I probably don’t even need to provide a link to “How do I know China wrecked the Copenhagen deal? I was in the room,” Mark Lynas’s recent Guardian article that has found itself at the center of so many a post-Copenhagen conversation. Chances are you’ve read it. Just in case: Of China’s role in this month’s round of UN climate talks, Lynas says, “China’s strategy was simple: block the open negotiations for two weeks, and then ensure that the closed-door deal made it look as if the west had failed the world’s poor once again.”
Interestingly, the rest of Lynas’s analysis hinges on assessing China’s behavior in the final hours of negotiations. Likewise, little of the deluge of external analysis since has focused on China’s behavior earlier in the Copenhagen negotiations. It would be helpful to see a detailed play-by-play analysis of China’s interventions, press statements, internal strategy etc. during and in the lead-up to Copenhagen as well as during those final few hours. When, exactly, was the moment where China went from reluctant US “ally” to reinvigorated adversary? How much of the behind-the-scenes camaraderie had been an act all along, and how much was genuine? And if it had once been genuine, where did it break down? If anyone knows of such an analysis, please point me to it. In the meantime, I will focus for the moment, as Lynas does, on what happened (or didn’t) on that fateful final Friday, what we can learn from it, and equally importantly, what we can’t.
Lynas emphatically conveys a very important message: Global geopolitics have changed, and advocacy groups’ strategies need to change, too. These days, he points out, “developed countries bad, developing countries good” is too simple and outmoded a paradigm. Message received, loud and clear. But to focus singly on China’s “bad guy” role in closed-door climate negotiations with the US and a handful of other countries is problematic as well, and neglects to account for a whole host of factors and actors which could have prevented a down-to-the-wire-emergency-closed-room-China-decides-so-much situation in the first place. Allowing that China’s position was problematic, and that moving forward, we need smarter strategies for current geopolitics, there are at least four other big picture lessons here about what absolutely must go differently in the future:
1. Don’t leave everything to the 11th hour
Copenhagen marked the fifteenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties, and two whole years since the Bali Action Plan supposedly put the world on the path to agreeing the next global climate treaty. In the Copenhagen fallout, pundits have become very focused on debating the implications of a few maneuvers made by a few actors in the final days and hours of the negotiations. It seems the question we really should be asking is: with so much at stake, why was so much left to those hours—and for that matter, those few individuals—to decide?
2. You can’t wreck a wreck
“I saw Obama fighting desperately to salvage a deal,” says Lynas of Friday’s closed-door meetings. Which begs the question—Was President Obama trying to salvage a deal, any deal? What exactly was the substance of the deal he was trying to save? Elsewhere, Lynas applauds: “The US put serious cuts on the table for the first time (17% below 2005 levels by 2020).” Serious cuts? Really? A 17% cut below 2005 levels translates roughly to a paltry 4% below 1990 levels by 2020…that’s significantly less ambitious than what the US would have committed to had it ratified to the Kyoto Protocol. More importantly, whatever your take on what countries should be responsible for what portion of a shared global goal, a short-term reduction of 4% on 1990 levels from the US clearly falls far short of what the latest science demands. The oft-cited IPCC recommended range for developed country cuts is some 25-40% below 1990 levels by 2020. Coupled with significant deviation from business as usual in the developing world and action over the long-term, a short-term developed country cut of 25-40% would give the global community a chance, but by no means a certainty, of avoiding catastrophic climate change. Unfortunately, at a time when our national leaders and most brilliant brains should be working out how to make short-term cuts even more aggressive than that range, they seem to be busy figuring out how to sell sub-par (and for many countries, sub-survival) ambition instead. Surely that’s the bigger tragedy here?
3. Negotiate in the open
Anyone familiar with the international climate negotiations knows too well that albeit with some notable exceptions, the large, publically accessible plenary meetings often turn into a sort of public theater or an exercise in forgone conclusions. By the time a particularly substantive or contentious issue comes up in a plenary meeting, most of the discussion and confrontation has already happened in smaller informal meetings closed to press and civil society, with the deals being struck in these closed-door informals and bilateral meetings and in phone calls bouncing between the negotiations and key players at home. Admittedly, there are sometimes very valid reasons to pursue small closed-door meetings: smaller group can work through difficult issues more quickly, a private setting allows for necessarily frank conversations, etc. However, in Copenhagen, a key opportunity was lost to use a more transparent and inclusive process, open to civil society observers and the media, to arrive at the final agreement language, and in so doing expose or prevent obstructionism by using the powerful presence of other nations, civil society, and press to keep parties accountable for their behavior. Whatever China did or didn’t do, they had the cover of a closed-door meeting in which to do it. Lynas argues that many civil society and environmental groups have missed the boat and misinterpreted the Copenhagen story. Having access to the conversation would surely help ensure we get it right next time—not only for our sakes, but for the sake of the process and the sake of the climate as well.
4. Climate negotiations are rarely just about climate change,
aka understanding and communicating national needs in cross-cultural contexts
Lynas rightly notes, “Above all, Obama needed to be able to demonstrate to the Senate that he could deliver China in any global climate regulation framework…” What about China? What did China need? I imagine China needed to assert its power and show it could stand up to the US, not dissimilar to the way in which the US needed to show its people it had stood up to China. I recognize that the US team likely felt blind-sided by China’s aggression in the second week of the climate talks, but I can’t help but wonder—up until that point, what, if anything, was the shared US-China strategy to ensure both countries got the public image they needed to help deliver the agreement the world needed? Was there a mutually choreographed scenario in which the US team would get to say domestically—however disingenuously—“Hey Senate! China’s taking more action because we told them to!” that would simultaneously allow China to say that it had shown itself a power to rival or exceed the US and had affirmed its rightful position on the world stage? If there was no such strategy…why not? And if there was…why did it fall apart?
So yes, China’s role in Copenhagen was hugely important, and China’s importance moving forward cannot be overstated. But please, let’s recognize that that observation alone does not absolve anyone else of responsibility for their role in Copenhagen or for their future actions. Obstructionism by China or no, frantic 11th-hour closed-door negotiations for a scientifically and legally inadequate deal drafted largely outside the agreed process was never likely to provide a feel-good conclusion for countries, much less the climate. So please, let’s get done with the finger-pointing, absorb the four (plus) bigger picture lessons here, and get on with building trust back into the negotiating process and using what precious little time we have left to work long and hard and in the open, on the basis of science and survival and legally binding commitments. And together, let’s take some action and get some satisfaction.