What were we expecting from Copenhagen?

What were we expecting from Copenhagen?

With all due respect to Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, I don’t think you really needed an advanced computer model to predict that the Copenhagen conference wasn’t going to end with binding emissions goals. But even so, the final deal is a crushing disappointment. Developing countries didn’t get the deep emissions cuts or level of aid that they were hoping for. Nor did they commit to the binding agreements or outside verification that developed countries were hoping for. (That includes China, which is absurdly placed in the same category as Kiribati and Tuvalu in the final agreement.) And, perhaps most disappointing, we can’t even hope for a real deal in 2010 anymore. 

In following international politics — or any politics for that matter — one thing that we hear again and again is that meaningful deals and agreements are not reached at summit meetings or international conferences under the glare of TV cameras, but in private, but low-ranking bureaucrats we’ve never heard of, who have most of the details worked out by the time heads of state arrive.

Yet today, we were treated to the spectacle of President Barack Obama flying in to Copenhagen to play Deus ex Machina and holding last-minute meetings with Wen Jiabao. The conference was leaking like a sieve from the start, with new draft agreements appearing in newspapers and developing countires staging a walkout. 

Given that the essential conflicts involved weren’t exactly unknown, one has to ask, where was the backroom advance work? As he so often does, Brazilian President Lula Inacio da Silva summed up the proceedings well:

“We did we face all these difficulties?” Lula said. “Because we did not take the care in advance to work with the responsibility needed.”

Couldn’t the U.S. and China (the two countries that really mattered in this discussion) have reached some compromise position — however watered-down — before Copenhagen and left it to the conference to hammer out the details? A very public two-week conference under siege from both environmentalist protesters and climate denialists was hardly the best place to start from scratch. 

In the end, no one really looks good. Obama has been thwarted for the second time this week by the intransigence of an erstwhile friend. China will once again be painted as the villain (though it’s hardly alone in sharing the blame). The White House is already spinning this as “an important first step,” but in terms of the prospects for a cap-and-trade bill, it may a step back since U.S. business interests will now be able to say (with some justification) that they’re being asked to make sacrifices while the world’s largest emitter makes no binding commitments. The poor planning and seeming lack of advance work for the event don’t exactly help the U.N.’s credibility as a forum for working out these deals. And the Earth, of course, keeps getting hotter. 

Here’s hoping this is the last time Obama has to fly home empty-handed from Copenhagen.