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…