The U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen drew to a close on Saturday, December 19th, but the effort to control the outcome of the conference has just begun. The United States is at the center of a major push, currently underway, to own the story of Copenhagen and thereby to hopefully drive the course of future negotiations. Control of the conference narrative is critically important. The narrator provides the frame through which we view the events of Copenhagen, effectively constraining the course of future climate action to the options that comfortably fit within the frame. The Copenhagen Accord was not the only output of the Copenhagen conference, nor was it officially adopted, but it is treated as the first step in the only viable path forward by the mainstream Western media, the Obama administration, and many large environmental advocacy groups. Administration allies like Joe Romm of Climate Progress blog fame, one of the most influential climate commentators in the U.S., 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 extreme example of this line of reasoning, take a look at this hit piece written by Mark Lynas.) The U.N., so the story goes, is a 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 two articles by Harvard economist Robert Stavins (here and here) and one by Natural Resources Defense Council Policy Director David Doniger that all amplify roughly the same message. 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 first 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 consensus-based process used by the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) has no value in and of itself
  • Smaller decision making bodies are attractive for climate deliberations
  • The Major Economies Forum, or similar institutions like the G8 or G20, 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
  • The Copenhagen Accord represents a fruitful conclusion to Copenhagen

These are, in fact, the key points at issue, but when we examine these points and assumptions critically it is clear that in each case Stavins is recommending less open, less democratic processes than the current UNFCCC process. These issues are at the heart of who controls the decision making apparatus and will determine the prospects for climate justice. A smaller group of major economies would no doubt make decisions easier to reach, but it would do so by shutting the doors to disagreement. Since the parties shut out of a major emitters decision making apparatus would be many of the countries principally affected by climate change, there is no reason to believe that a just or sufficiently aggressive outcome would be the result of such negotiations. NRDC’s David Doniger, while making essentially the same case, is even more blunt than Stavins:

And what of the relationship to the UNFCCC? One can see several possibilities. The members of the new agreement are likely to meet at least several times this coming year. The developing country parties will not want to break away from the UNFCCC entirely, so at a minimum they will report on their activities at the mid-year meetings in June in Bonn, and at the next COP in Mexico in November. The members of the accord, however, are unlikely to want to get tangled up in the subsidiary bodies and plenaries of the COP. They will not give the obstructionists that leverage. That poses a dilemma for those still hoping for an extension of the Kyoto Protocol, both those who want that for the best of reasons, and those who play the game to block any real progress. The existing convention has, at best, one last chance to get its act together. That will require transforming itself into a functional body, capable of overcoming rogues and obstructionists and capable of making practical, timely decisions. And it cannot succeed by trying to compete with the Copenhagen Accord. The only way forward for the UNFCCC is to embrace the new agreement wholeheartedly. Otherwise, the UNFCCC will wither away.

When Doniger refers to “real progress”, he’s talking about the same sort of action we’re seeing from the U.S. Congress. Do something, even if it is grossly inadequate – and let’s pretend it represents a major effort. And when he refers to “rogues and obstructionists”, he’s referring to negotiators that want the rich, industrial economies (largely Annex I countries under the Kyoto Protocol) to adopt major cuts and repay climate debt. The notion that it is obstructionist to want justice pervades this new approach and the PR effort that surrounds it. It is unclear why Doniger does not consider the United States, the only major industrial nation to not sign the Kyoto Protocol, a rogue or obstructionist. The views of Stavins and Doniger are very much a reflection of the Obama administration strategy on climate. Jonathan Pershing, U.S. Deputy Special Envoy for Climate, made it clear in a recent speech at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington that the U.S. approach to future climate negotiations would involve a mix of strategies, but with reduced emphasis on the United Nations and increased emphasis on major economy discussions outside the U.N. framework. On January 14th, the day after Pershing’s speech, Todd Stern, Pershing’s boss at the State Department, clarified that this approach has been central to the Obama administration’s strategy for some time. The Guardian’s U.S. Environment Correspondent, Suzanne Goldenberg, reported on Stern’s statement regarding the role of the Major Economies Forum outside the U.N. framework:

…Stern also indicated that the Obama administration had come to power a year ago with doubts about yielding the primary control of climate change negotiations to the UN. “We came in with quite a strong view that we needed to set up a stronger group of countries as well as operating in the larger multilateral arena,” he said. “For that reason we took the set of countries that President Bush had initiated, rechristened it and gave it a different mission.”

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 rich industrial economies are prepared to make drastic emission cuts, before developing countries are asked to do so, and until massive infusions of capital 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 wealthy, developed countries still fail to meet those criteria in a legally binding manner. That much we knew before Copenhagen, but what is new and most disturbing about the U.S. spin on Copenhagen’s aftermath is the apparent unwillingness to seriously consider full reengagement in a U.N.-based process that might actually result in an equitable global climate deal. The United States quite frankly seems to have decided that it can proceed quite nicely without all those bothersome, impoverished countries in the room. As you might expect, that view has less traction outside the United States. According to Yvo de Boer, UNFCCC Executive Secretary, in his consultations with countries since the close of the Copenhagen conference there has been “no indication of any interest in having the Copenhagen Accord lead a life of its own.” In a press conference on January 20th, de Boer made it clear that the negotiating texts which have been the basis of U.N. negotiations for the last two years will continue to be the basis for formal negotiations. No country he has consulted wants the Copenhagen Accord, existing as it does outside the formal negotiating texts, to become a separate track. Instead, de Boer framed it as a political document which can be useful to guide the existing negotiating texts in future sessions. So what is the appropriate conclusion? Two things are certain. The primary advocate for the Copenhagen Accord is the United States, and the U.S. view of the Copenhagen Accord is not universally shared. In fact, the U.S. may be completely alone in its view that smaller negotiating venues should be part of the climate negotiation mix.