After Copenhagen, we need to change the climate argument

In Copenhagen’s glitzy airport, there’s a brightly lit billboard bearing a picture of an ageing President Obama. ‘I’m sorry,’ says the legend. ‘We could have stopped climate change. We didn’t.’

The advert, paid for by the international ‘tcktcktck’ climate campaign was intended to galvanise people and leaders into agreeing a strong and worthwhile climate change accord in the Danish capital. Instead, it served as an uncomfortable reminder to departing delegates of the summit’s failure. However, in truth, the underlying political conditions are still not conducive to global deal-making and so the CoP15 stage was never set for high drama; farce was always likely to be top of the bill.

Inside the Bella Convention Center, the venue for the talks, one campaigner was heard to declare “these leaders are not representing their people”. In fact, the very problem is rather the opposite.

For while the polling evidence suggests people are on the whole not climate sceptic and generally in favour of inter-governmental action, they are manifestly less keen on economic pain and physical disruption. Talk of targets, reductions, contraction, limitation and all the green hair-shirtism has not only failed as a convincing political narrative, it has also given people to fear the impact of climate change policies.

In the teeth of such politics and in light of the failure of the UN process to yield anything of significant enough ambition and then its failure to get an unambitious accord past all 192 countries, there are important lessons to be learned.

First, national politics – despite all the talk of global solutions to global problems – still trump internationalism. By this I do not mean the vague notion of national identity nor even mercantilism, although both play a part. Rather it is straightforward national politics that have been lurking on the sidelines of the negotiation since the Bali meeting in 2007 when they began. Governments simply cannot sign an agreement they know will lead to the kind of pain and disruption the polling data shows people are averse to; at least not without a guiding political narrative at the national level; such explanation remains elusive even in countries such as the UK.

One evening in week two of COP 15 I sat down to dinner next to an adviser to Senator Jay Rockefeller, a Democract representing West Virginia. While the Senator is in favour of action on climate change, the adviser told me, coal is intrinsic to the economy of West Virginia, which means Rockefeller will struggle to support the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman climate bill when it is put before the upper house in the US Congress next year.

For China, the implications are no less profound. Throughout the two weeks of Copenhagen, the Chinese delegation, eventually led by Premier Wen Jiabao, insisted that it would not commit to actions that would harm its economic growth or development. While global leadership is clearly of increasing importance to China – hence its participation in the accord agreed in the chill of Copenhagen – the stability of a large, diverse and disparate country depends on continued high growth. Even the usually tight-lipped Communist Party officials began to express concern at the impact of weakened global demand at the zenith of the finance crisis in 2008.

Second, no matter how many green campaigners shout and regardless of how loud their cries, climate change campaigning has failed – not through want of effort or funding – to mobilise anything other than an enthusiastic minority and is a turn off for the majority. The dire warnings from the science and the threats to our children and our children’s children have also failed. So too has the axiomatic stitch in time arguments from the likes of Lord Stern.

Third, the world has changed; there are two global hegemons and so post-colonial, post cold war bullying has less effect. What was significant about Copenhagen was how little others really mattered. In the final hours, the US and China were left to slug it out. It was widely rumoured that the EU would move unilaterally to a 30 per cent reduction in emissions by 2020, but no-one cared. Copenhagen’s last stand was all about the language on China’s willingness to allow outside scrutiny of its climate policies.

So where to now? An orgy of climate scepticism awaits many of the leaders upon their return home. Somehow, the failure of an always wildly hopeful negotiation on climate change policy can be spun by some as proof that climate change is not man made. Hopefully this will prove short-lived.

Of more profound concern is where to go next. The final Copenhagen result – more like a the outcome of a toddlers’ painting party than an international agreement – contains nothing whatsoever of substance apart from the finance promised by developed countries (which requires some scrutiny; anyone who’s worked on aid and Third World debt knows that the first question to ask about such pledges is ‘are they new?’). Many will want to cling to the wreckage of the UNFCCC, but we should ask whether it is now beyond salvation.

Aside from everyone involved taking a long break, what’s needed is nothing short of a total refit of climate argumentation. Even President Obama’s lustre was dulled by the Copenhagen climate fug and yet he swept to power one-year-ago on a wave of optimism. He did so by persuading people to believe that ‘we can’ do things rather than frightening people into thinking we better had. People didn’t vote for him because they were afraid, but because they believed he would turn a dog-eared and bankrupt US back into the beacon of hope Americans believe their nation should be.

One thing we most definitely can do is start somewhere different. When John F. Kennedy announced in 1961 that the US would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, the technology to do so did not exist. So let’s set ourselves a series of inspiring challenges that are also central to ensuring climate security.

The first should be to make low-carbon electricity cheaper than fossil fuels, focussing particularly on bringing power to poorer communities by 2015. Unlike the space race, this will not be rocket science as to a significant extent, the US, China, EU and India are already committed to something like it. The challenge is to force the pace of innovation – R&D, demonstration, commercialisation and deployment – by employing a whole range of policies including regulation, government subsidy and subsidy removal, tax incentives, borrowing and leveraging of private finance capital. Current ‘cap and trade’ type policies look at the problem from the wrong end, threatening to make all energy more expensive in order to bring parity for low-carbon types.

Different priorities, such as carbon capture and storage for the US, South Africa and China, and wind and solar energy for the EU and India, can be pursued through bilateral and ‘mini-lateral’ processes. Through these, governments can work together to tender different parts of the challenge out to private companies either through collaborative procurement or, in the case of innovation, offering big prizes to those who overcome technical and commercial barriers.

The groups and organisations that coalesce around the UN process have long been wary of an overt technology focus, in no small part because its use as a fig leaf by George W. Bush. But it is apparently the case that we need a driving, positive narrative to overcome climate ennui and that this is offered through technology.  It is also a fact that if we don’t get current climate friendly inventions into wide usage and invent and commercialise new stuff, targets and treaties – even if we can agree them – will not be worth the paper they’re printed on (or perhaps ‘noted’ on).

Our guest writer is Andrew Pendleton, Senior Research Fellow at ippr

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