The U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen drew to a close on Saturday, December 19th, but the reall battle is just beginning. The struggle, from this point forward, is about who tells the story. The narrator provides the lens through which we view the events of Copenhagen, framing the course of future climate action.

The Obama administration, the mainstream media, and administration allies like Joe Romm of Climate Progress blog fame have done their best to characterize the outcome as an heroic intervention by Obama and the U.S. to rescue the Copenhagen conference from disaster. In some particularly nasty variants of this narrative, China plays the obstructionist, manipulating the Global South and civil society and doing everything it can to place roadblocks in the path of climate progress. (If you would like to read the most absurd example of this line of reasoning, take a look at this embarassing piece by Mark Lynas.) The U.N., so the story goes, is a pathetically cumbersome and ineffectual forum which must be forced into meaningful action by powerful and effective leaders like Obama.

Romm wrote one piece on the subject himself, turned over his Climate Progress blog to Center for American Progress Senior Fellow Andrew Light for another and republished an article by Harvard economist Robert Stavins which laid out the interpretation a third time. Light’s piece is so full of outright lies and misrepresentations that it is a waste of time to discuss it, but here’s the conclusion of the Stavins piece, which is at least intellectually honest.

Whether the next step in international deliberations should be under the auspices of the UNFCCC or a smaller deliberative body, such as the Major Economies Forum (MEF), is an important question. Given the necessity of achieving consensus (that is, unanimity) in United Nations processes and the open hostility of a small set of nations, bilateral and multilateral discussions, including via the MEF, could be an increasingly attractive route, at least over the short term.

The climate change policy process is best viewed as a marathon, not a sprint. The Copenhagen Accord – depending upon details yet to be worked out – could well turn out to be a sound foundation for a Portfolio of Domestic Commitments, which could be an effective bridge to a longer-term arrangement among the countries of the world. We may look back upon Copenhagen as an important moment – both because global leaders took the reins of the procedures and brought the negotiations to a fruitful conclusion, and because the foundation was laid for a broad-based coalition of the willing to address effectively the threat of global climate change. Only time will tell.

Stavins’ major points and underlying assumptions are as follows:

  • The U.N. consensus-based process has no value in and of itself
  • Smaller decision making bodies are attractive for climate deliberations
  • The Major Economies Forum, or similar institutions, are viable candidates for climate decision making
  • Opposition to the Copenhagen Accord is adequately explained by the “open hostility” of a small set of nations
  • It’s a good thing that global leaders (Obama) seized the controls in Copenhagen
  • The Copenhagen Accord represents a fruitful conclusion to Copenhagen
  • A “coalition of the willing” is a viable model for climate action

These are, in fact, the key points at issue in terms of how we proceed, but our approach to these issues is much more than a matter of how to be most effective. Instead, these issues are at the heart of who controls the decision making apparatus and will determine the prospects for climate justice.

Global Exchange’s Campaign for Climate Equity has been saying, ever since its launch, that there would be no climate deal until the United States and the rest of the major industrial economies are prepared to make drastic emission cuts, before developing countries are asked to do so, and until massive infusions of capital from public finance sources are made available to less developed countries to deal with the consequences of climate change and construct a clean development path. That is still true. The result of Copenhagen was predictable since the rich, industrial economies still refuse to accept their responsibilities.

Stavins’ suggestion, and the approach adopted by deveoped countries at the close of the Copenhagen conference, led by Obama, was to form an alliance of rich economies and throw the rest of the world overboard. The process suggestions offered by Stavins and the other commentators pushing the same frame of reference are designed to eliminate the cumbersome impoverished and small island nations of the developing world from the discussion.

The United Nations uses a consensus approach, which gives the relatively weak a substantial voice in the process. In contrast, the rich and powerful countries like the United States are unable to impose decisions in their interest. Unless, that is, they are able to subvert the U.N. process as we witnessed in the closing hours of the Copenhagen process.

The agreement announced by Obama in a press conference as he was leaving Copenhagen was an agreement between the United States, China, India, Brazil and South Africa. It was announced publicly as a done deal before most countries had even read the text. The final result of the conference was to “note” the agreement, but not adopt it.

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