save or doom us. It won’t do either. If we follow through on it intelligently, the accord can be an important piece of a puzzle that puts the planet on a safer path. If we don’t, any tentative advances made last December will be lost.

Originally published January 11, 2010


Share this Stumbleupon Reddit Email + More


  • Ideas

    I Tried Almost Everything Else

    John Rinn, snowboarder, skateboarder, and “genomic origamist,” on why we should dumpster-dive in our genomes and the inspiration of a middle-distance runner.

  • Ideas

    Going, Going, Gone

    The second most common element in the universe is increasingly rare on Earth—except, for now, in America.

  • Ideas

    Earth-like Planets Aren’t Rare

    Renowned planetary scientist James Kasting on the odds of finding another Earth-like planet and the power of science fiction.

The Seed Salon

Video: conversations with leading scientists and thinkers on fundamental issues and ideas at the edge of science and culture.

Are We Beyond the Two Cultures?

Video: Seed revisits the questions C.P. Snow raised about science and the humanities 50 years by asking six great thinkers, Where are we now?

Saved by Science

Audio slideshow: Justine Cooper's large-format photographs of the collections behind the walls of the American Museum of Natural History.

The Universe in 2009

In 2009, we are celebrating curiosity and creativity with a dynamic look at the very best ideas that give us reason for optimism.

Revolutionary Minds
The Interpreters

In this installment of Revolutionary Minds, five people who use the new tools of science to educate, illuminate, and engage.

The Seed Design Series

Leading scientists, designers, and architects on ideas like the personal genome, brain visualization, generative architecture, and collective design.

The Seed State of Science

Seed examines the radical changes within science itself by assessing the evolving role of scientists and the shifting dimensions of scientific practice.

A Place for Science

On the trail of the haunts, homes, and posts of knowledge, from the laboratory to the field.


Witness the science. Stunning photographic portfolios from the pages of Seed magazine.

Sites by Seed Media Group: Seed Media Group | ScienceBlogs | Research Blogging | SEEDMAGAZINE.COM