This wasn’t realpolitik; it was reality-politik

The idea that a PR, celebrity spectacle like Copenhagen could change the world is worse than naive – it’s ludicrous.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Science & Tech

I have a few hours to kill in Copenhagen before I catch a train to Sweden. Maybe it is the sculptures of emaciated humans outside the conference venue, but for some reason as I walk around I cannot avoid the feeling that I am in the middle of a medieval passion play.

I keep bumping into earnest pilgrims who take every opportunity to remind passers-by that the situation is desperate and the end is nigh. They may describe themselves as protesters or observers at the climate change conference, but in a different era they would have been characterised as camp-followers. There is clearly a symbiotic relationship between the official delegates and the activists hanging around the outskirts of the Bella Centre.

The role of the protesters may have been confined to that of extras, but they added colour and drama to the spectacle. They were even given permission to protest inside the Bella Centre and their ability to bring the proceedings to a standstill helped to inject dramatic tension into an otherwise tedious event.

The protesters take their activities very seriously. A communiqué by Greenpeace informs the world that while heads of state were dining, ‘Greenpeace volunteers were out on the streets of Copenhagen, climbing lampposts to carry our theme of the day: politicians talk, leaders act’.

In this comic drama, climbing lampposts is presented as an initiative that is morally superior to diplomatic negotiations. The organisers of this spectacle appear to agree, which is why lamppost climbers are treated as if they are the voice of the people, whose job it is to keep the proceedings real. Outwardly, world leaders defer to their moral authority. That is what British prime minister Gordon Brown means when he praises protesters for ‘propelling’ world leaders.

The Copenhagen conference was self-consciously promoted as an open and transparent event. This openness is clearly modelled on a reality television format, with the Bella Centre as the Big Brother house, where everything appears unscripted and spontaneous. Here, the audience’s interest is sustained through theatrical revelations about secret draft communiqués and constant rumours about behind-the-scenes deals by nefarious world leaders who are happy to see small Pacific islands disappear under the ocean while they pollute the planet.

Throughout the week there were ominous hints of hidden conspiracies and stitch-ups by the villainous developed nations. Only in this spectacle, there is no behind-the-scenes drama. Everything is self-consciously public. Regular updates by media organisations and blogs help create the impression that there actually is a drama to unfold.

Like the contestants on The X Factor, the participants in Copenhagen were quizzed about what their participation means to them – and they responded with the scripted answer: ‘Everything.’ Regularly, politicians such as Kevin Rudd of Australia or Ed Balls of Britain were prompted to confess their disappointment at the lack of progress to the proceedings. All that was missing was a phone number that viewers could dial to dismiss their least favoured political leader from the show.

By the time the show was over, almost everyone appeared deflated and disenchanted.

Delegates left murmuring about a sell-out. A few argued that at least a start has been made and that the world is more conscious about the threat posed by climate change after Copenhagen than it was before. However, few of the participants are prepared to acknowledge that this was all much ado about nothing.

Striking a portentous note, author-activist Naomi Klein stated: ‘On the ninth day of the Copenhagen climate summit, Africa was sacrificed.’

That’s another way of saying that something really important was taking place at this event. What so many of the commentaries overlook is that international conferences have a solid track record of achieving next to nothing. Global jamborees are essentially talking shops that provide political leaders with an opportunity to strike a statesman-like pose. These are essentially photo opportunities for politicians who want to be seen to be doing something. As for the ever-growing industry of international non-governmental organisations, summits are important public relations events that help demonstrate their importance. That is why both political leaders and the protesters have a common interest in maintaining the illusion that something really important was occurring in Copenhagen. And if not here and now, then there will be a chance at Copenhagen + 5, and Copenhagen + 10.

If the organisers and sponsors are really lucky the Copenhagen Conference will run to as many series as the Beijing franchise on ‘the status of women’.

Throughout history serious negotiations that yield significant results take place in private. In a different era, the idea that 15,000 people hanging out in the Bella Centre could make history and cobble together an agreement that could save the planet would have been dismissed as naive if not ludicrous. Whatever the problems with old-fashioned secret diplomacy, reality TV-style negotiations are far worse. Negotiations carried out in public invariably turn into a routine of play-acting and posturing. The adoption of the reality TV format for an apparently momentous international proceeding guaranteed that the Copenhagen conference would have little substantive meaning. After all, it was meant to work as a spectacle rather than as a venue for the conduct of global diplomacy.

Frank Furedi’s latest book, Wasted: Why Education Isn’t Educating, is published by Continuum Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) An edited version of this article is also published in the Australian today.

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Topics Science & Tech


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