“Just then, the state of British domestic political debate looked a bit shameful”

Last time we caught up with Charlemagne over at the EU heads’ meeting in Brussels, he and his fellow hacks were sniggering about some unfortunate new acronyms. As the summit drew to a close last night, he and the gang were still chuckling away (what a jolly place Brussels sounds to be) – this time at Gordon Brown’s breezy assertion to a joint press conference with the French President that “Nicolas Sarkozy is one of my best friends”.

Amid the general hilarity, though, his concluding observation was interesting:

Mr Sarkozy came across as the bigger man, full stop. At his worst, Mr Sarkozy can be maddening: playing fast and loose with the facts, bullying, cynical and boastful to the point of parody. At his best, he is a politician with a genius for seeing what is important, and detecting the moment for action.

The good Sarkozy came over today. A visiting political reporter from a British television station asked a question. Transferring money to the developing world to help them with climate change might be the right thing to do morally, he said to Mr Brown and Mr Sarkozy. But was it not time to be “honest with voters” about the cost of these measures, and their impact on growth and the economy, he asked, especially at this moment when the markets’ confidence in [Mr Brown’s] economic management was collapsing?

Mr Brown gave a defensive answer about new green services and industries, which would create 400,000 new jobs in Britain. Mr Sarkozy looked at the British reporter as if the man had just coughed up a hairball.

“What is the alternative?” the French president asked. “Think about it. monsieur. What if the richest countries do nothing to help Africa to develop… What if there were no deal at Copenhagen? You think that will not cost our economies dearly? Between Europe and Africa, the Straits of Gibraltar are 12km wide. You think we can leave them in that poverty? You think that won’t cost a lot of money? I’ll tell you what costs money, monsieur: it’s doing nothing. What causes a crisis, is the failure to act.”

In his obsession with costs, the television reporter was no doubt accurately reflecting a good chunk of British public opinion. His question will certainly not have surprised Mr Brown in the least, as was reflected in the prime minister’s reply about the profits to be made from green technology.

I admit that I am not always convinced by French arguments in favour of more public spending. But just then, the state of British domestic political debate looked a bit shameful: small-minded, chiselling, money-obsessed and generally lacking in strategic vision. Mr Sarkozy looked pretty unimpressed, and he had a point.

Us Now

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This is the first bit of Us Now, an hour-long film by Ivo Gormley – screened on Channel 4 but with the entire thing available free over the web – on social networking technologies, mass collaboration, and what they mean for government.  Here’s the rest. (You can also find it in segments on YouTube if you prefer.)

A rough guide to Copenfailure (part 3)

In a couple of previous posts (1, 2), Alex has been looking at how and why Copenhagen might fail – but here’s a fresh question: what’s the difference between a bad and a good failure?

Not all failures are equal, clearly. Some outcomes boost the prospects of eventual success. Others will push the climate process towards semi-permanent dysfunction, an equilibrium that will probably only be shifted by future climate catastrophe.

Good and bad outcomes do not split neatly across our scenarios for failure. Neither will they necessarily be immediately obvious to climate insiders, whose judgement is (understandably) swayed by optimism bias (success is always just around the corner) and a partiality for politeness strategies (obfuscating red lines with technical language; not tackling opponents in public, etc).

Bali #2 – a high level political declaration with little real substance – could be a good deal, and will almost certainly be heralded as such by governments keen to garner good headlines. But there’s a strong chance that it’s simply the prelude to future failure – especially if:

(i) Healthcare continues to block the path to a US Senate bill; (ii) there is ambiguity between countries on the eventual legal status of a deal; (iii) the US and China are at loggerheads, or are huddling in a low ambition coalition; (iv) obvious bear traps – especially Monitoring, Reporting and Verification  – have not been cleared away; or (v) the roadmap to an agreement has no clear timetable or a timetable based on more than wishful thinking.

If enough of these conditions are met, then all Bali #2 does is to defer failure to a bis follow-up – or, more likely, all the way through to the COP16 summit in December 2010. Given wriggle room, the Senate will not able to resist elbowing its way into the talks, larding its Bill with conditions designed to provoke the Chinese, while undermining Obama’s primacy in international negotiations.

Pro-deal campaigners may well let up the pressure, their funds and momentum exhausted by a premature push at Copenhagen. The anti-climate lobby, in contrast, will be energised by blood in the water – and will attract additional funding as a result. Even if a deal is sealed in the spring, the process will still not be out of the woods – as we discuss in our Death by Climatocracy scenario).

Bad Deal is the worst possible outcome.  If overall targets for developed countries are either non-existent or well below the 25-40% reduction beneath 1990 levels needed by 2020, and if there’s no clear resolution of the long term position of developing countries, then valuable political bandwidth has been expended on a deal that simply isn’t up to the job.

Advocates of a serious deal will then have no option other than to ‘go into opposition’ and exert continued pressure against the status quo – although European countries in particular will be sorely tempted to play along, pretending that the deal, however weak, gives the world something to build on.

Car Crash is the most difficult scenario to judge. It will grab headlines, and horrify insiders. But if negotiators must stare into the abyss, it is surely better that they do so at Copenhagen, rather than at the bis, in Mexico in a years’ time, or on the road to implementation in 2012. Indeed, breakdown at Copenhagen could actually be cathartic and help to tee up more ambitious action. Crucially, though, this will only happen if:

– The crash is spectacular, and clarifies differences between countries – thus catalysing a long-overdue discussion about the principles that must underpin a global deal.

– The ‘last straw’ is a totemic issue that can subsequently be tackled and seen to be resolved.  By contrast, the crash must not be over some abstruse technical point that the media can’t explain (as for instance when WTO trade talks collapsed over the obscure Special Safeguard Mechanism in July last year).

– Leaders are confronted by their personal responsibility for a failure of imagination that history is certain to judge harshly.

    Next up – how to respond to failure…

    How climate change will affect hunger: new report on the state of the science

    The World Food Programme has just published a new report (pdf; also Reuters coverage here) on how climate change will affect hunger, which both summarises the state of scientific knowledge on the issue and sets out a policy agenda to tackle it.  Key messages:

    – By 2050, the number of people at risk of hunger because of climate change will be 10 to 20 per cent higher than it would have been without climate change.

    – The number of malnourished children is expected to increase by 24 million – 21 per cent higher than without climate change.

    – Sub-Saharan Africa will be worst affected, with the semi-arid regions either side of the equator hit hardest of all.

    But here’s the good news: if we get the policies right – on mitigation and on adaptation – the increase in the number of hungry people by 2050 could be limited to just 5% (which would actually be a substantial reduction in proportionate terms, given that population is projected to rise by 50% over the same period).

    The lead author for the report was Martin Parry, the Chair of IPCC Working Group 2 (the part of the Panel that looks at impacts). I was one of three other authors, and wrote the part of the report covering policy responses.

    Copenhagen “in disarray”? Don’t believe the hype

    The Guardian’s leading with a rather breathless piece this evening on how the Copenhagen talks are

    … in disarray today after developing countries reacted furiously to leaked documents that show world leaders will next week be asked to sign an agreement that hands more power to rich countries and sidelines the UN’s role in all future climate change negotiations.

    The document is also being interpreted by developing countries as setting unequal limits on per capita carbon emissions for developed and developing countries in 2050; meaning that people in rich countries would be permitted to emit nearly twice as much under the proposals

    The article’s author, John Vidal, also says he’s seen a “confidential analysis of the text by developing countries” , which he says argues that the draft text will “force developing countries to agree to specific emission cuts”, “divide poor countries further by creating a new category of developing countries called ‘the most vulnerable'”, and “not allow poor countries to emit more than 1.44 tonnes of carbon per person by 2050, while allowing rich countries to emit 2.67 tonnes”. Vidal continues that,

    Developing countries that have seen the text are understood to be furious that it is being promoted by rich countries without their knowledge and without discussion in the negotiations.

    But having read the full draft negotiating text (also on the Guardian site, here – and n.b. there’s no proof it’s genuine) Vidal’s article seems weirdly off beam.

    For one thing, the text says nothing whatsoever about having different per capita allocations in 2050 for rich and poor countries. On the contrary, it explicitly says that “Parties’ contributions towards the goal [of limiting warming to 2 degrees C] should take into account … a long term convergence of per capita emissions”. Admittedly, the text doesn’t say anything about the convergence date, and it also falls into the trap of talking about convergence of emissions as opposed to convergence of emission entitlements (explanation here) – but there is no reference to enshrining unequal allocations.

    As to the other stuff about “forcing” developing countries to take on emission cuts or “dividing” them by talking about the idea that some are more vulnerable than others: oh, come on. Continue reading

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