Disagreeable truth about the coming Copenhagen charade
Disagreeable truth about the coming Copenhagen charade
November 24, 2009
We are about to see an advanced case of ”agreementism” between world leaders at the Copenhagen climate change meeting. It is a painful and embarrassing disorder with familiar results.
Every case begins the same way. Leaders gather in summits. They confer. They reach earnest consensus that they need to solve a common problem. They commission studies and agree to meet again. Next time, they tell reporters, they will make real decisions.
This looks terrifically statesmanlike and carries lots of photo opportunities. But then they realise it will be unpopular and difficult to implement necessary reforms. Troubled, the weaker among the leaders gaze into their quivering souls and choose self-preservation over problem-solving. At this instant, the fire of activism departs.
But their huffing and puffing self-promotion has built a peak of expectation. They can’t just walk away and admit failure. The conditions are now ripe – the next time the leaders gather, agreementism sets in.
In a mild case, leaders simply draw up high-sounding communiques. In numbered paragraphs, they give a strong impression of firm agreement and resolute action, but without actually binding themselves to any.
But in an advanced case, leaders know that this simple ruse is unconvincing. The problem is too big, and the leaders have talked too much, to hope that they can get away this easily. They need more than a mere communique. In this stage of the disease, the symptoms deteriorate markedly. Leaders display a disturbing symptom known as ”concerted unilateralism”.
This is a sophisticated way of saying that countries can do whatever the hell they like, but they will write something pompous about it first. And they will all do it together. This is precisely the symptom that world leaders are now displaying ahead of the Copenhagen climate change summit – the so-called COP15 – in two weeks.
This was supposed to be the meeting that sealed a legally binding treaty on all 191 nations of the world. Successor to the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, it would be the pact to save the planet from the devastating effects of global warming.
But you could pick the acute onset of advanced agreementism the moment the meeting’s chairman, Lars Rasmussen, the Danish Prime Minister, uttered the following words at a breakfast meeting of Asia-Pacific leaders in Singapore on November 15: ”The Copenhagen Agreement should be global, comprehensive and substantial, yet flexible enough to accommodate countries with very different national circumstances.”
Allow me to interpret: ”To frightened leaders everywhere, do not panic! Each of you will write down on a piece of paper what you want to do about global warming. There is nothing compulsory. Make it sound impressive. We are supposed to be saving the entire planet, remember? Whatever.
”Next, we will collect your papers. We will staple them together. We will call it the Copenhagen Agreement. We will declare victory. We will all have our pictures taken. And we will tell reporters that, next time, we will make real decisions. You know the drill.”
How can we be so certain of this outcome? We have two ways to be sure. First, Rasmussen went on to spell it out in unmistakeable terms.
”Will it be binding? Yes, it will be binding. Even if we may not hammer out the last dots of a legally binding instrument, I do believe a political binding agreement with specific commitment to mitigation and finance provides a strong basis for immediate action in the years to come.”
Take special note of the all-important distinction between a ”legally binding instrument” and a ”political binding agreement”. A politician’s binding agreement? That’s in the same category as a campaign promise.
And celebrate the wonderful non-sequitur of ”immediate action in the years to come”.
In a masterstroke, Rasmussen called the format ”one agreement – two purposes”. The first purpose, he says, is to state political intent, and the second is to keep talking about a legal treaty for later. The media shorthand for this has become a ”two-step” agreement.
Second, we know how this will end because we’ve seen it twice before in recent history. We’ve seen precisely the same format of ”concerted unilateralism” on different continents and in different fields, and each time with the same result.
One was the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation forum’s ”Bogor Declaration” of 1994. In that much-ballyhooed agreement, the APEC leaders at their summit in Indonesia said ”we announce our commitment to complete the achievement of our goal of free and open trade and investment in the Asia-Pacific”.
For developed countries this would be ”no later than the year 2010 and developing economies no later than the year 2020”. But there was no binding agreement. It was a political deal that allowed each country to do what it pleased.
What happened? ”The Bogor commitments have been all but ignored,” summarised the Lowy Institute’s Allan Gyngell and Malcolm Cook in a 2005 paper. Some APEC leaders still fantasise about a free-trade zone.
The other was the European Union’s ”Lisbon Strategy” of 2000. This was supposed to make Europe the world’s most dynamic economy by 2010. But individual governments ignored the deal and continued to pander to unions and bureaucracies.
The director of the International Centre for Money and Banking Studies in Geneva, Charles Wyplosz, wrote: ”The strategy rests on peer pressure – the naming and shaming of governments that fail to make progress. In practice, however, peer pressure has become peer collusion.”
The result, in the words of the director of the European Policy Centre, Antonio Missiroli, was ”shameful”. The European economy remains sclerotic.
Bogor and Lisbon are clear precedents for Copenhagen’s ”concerted unilateralism”. Nothing in any such agreement carries any real force. Only the countries that already wanted to act will act, and the rest will just sit around and watch. But there will certainly be agreement.
Peter Hartcher is the Herald’s international editor.
Source: The Sydney Morning Herald