Sunday 20 December 2009

Making sense of Copenhagen

What deal has been agreed at Copenhagen, and by whom, remains unclear while beginning this post [late Friday night]. This post will try to round-up a selection of analysis and commentary during the weekend, looking for those which cast light on the outcome, and particularly where we might go from here. Please do share any especially good pieces of analysis of what is going on - in the comments, or by email (, or tweet me @nextleft: we'll add links we especially like to the main post too. I would especially welcome good recommendations of English-language coverage from outside the UK and US.

Friday 11pm

Politico reported the US view that a 'meaningful' deal had been reached between the United States, China, India and South Africa. As President Obama says an imperfect deal marks progress, The New York Times has a full Obama transcript).

"At the end it was no longer about saving the biosphere: it was just a matter of saving face", writes George Monbiot for the Guardian, reflecting the critical reaction of most of the major environmental groups: you can follow Friends of the Earth blog updates here.

Labour blogger Anthony Painter says any deal is a 'stuttering start' which shows how not to build multilateral agreements and institutions.

Ed Miliband and Gordon Brown, in separate interviews for Sky News just after 11pm on Friday evening, have spoken about the deal which they believe should emerge from the plenary session. They stressed the gains of every country to play a part, in contrast to Kyoto, and were positive about agreement to international verification. But a key issue is disagreement about not only about setting a deadline and timescale for a legally binding agreement but the need for a legal Treaty: "China and India are not yet persuaded of need for a Treaty", said Brown, though the EU, US and many other countries were in favour. So Brown spoke of the need over the next few months for a "huge campaign in Britain and around the world: 'lets turn this into a Treaty that is legally binding'"


It is in the nature of modern media politics that the verdicts precede confirmation of whether there is a deal and what is in it. There is more immediate mainstream media than blog snap analysis.

Saturday's Guardian editorial points out that a truly meaningful deal would not require politicians to declare it so. "It is a sad tribute to collective failure that the all-important question at the end of Copenhagen is: what happens next?"

The Independent editorial argues that the main Copenhagen achievement was a defensive one: "that complete breakdown was avoided and that it gives the world something to build on in future summits. And in the wording on transparency over Chinese emissions cuts, President Obama has something to sell to a truculent Senate when it comes to passing America's cap-and-trade bill ... the logjam of distrust between the developed and developing nations on show in Copenhagen might yet be broken". The Independent challenges those who argue that no deal would have been better than a poor deal: the flawed UN-led process "is still the best hope for collective global action against this collective global threat".

The Times acknowledged many similar points, yet emphasised several positives too: "for all that, Copenhagen has proved a milestone, with much success. A deal looks in place to prevent deforestation. There has been a recognition of the problem of acidification in the oceans. Pledges from China and the US to reduce emissions are big news, and the presence of President Obama at the heart of these negotiations can only be welcomed. We should also be upbeat about emerging consenus that the developed world should help to compensate for the limiting of emissions of the developing world, provided it comes with effective checks so that the right money goes to the right places".

I don't think there is a Telegraph editorial in Saturday's paper. Veteran environmental reporter Geoffrey Lean was not impressed by the Climate Justice Action protests and "thousands of activists who contributed nothing but obstruction", though he exempts the World Wildlife Fund, Oxfam, Greenpeace and "the even more radical, virally spreading 350 campaign" from his polemic.

The New York Times opinionator blog collates responses from the US blogosphere, as well as international NGOs and commentators. If there is disappointment at the outcome, both supporters and critics suggest that Obama and Hillary Clinton's interventions were significant in making any agreement at all possible.

Marcus Becker of Der Spiegel says the Copenhagen accord is a very poor return on 17 years of multilateral climate politics - but wonders if it might prove the peak of international ambition: "we are faced with the threat of an impasse in global climate politics. And the consequences of this holdup will primarily be felt by the poorest of the poor".

Global Dashboard has an interesting 10-point opening analysis from Alex Evans. "Don't panic" but realise the international system for dealing with the climate has broken. "The EU had a shocking summit" and "appeasing China has failed".

On Think Progress, Andrew Light of the Centre of American Progress sees Copenhagen as marking "significant progress" in making a "first step" towards a binding legal agreement by the Mexico summit at the end of next year. The Obama accord should help to address US fears of a loss of competitive advantage, but there are major US domestic challenges.

Henning Meyer for Social Europe says the weakness of the Copenhagen accord shows that there is no effective global politics, only global problems.

Spencer Swartz of the WSJ environmental capital blog notes how quiet OPEC and the Saudis were; perhaps a sign of how little Copenhagen changed.

Willy de Backer thinks the dominance of national perspectives creates a 'who moves first, loses' mindset. Perhaps this can be challenged most effectively not by appeals to global solidarity, but a new 'sustainability race' for leadership in an inevitable new age of low-resource use prosperity. So far, this is better understood by City and sub-national leaders than natonal governments.

(Thomas Friedman reaches a similar conclusion in Sunday's New York Times).


The Independent on Sunday gives its front-page to Greenpeace activist Joss Garman's polemic against "an historic failure that will live in infamy". The paper's leader writers say that the newspaper's head recognises the limits of the possible, and praises Gordon Brown's contribution to what was agreed. The real opposition came from Wen Jiabao erecting 'the great stonewall of China': "The meagre consolation of Copenhagen is that it has been a crash course in learning how to deal with the world's new carbon superpower".

The Observer agrees that blaming President Obama for "perpetuating the legacy of his predecessor" is "unfair". Despite a chaotic process, "This inelegant compromise is what multilateral progress on climate change looks like. We cannot dismiss it in the vain hope that something more beautiful will appear in its place. But nor should we pause to applaud its authors. Instead, we must send them straight back to work".

The Sunday Times does not carry an editorial. But Dominic Lawson is pleased: "let’s toast the negotiators of Copenhagen. By failing so spectacularly, they have presented us with a wonderful Christmas present". Yet in the Sunday Telegraph, both Janet Daley and Christopher Booker are at pains to stress that the threat of global government has not gone away.


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