Is the Paris Climate Conference Designed to Fail?
By Brian Tokar
The last time this much public attention was focused on the climate talks was in the lead-up to the Copenhagen conference in 2009. We should not forget how that turned out. (Image: via PabloSolon.com)
From the end of this month through early December, much of the world’s attention will be focused on Paris, the site of the upcoming round of UN climate negotiations. This is the twenty-first time diplomats and heads of state will gather under the umbrella of the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), a document first put forward at the landmark 1992 “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro – the same global conference where the elder George Bush told the world that the “American way of life is not negotiable.” The UNFCCC process has had its ups and downs over the years, including the approval of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, the first international agreement to mandate specific reductions in climate-disrupting greenhouse gases.
As this year’s conference approaches, people around the world are suffering the consequences of some of the most extreme patterns of storms, droughts, wildfires and floods ever experienced. Western wildfires last summer reached as far north as the Olympic rainforest, and unprecedented mudslides earlier this fall in a corner of drought-baked southern California nearly buried vehicles caught on the route from Tehachapi to Bakersfield. Central Mexico recently experienced the most severe hurricane to ever reach landfall, and the role of persistent regional droughts in sparking the social upheaval that has brought nearly a million Middle Eastern refugees to central Europe is increasingly apparent. It is virtually certain that 2015 will be the warmest year ever recorded, with several months having surpassed previous records by a full degree or more. While we are always cautioned that it is difficult to blame the climate for specific incidents of extreme weather, scientists in fact are increasingly able to measure the climate contribution of various events, and rising temperatures also heighten the effects of phenomena such as the California drought, which may not have global warming as their primary underlying cause.
The last time this much public attention was focused on the climate talks was in the lead-up to the Copenhagen conference in 2009. At that time, the first “commitment period” of the Kyoto Protocol was about to expire shortly, and Copenhagen was seen as a make-or-break opportunity to move the process forward. Even as close observers decried the increasing corporate influence over the preparations for the 15th Conference of Parties (COP) to the UN climate convention, most observers held onto a shred of hope that something meaningful and significant would emerge from the negotiations. There was a huge public lobbying effort by Greenpeace and other groups urging President Obama to attend, and China put forward its first public commitment to reduce the rate of increase in their greenhouse gas emissions. While the Kyoto Protocol’s primary implementation mechanisms – tradable emissions allowances and questionable “carbon offset” projects in remote areas of the world – had proven inadequate at best, the Copenhagen meeting was seen as the key to sustaining Kyoto’s legacy of legally binding emissions reductions. Perhaps, activists hoped, the negotiators would agree on a meaningful plan to prevent increasingly uncontrollable disruptions of the climate. It soon became clear, however, that Copenhagen instead set the stage for a massive derailment of the ongoing negotiation process, and unleashed a new set of elite strategies that now render the Paris talks as virtually designed to fail.
It soon became clear, however, that Copenhagen instead set the stage for a massive derailment of the ongoing negotiation process, and unleashed a new set of elite strategies that now render the Paris talks as virtually designed to fail.
Officials in Copenhagen were determined to spin the conference as a success, no matter what the outcome. Still, even before the conference began, they began to proclaim the advantages of a non-binding “political” or “operational” agreement as an incremental step toward reducing worldwide emissions. As described in my book, Toward Climate Justice (New Compass Press, 2014), the assembled delegates from nearly all the world’s nations failed to accomplish even that. COP 15 produced only a five-page “Copenhagen Accord,” with no new binding obligations on countries, corporations, or any other actors, and the document was not even approved – only “taken note of” – by the conference as a whole. The accord essentially urged countries to put forward voluntary pledges to reduce their climate-disrupting emissions, and to informally “assess” their progress after five years. Every substantive issue was hedged with loopholes and contradictions, setting the stage for most of the global North outside of Europe to simply withdraw from their countries’ obligations under Kyoto as the 2012 renewal deadline approached. Still, all but three countries – Bolivia, Venezuela and Nicaragua – went along with this scheme; one main reason was that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had promised skeptics that the US would raise $100 billion a year in funds to assist with climate stabilizing measures, a promise that is still to be realized in the halls of Paris.
Revealing the US Strategy
Just what did the US actually bring to the table in Copenhagen beside a vague pledge by President Obama to reduce emissions? An article in the September/October 2009 issue of the journal Foreign Affairs offered some important clues as to what would transpire in Copenhagen and beyond. Readers may be aware that Foreign Affairs is the official organ of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), an organization that has been seen for many decades as both a weathervane and an active arbiter of elite opinion in the US, and lists most recent US presidents and numerous other senior government officials among its members. Lawrence Shoup, author of two books on the Council, describes it as “the world’s most powerful private organization,” specializing in networking, strategic planning and consensus-forming for US elites. In a 2009 article titled “Copenhagen’s Inconvenient Truth,” CFR Senior Fellow Michael Levi outlined the US government’s apparent strategy for Copenhagen.
“The odds of signing a comprehensive treaty in December are vanishingly small,” Levi would need to have written during the summer of 2009, in preparation for the journal’s September publication. His alternative proposal was to essentially replace international emissions standards with a patchwork of voluntary, country-specific policies with the thoroughly inadequate goal of reducing world emissions of carbon dioxide by half by 2050. Under Levi’s scenario, China would step up investments in renewable energy and “ultra-efficient conventional coal power,” India would become a pioneer in smart grid technology, and countries with emissions mainly from deforestation (especially Indonesia and Brazil) would be offered incentives to protect their forests and raise agricultural productivity. The main US contribution would be to push for a detailed agreement on “measurement, reporting and verification,” one area where US surveillance technology would clearly hold an advantage.