It’s a pity there weren’t a few bankers around the Bella Centre in Copenhagen last week – then there might have been a deal. Perhaps Greenpeace should’ve flown a task force of Wall Street’s finest on the final day since investment bankers are the only people who seem able to get world leaders to open their wallets. I fear the planet won’t wake up to the reality of climate change until Goldman Sachs is faced with imminent bonus failure because the stock exchange is on fire. And even then clever brokers will no doubt be turning a few bucks by trading on Armageddon futures.
Money and war are the only things that get politicians talking with intent – and it was ever thus. But this doesn’t mean that Copenhagen was a complete waste of time. Talking rarely is – especially about climate change. This unprecedented meeting of the world leaders was a step forward, even if the non-agreement looks like two steps back. The environment is low on the public’s priority list and largely ignored by the financial interests, who these days define the limits of the possible. Getting a 193 world leaders, from Sudan to the USA, to come together and agree at least that man-made climate change is a reality and must be tackled was itself an achievement – a legal document was probably asking too much.
The developing nations called Copenhagen “a super-power stitch up”, which is what it was always going to be. The future of this planet will be decided by America and China, because they are the biggest economies and the biggest polluters. Nothing matters if they aren’t on board, and now they are – sort of. President Obama and Wen Jiabao came together at the eleventh hour to deliver an agreement: a non-binding commitment to hold climate warming to 2%; a system of monitoring progress (which the Chinese were very unhappy about);$100bn for developing countries, if they go along with it; and an agreement to disagree again next year in Mexico. The theatre of Copenhagen demonstrated, finally, that we now live in a new bi-polar world. As temperatures rise, the dispossessed and low-lying countries will watch anxiously as their fate to be decided by ‘Chinamerica’.
The fundamental divide, that will dominate all diplomatic efforts to contain climate change, is between the rich world, which unwittingly caused the current global warming, and the poor world whose attempt to become rich will cause the next and probably final round of it. The rich countries have a case: we don’t want the developing world to make the same mistakes we did on the way up. The developing world has a case: that the wealthy countries should demonstrate their remorse by paying the cost of giving the third world a carbon-free leg up. Bridging this divided is difficult but not impossible, since many of the developing countries – in Africa for example – face extinction if nothing is done and temperatures reach even 2% above present levels. That focuses minds. The problem is focussing the minds of western electorates who live to consume and still don’t get it.
Copenhagen climaxed in bewilderment and rancour – much of it synthetic, predictable. The media largely dismissed it all as ‘climate chaos’ – fulfilling its own prophecy that things would end in confusion and disarray. The climate change ‘deniers’ have had a field day. The environmentalists expressed shock and dismay at the failure to come up with a legally binding target for cutting greenhouse emissions. “Copenhagen is a crime scene” said Greenpeace, “with the guilty men and women fleeing for the airport in shame.” But the real climate “criminals” weren’t freezing in Copenhagen but rushing around the Christmas shopping malls of the northern hemisphere largely oblivious to the shenanigans at COP15. They are the voters who, even after nearly twenty years of climate science, remain unconvinced. It’s just too easy to blame Obama and Brown – they lacked the power of public commitment behind them.
But of course, it may never happen. There is, according to the scientists, about a 10% chance that climate change is not caused by us. Most of the world seem happy to live as ‘tenpercenters’, self-centred sceptics who hope they’ll be gone before they know whether their gamble paid off. The men in white coats are no longer figures of authority in society, and the public reserves the right to reject scientific evidence. The playground antics of some environmental activists – people in polar bear suits trying to disrupt crucial climate talks – give Joe Mondeo another reason for sitting back and cracking open a can of Strongbow.
There’s no point whining about it – this is just how things are. Democratic politics is not going to deliver resolute action on climate change. Not short of a climate catastrophe, anyway. Western voters simply will not elect any party that tells them to give up their cars and face the inconvenience of living in a no growth, low carbon environment. The developing world will not accept that they must pay for our profligacy. Fortunately we don’t live a pure democracy, but a representative one in which political leaders are expected to act responsibly on the basis of the best advice available to them. The much maligned political classes have the task of saving us from ourselves.
Which is why we should offer two cheers at least to the Copenhagen climateers. Yes, even Gordon Brown, who has been an island of sanity in the madness and deserves credit for his efforts. Why does he bother, you ask. There are no votes in it. The reason is posterity, the judgement of history. Imagine, twenty five years hence, if the climate really is in chaos, how will these politicians be judged if they fail to make a serious effort today? What will the Daily Mail be saying then, assuming tabloid journalism still exists? Politicians would probably find themselves in court like war criminals for failing to act on the huge body of scientific evidence about the damaging impact of C02 emissions. Political leaders can’t afford to be tenpercenters. They can’t say they were only obeying orders either, even though in a democratic sense they are. So, lament the failure of Copenhagen by all means but recognise that we get the climate change summits we deserve. Until the people are convinced, we have to make do with jaw jaw.