JEFFREY D. SACHS
TWO years of climate change negotiations have now ended in a farce in Copenhagen. Rather than grappling with complex issues, US president Barack Obama decided instead to declare victory with a vague statement of principles agreed with four other countries. The remaining 187 were handed a fait accompli, which some accepted and others denounced.
The United Nations has argued that the document was generally accepted, though for most on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. Responsibility for this disaster reaches far and wide.
Let us start with George W. Bush, who ignored climate change for the eight years of his presidency, wasting the world’s precious time. Then comes the UN, for managing the negotiating process so miserably during a two-year period. Then comes the European Union for pushing relentlessly for a single-minded vision of a global emissions-trading system, even when such a system would not fit the rest of the world.
Then comes the US senate, which has ignored climate change for 15 consecutive years since ratifying the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Finally, there is Obama, who effectively abandoned a systematic course of action under the UN framework, because it was proving nettlesome to US power and domestic politics.
Obama’s decision to declare a phony negotiating victory undermines the UN process by signalling that rich countries will do what they want and must no longer listen to the “pesky” concerns of many smaller and poorer countries. Some will view this as pragmatic, reflecting the difficulty of getting agreement with 192 UN member states.
But it is worse than that. International law, as complicated as it is, has been replaced by the insincere, inconsistent, and unconvincing word of a few powers, notably the US.
America has insisted that others sign on to its terms – leaving the UN process hanging by a thread – but it has never shown goodwill to the rest of the world on this issue, nor the ability or interest needed to take the lead on it.
From the standpoint of actual reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions, this agreement is unlikely to accomplish anything real. It is non-binding and will probably strengthen the forces of opposition to emissions reductions.
Who will take seriously the extra costs of emissions reduction if they see how lax others’ promises are?
The reality is that the world will now wait to see if the US accomplishes any serious emissions reduction. Grave doubts are in order on that score.
Obama does not have the votes in the senate, has not displayed any willingness to expend political capital to reach a senate agreement, and may not even see a senate vote on the issue next year unless he pushes much harder than he has so far.
The Copenhagen summit also fell short on financial help from rich countries to poor countries. Plenty of numbers were thrown around, but most of these were, as usual, empty promises. Aside from announcements of modest outlays for the next few years, which might – just might – add up to a real few billion dollars, the big news was a commitment of US$100 billion a year for the developing countries by 2020.
Yet this figure was unaccompanied by any details about how it would be achieved. Experience with financial aid for development teaches us that announcements about money a decade from now are mostly empty words. They do not bind the rich countries at all. There is no political will behind them.
Indeed, Obama has never once discussed with the American people their responsibility under the UN Framework Convention to help poor countries adapt to the impact of climate change. As soon as US secretary of state Hillary Clinton mentioned the US$100 billion “goal,” many congressmen and the conservative media denounced it.
One of the most notable features of the US-led document is that it does not mention any intention to continue negotiations next year. This is almost surely deliberate.
Obama has cut the legs out from under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, in effect declaring that the US will do what it will do, but that it will not become further entangled in messy UN climate processes next year. That might well reflect the upcoming 2010 mid-term Congressional elections in the US. Obama does not want to be trapped in the middle of unpopular international negotiations when election season arrives.
If the US does not participate in further negotiations, Obama will prove to have been even more damaging to the international system of environmental law than George Bush was. – Project Syndicate
l Jeffrey D. Sachs is Professor of Economics and Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University.