Why Copenhagen was bound to fail

With deep divisions within the green camp and little popular support without, Copenhagen could not succeed.

Ben Pile

Topics Science & Tech

December’s Copenhagen climate summit was supposed to be the moment at which nations came together to save the planet. But the attempt to produce an international, legally binding agreement on climate change ended up more like a squabble between rivals than the invention of a new green era. Even the force of the ‘overwhelming scientific consensus’ championed in the lead up to, and during, the conference was insufficient to unite the world’s decision-makers. Although the blame game has begun, it is the nature of the meeting itself that explains its failure far better than the behaviour of its players.

Visions and divisions

Copenhagen brought to the surface the many tensions that exist within the green camp. Before the meeting opened, climate activist-scientist James Hansen expressed his distaste for the carbon markets that would likely be created by a deal (1). This put him at odds with unlikely environmental champion, the former vice-president and chief economist of the World Bank, Nicholas Stern. Stern’s 2006 report became the backbone of UK climate policies and made environmentalism the official language of the establishment.

For a while Stern was also celebrated by seemingly radical environmentalists because he had demonstrated that ‘market failure’ – capitalism – had produced the looming climate catastrophe, and he seemingly answered concerns that emissions reductions would impede economic development. Ultimately, however, Stern, the establishment’s own eco-prophet, had only limited appeal to those seeking to express deeper misgivings about the status quo. As former principal speaker of the Green Party, Derek Wall, put it, Stern’s market solutions only served to ‘commodify the atmosphere’ (2). In the eyes of radical greens, the carbon market proposed by Stern began to represent the political establishment’s intransigence rather than its serious commitment to the environmental agenda. Before long, it became the focus of direct action such as last April’s G20 meetings, when the Climate Camp protest attempted to besiege the European Climate Exchange (3).

Official climate strategies are the focus of criticism from within, as well as without the establishment. Following the G20 protests, the chief economist for the Carbon Trust and a member of the UK Committee on Climate Change, Professor Michael Grubb, criticised the level of commitment to the Emissions Trading Scheme following the collapse of the value of emissions allowances (4). Grubb has joined fellow economists, Climate Change Committee chair Adair Turner and Stern (now chair of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics) in applying pressure to the government on climate issues, only occasionally in the same direction as their scruffier counterparts in protest movements.

The roles of environmental economists and their institutions were created by political dysfunction. In one extraordinary case of parliamentary pantomime, the Labour government, and the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties pledged emissions cuts of 60 per cent, 80 per cent and 100 per cent respectively (5). Each claimed to have ‘the science’ on their side, and that the others would send the world into climate chaos. This embarrassing case of politics-by-numbers and opportunism led to an amendment of the Climate Change bill, creating the Climate Change Committee, which would dictate the UK’s ‘carbon budget’ (6). In this act, the government and its opposition further removed the climate debate from the democratic sphere, placing it instead in the hands of economists and climate experts (7). Now, it seems, the government appoints its own critics.

Pastiche politics and democratic deficit

As Brendan O’Neill observes in Hands off the human footprint!, climate politics epitomises the gulf between politics and public. In lieu of a popular movement, the answer to this democratic deficit has been to seek authority in the prospect of catastrophe, the objectivity of climate science and environmental economics, and the moral ground supplied by NGOs. But the recruitment of scientists into the policymaking process has not created any confidence in government, politics or science, and the public remains cynical. Acknowledging the problem, energy and climate change secretary Ed Miliband called for a ‘big historic movement’ like the Suffragettes so as to demonstrate the extent of the climate cause’s ‘popular mobilisation’ (8).

As if commissioned by Miliband himself, a small number of environment protesters – the unpopular movement – dressed up as ‘climate Suffragettes’. Not only do supposedly radical protesters do what government tells them to do, the environmental movement is so incapable of creating its own history that it is forced to borrow costumes from the past to give itself gravity. Similarly, politicians dress themselves up as today’s JFK, offering re-hashed ‘today’s moon-landing’ speeches (9) or brandishing a version of a ‘Green New Deal’ as if they were latter-day Roosevelts (10).

Allusions to grand historical moments are attempts invest both speakers and cause alike with authority. Yet, whether posing as a new Roosevelt, JFK or Churchill, these shallow performances are nothing more than pastiche politics. Their performers are not heroes, but indecisive and disoriented figures who lack cohesive ideas about the future and are terrified of taking responsibility for it. They look to the past to connect with the public, hoping that nostalgia might stand in for vision. Further turning politics upside-down, Miliband calls for a popular movement to demand already-designed policies, while the government defers its decisions to unaccountable and undemocratic panels of experts.

Protecting the climate or projecting the crisis?

The objective of the Copenhagen conference is easily misread as an attempt to respond to warnings issued by climate science, but this view omits the context of the climate debate. The sensitivity of climate systems to greenhouse gasses is routinely confused with human society’s sensitivity to climate, and it is this misunderstanding which produces dramatic claims about looming catastrophes. In a sense, this is right. After all, if we take political impotence and incoherence for granted, it is easy to see how changes in climate could trigger catastrophes, because the process of economic and industrial development – which affords us protection from the elements – is the substance of politics. A small increase or decrease in rainfall in the UK may well create huge problems, not because of any ‘natural’ danger that change creates, but because of the inability to organise or afford a response to a technical challenge.

Climate change sceptics have, for the most part, failed to recognise the political nature and social context of the debate, focusing instead on coming up with a definitive debunking of the science. Hence they have sought to explain the ideas they oppose as purposive, coherent, and organised, leading to speculation about political conspiracies and scientific fraud. But this credits the green movement with far too much. Just as their green counterparts dress up as historical figures, so sceptics pick fights with ghosts. Christopher Monckton, for instance, expresses concerns about Copenhagen being the work of socialists intent on establishing ‘an unelected global government’ (11). While Copenhagen was certainly undemocratic, it is much better explained as the consequence of No Order Whatsoever than the expression of a New World Order. Moreover, it is the most left-leaning countries – China, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Cuba – that stand most accused of scuppering the talks at Copenhagen.

Environmentalism is a symptom, not a cause

Copenhagen’s failure is the culmination of long-standing political incoherence. The government, opposition parties, special climate committees, NGOs, and activists, far from being united by their desire to save the world, only managed to deepen their differences. The government and its opposition use environmental crisis to rescue themselves from their own crisis of legitimacy. The institutions they create only serve to increase the distance between them, the public and the protesters. Sparse protest movements attract attention through absurd stunts, rather than by demonstrating their weight of numbers, further isolating themselves. One-time development NGOs abandon the notion of progress, to concentrate on mere ‘sustainability’, and through ill-conceived ideas such as ‘environmental justice’ and ‘climate poverty’, turn their campaigns against development itself (12).

The climate change camp cannot even agree on the reason for failure. Miliband and Brown accused China of derailing Copenhagen (13). Prescott chose to blame the USA (14), while complaining about climate activist Mark Lynas blaming China (15). As usual, Lynas’ comrade, George Monbiot, laid the blame squarely at the feet of Barack Obama, who was too busy representing ‘vested interests’ to save the planet (16). It was neither China nor the USA, said Martin Kohr, journalist and development economist; it was Denmark. The ‘Danish Text’ had proposed privileging industrialised countries over the developing world, causing the group representing them to walk out of the conference (17).

It seems that championing the climate cause precludes self-reflection. The climate crisis is but a proxy object for a much deeper crisis experienced by today’s politicians, who respond by seeking legitimacy through the environmental agenda. Defunct moral compasses point North towards melting ice caps and South towards ‘climate poverty’. But the crisis exists at home. Vacuity drives environmentalism’s ascendency, and the ever increasing incoherence of environmental politics has driven the search for authority beyond borders and above democratic politics and toward supranational institutions. The coming together of all those gripped by such crises in Copenhagen was a clumsy and blind attempt to turn disunity into something cohesive, and to turn aimlessness into direction. No wonder it failed; it was dead before it was even conceived.

Ben Pile is an editor of the Climate-Resistance blog, and a philosophy and politics student at York University.

(1) Copenhagen: climate change talks ‘should fail’, Telegraph, 3 December 2009

(2) Costing the Earth, Red Pepper, 1 December 2006

(3) G20 in the city, Climate Camp website

(4) Time to act on carbon markets, BBC News, 15 April 2009

(5) Carbon neutral policy surfeit, Climate Resistance, 4 September 2007

(6) The New, Green Aristocracy, Register, 28 October 2008

(7) [email protected], Climate Resistance, 27 January 2009

(8) [email protected], Climate Resistance, 27 January 2009

(9) Under the moon: Gore’s giant limp for mankind, Climate Resistance, 21 July 2008

(10) The ‘Green Energy Revolution’: spinning failure as success, Climate Resistance, 22 July 2009

(11) They are all criminals, Pajamas Media, 23 November 2009

(12) Environmental Justice – a Fiction, Climate Resistance, 7 November 2008

(13) Ed Miliband: China tried to hijack Copenhagen climate deal, Guardian, 20 December 2009

(14) Letters, Guardian, 28 December 2009

(15) How do I know China wrecked the Copenhagen deal? I was in the room, Guardian, 22 December 2009

(16) If you want to know who’s to blame for Copenhagen, look to the US Senate, Guardian 21 december 2009

(17) Blame Denmark, not China, for Copenhagen failure, Guardian, 28 December 2009

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Topics Science & Tech


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