Heading for the crash? – Obama’s Copenhagen speech

David Corn at Mother Jones has been one of the must-read bloggers from Copenhagen over the last fortnight. Here’s an edited-down version of his take on Obama’s speech in the plenary session this morning (emphasis added):

Obama’s eight-minutes of remarks signaled a global train wreck. Not hiding his anger and frustration, he said, “I think our ability to take collective action is in doubt.” He maintained that his administration has started to mount an “ambitious” plan to cut emissions. And he contended that it is “in our mutual interest to achieve a global accord in which we agree to  steps, and to hold each other accountable for certain commitments.” According to his prepared text, Obama was next supposed to say, “I believe that the pieces of that accord are now clear.” (Emphasis added.) Instead, he asserted, “I believe that the pieces of that accord should now be clear.” That is, there was no consensus among the major global leaders regarding what a deal would look like–not even one that would paper over the deep differences that have plagued the Copenhagen summit from the start: what targets to set; how to include both developed and developing countries within the same framework; what financing would be available for international programs to help poorer nations contend with climate change.

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A rough guide to Copenfailure: conclusion

In the first three parts of this series (1, 2, 3), David and I have explored how Copenhagen might fail; what might lead it to do so; and why some kinds of failure are better than others.  With the summit now into its closing hours, this final post turns to how leaders should respond if the summit really is headed for deadlock.

Right now, the likely outcome of the talks remains shrouded in uncertainty.  All three of the possible scenarios we discussed in Part 1 of the Rough Guide – a Bali 2 political deal without numbers, a Bad Deal with weak numbers, or an out-and-out Car Crash – remain entirely possible. (And let’s not forget that it’s still at least conceivable that the summit could actually succeed – in other words, reach a binding deal which puts the world clearly on track for limiting warming to two degrees C – which would be by far the best case scenario.)

But if, as currently looks more likely, the summit fails to produce a robust deal, then we argue that the most important thing is for policymakers to steer into the skid.

When a car loses grip on the road and begins to slide, the driver’s every instinct is to turn away from the skid to try to control the car. Actually though, what the driver must do is to steer into the skid – or, as driving instructors put it nowadays, “take your feet off both pedals and align your tires with the direction of your intended travel”.

If things start to slide at Copenhagen, the instinct of some policymakers will be settle for whatever deal they think they can reach. It’s a well-honed script; and if, this time tomorrow, you see pro-deal policymakers like the UK’s Ed Miliband doing the rounds of TV news studios saying things like “No, it’s not all we were hoping for – but it is a step in the right direction, and in the end, we mustn’t let the best be the enemy of the good”, then you’ll know that this is what has happened.

Other policymakers will react to a skid by slamming on the brakes (e.g. “This thing is just too complicated to deal with through an international treaty – let’s just all do national policies and see what they add up to in emissions reduction terms”), or indeed by applying more gas (“Two degrees was a total sell-out anyway! When policymakers come back, we have to push them for zero emissions by next Thursday!”).

What advocates of a serious deal should actually do, on the other hand, is – ready? – take feet off both pedals and align the tires with the direction of intended travel.

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For better or for worse, two degrees has become a widely agreed upon reference point. So what policymakers should do at Copenhagen is keep their tires resolutely aligned with two degrees. If what’s on the table at the end of the day is clearly off track for that, they should still keep steering towards it – even if that means refusing to sign the deal.

If pro-deal policymakers – especially the EU – do no better today than merely deferring failure, then they’ll allow themselves to pushed into a defensive posture.  That will make them  look weak, further eroding their (already declining) influence over the process.  Worse, it will undermine the principles that are the essential rationale for an eventual deal. Only by guiding, shaping – and, if necessary, accelerating – breakdown, will champions of a deal have the basis for turning defence back into attack.

True, the best should not be the enemy of the good. But neither should the ever-changing calculus of political possibility lead us to shut our eyes to another crucial test: what’s good enough.  The EU and other champions of two degrees must stick to their guns today.

Plumbing the depths

Orphanage

This morning I went to an orphanage in Bissau (see @markweston71 on twitter for more photos). Can there be a less promising start to life than being orphaned in Guiinea-Bissau? Actually, yes. Some of the orphans were disabled, physically and mentally. Others had been raped and were infected with HIV (unfortunately the southern African myth that you can rid yourself of HIV/AIDS by having sex with a child has reached West Africa, and orphans are an easy target).

Some of the children wanted to play and have their photos taken, and to touch your white skin and long hair. Most, though, just wanted a hug, and to rest their little head on your shoulder for a while.

In a land without land registries

A dispute broke out in our neighbourhood in Bissau when a woman bought a plot of land and began to build a small shop on it. A neighbour objected, claiming the territory was his. The man who had sold the land to the woman remembered that a palm tree used to mark the border of the neighbour’s plot. “Where’s the palm tree?” he asked the neighbour. “It died many years ago,” came the reply.

Undeterred, the landlord asked the neighbour to get out his spade and dig in the place where he thought the palm tree once stood. This the man did, and he eventually found the roots of the old palm tree between his own land and the woman’s new shop. Realising his error, he apologised to the woman, who promptly got on with building her shop. Property rights, Guinea-Bissau style…

(For more on my travels in West Africa, see @markweston71 on twitter.com).

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