Was Copenhagen the Death of Multilateral Environmental Agreements?

By Saliem Fakir · 13 Jan 2010

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Picture: United Nations Climate Talks
Picture: United Nations Climate Talks

What do secret declassified documents from the Clinton era tell us about the future of climate negotiations?

While a great hope hung on the Copenhagen Climate Summit, right up to the end, the meeting was bogged down with uncertainty and controversy.

There were no targets, no binding agreements and there was no real money to show. Some governments didn’t even bother with the requirements of science or the immorality of not acting with urgency.

Denmark’s inability to play impartial host - given the controversy surrounding a secret parallel text the Danes were cooking up while the official process was happening - and its incompetent management of the proceedings, contributed to the demise of the negotiations

All of this created the conditions for American President Barack Obama to parachute in from Oslo, after receiving his Nobel Peace Prize to engineer a last minute ‘rescue’. Except that he usurped his status to convene a select meeting between 30 odd large emitters and produce what has come to be referred to as the “Copenhagen Accord,” which left out the rest of the United Nations (UN) countries.

The Obama engineered accord also involved a ‘behind closed doors’ session with the so-called BICS countries: Brazil, India, China and South Africa.

It is unclear why South Africa agreed to this while presenting itself as a progressive force. It could either be that we were so caught up in Obama mania that our own vanity got the better of us or that we were caught between a rock and hard place and being left out - given our own emission levels - was an option that could not be contemplated.

However, the consequences of our actions did not earn us respect amongst other African countries, as we reinforced the perception of our exceptionalism on the continent. All this talk about African ubuntu - when it came to the crux - is at best always said to appease ears than to mean anything.

The most bothersome aspect of the accord is that it left open the question of how the negotiations should continue and what outcomes would constitute an acceptable agreement. Everything is up in the air despite Obama claiming the new accord is a good basis to start something new.

What was agreed at Copenhagen was pretty much the platitudes mouthed at the special UN General Assembly last October, the Major Economic Forum for Climate meeting in September 2009 and the G20 gathering. No promises made there remain very much no promises made in Copenhagen.

The ramifications of the Copenhagen failure have not been fully understood as such. The main issue is the future of international environmental agreements and whether climate change has become so much of an economic and trade issue that it was bound to be scuppered by the major powers come what may of the moral and scientific arguments.

The G-77 plus China is also in tatters. Even though it has long been held as a collective voice for developing countries, the “emerging country” economic status of the BICS countries is beginning to reflect new class interests between the BICS and the rest of the developing world.  

Copenhagen amounted to a subversion of the entire UN multi-lateral process itself. If anything, it marks the beginning of a process of no return. Parallel structures involving the big economies are taking over from already weakened UN institutions. The UN will effectively become a poor countries’ club who will have salt thrust into their wounds as they watch the big economic powers dictate shots from outside of the UN system.

Given the euphoria surrounding the election of Obama as president of the United States (US), it was hoped that the US would come back into the international fold, show leadership and begin to restore the tattered multilateral system given the damage wrought on it by Bush era bullying.

The US approach to climate negotiations, nonetheless, is a rehash of a pretty firm US thesis on this issue dating back to the 1990s. The US position has been consistent: to ensure that its economic interest take precedence over environmental causes.

Some light as to what could possibly be happening within the Obama administration requires us to go back twelve years when the Clinton administration was contemplating the issue of the Kyoto Protocol. There are some parallels and positions developed back then that have pretty much become the template for US positions today.

Posted on the University of Georgetown’s National Security Archive web page, recently released declassified memos, under US Freedom of Information Act provisions, demonstrate the ambivalence prevailing within the Clinton administration on whether to commit to ambitious targets or take a hawkish view.

The US vacillation on the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 was the result of a policy disagreement between the State Department proposing a more aggressive stance that would meet international expectations versus the Treasury, which saw itself as the ‘voice of reason’ questioning economic implications and whether targets could be met realistically in what it saw as the State department’s over-optimistic goals.

The US’ chief negotiator then and representing the White House, Todd Stern (presently special envoy for the Obama administration at the climate negotiations) had to wrestle with Clinton’s Secretary of Treasury, Lawrence Summers (currently Obama’s Director for the National Economic Council, a key economic policy making body within the US Presidency) over whether to be seen to be doing the right thing versus the US’ economic interests. As they did then, both these figures occupy remarkably opposing poles and voices in the Obama administration today.

However, their presence in both administrations has ensured a consistency of debates between the Clinton and Obama eras.

The Clinton administration also got flack from the “Hill” in which republican Senators (through the Byrd-Hagel Resolution) wanted the US to take a tougher stance on countries like China and India. Even though Vice-President Al Gore signed the agreement on 12 November 1998, the US Congress did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol, as it had no commitments for emission reductions from developing countries.

In one of the memo’s summarising discussions held at a National Economic Council meeting, a representative for Summers wrote that there was “a good deal of dreaminess about the possibility of accomplishing a lot at a low cost with new, warm and fuzzy technologies (such as windmills and solar power). Treasury will need to be realists.”

While the US is currently going beyond “warm and fuzzy,” given the rate of investments in wind and solar technologies these days, the underlying tension within the administration about costs and acceptable emission targets still ensues between so called ‘idealists’ and ‘realists’.

The memos reveal that the US position, as it evolved during the Clinton administration, was to push for an economically acceptable target -- meaning a low ambition, with a ‘dealmaker’ being agreement from developing countries on emission targets of their own. 

In the run up to the Kyoto meeting, in a final position memo for President Clinton, Gene Sperling, (former economic advisor and director of the National Economic Council, currently serving as Counsellor to Treasury Secretary, Timothy Geithner) spells out the basic US dilemma: “An aggressive approach would well play internationally and with environmental groups, but would be sharply criticized by corporations, labor unions and the Hill. A more gradual approach, however, would garner some support from domestic interests but would be met with derision abroad and by environmental constituents.”

It goes on further to advise: “Your advisors favour a much tougher line on developing countries, even if it necessitates a two-step approach to the international negotiations: reach agreement among the developed countries, but do not submit the agreement for domestic ratification until key developing countries commit to binding targets.”

In Copenhagen, Obama seemingly had the same dilemma and by hijacking the UN meeting, Obama effectively imposed upon the world the US’ intended two-track approach as a conditionality and with a yet undeclared gradualism and least cost option strategy.

The memos are replete with how do deal with the issue of the ‘developing country problem’.

Be that as it may, no agreement involving the US is likely if China and India don’t agree to binding commitments -- and we can be pretty sure that they won’t abide by the US’ preconditions in this new round.

But the Copenhagen meeting’s message was more ominous in another respect. There will be no real decision-making in the UN’s multilateral climate change negotiations. All decisions will remain the prerogative of the now formalised G20 as it begins to take over the role of global stewardship and become the forum where economic and political power is brokered.

It is more likely that the façade of an official negotiation will continue through the next round of UN Conference of Parties (COP) meetings and that a separate deal or no deal will be hammered out either at the Major Economic Forum for Climate discussions or through the G20 processes.

As the Clinton memos reveal, economic self-interest will come to intrude upon doing the morally right thing. The big powers, which have the wherewithal to finance and lead collective action, will unfortunately force a zero-sum game between each other rather than do what is good for the future of humanity.

Fakir is an independent writer based in Cape Town.

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Miles Teg
15 Jan

Dead G77 & Role of Civil Society

'Tis a pity Fakier does not address the role of Civil Society in his article... just like the differences between States, there were differences amongst CSOs - and it was vicious, and included protests outside the WWF offices in Europe!

On the death of the G77, perhaps this is true, as it is a diverse coalition. Yet I simply cannot understand why there is SO LITTLE interrogation of the ideas presented by the G77. Even when groups like the UN and the WWF were barking about "Seal the Deal" before and post-Bali, and asking large developing countries to make cuts, there was still no response from the rich countries to the February 2009 proposals of the G77. Makes one wonder about the impartiality of the analysis and the intentions of these folk (not to personalise though!).

The lack of analysis on this, also including the binding obligations of the rich countries under the UNFCCC itself speaks volumes.

THERE ARE GOOD PROPOSALS from the G77 on the table. They are just not mentioned, as if it is acceptable to not mention them. Another group of countries are bound to take it up if the G77 cannot hold the line.

It is this absence of analysis on the current obligations of the rich world and the failure to analyse the proposals of the G77 that allows for poor policy decisions and actions to be taken...

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