Monday, February 22, 2010

Footnote to Copenhagen

Bill McKibben's report on the Copenhagen conference appears in the new New York Review of Books (March 11, 2010; not free online.) It's a masterful overview with excellent reportage, and fairly restrained in its tone and conclusions, that the weak outcome was the result of political heavyweights gambling with the future.

There was enough blame for everyone, in McKibben's view, including President Obama. The last hope for Copenhagen rested with him, but according to McKibben, "And almost from the moment Obama began to speak, it was clear that there would be no dramatic surprise agreement..." His proposals for the U.S. were weak, he writes, just as Hilary Clinton's offer of financial aid to the poorest countries likely to be most damaged by climate change were vague and inadequate by orders of magnitude. McKibben notes that Obama "helped negotiate" an accord, which "some inside-the-Beltway environmental leaders hailed [it] as a 'breakthrough' because it commited China to doing something..."

At the end of his report, McKibben points readers to the online NY Review blog, and another post on the Copenhagen accord by Tim Flannery. I found it, and it offers a different emphasis on Obama's participation, including an incident I didn't see reported elsewhere. Here are the graphs(I've added the boldface):

When he spoke afterward, President Obama was clearly both frustrated and surprised at the limited progress that had been made toward a resolution. Nor did things go terribly well after that. The key objective for Obama in his meeting with Premier Wen was to secure greater transparency on Chinese emissions targets, and Wen signaled his dissatisfaction by dispatching increasingly junior emissaries to meet with Obama.

Then, much to the annoyance of the Chinese delegation, Obama burst uninvited into a meeting between Wen, Manmohan Singh, Lula da Silva of Brazil, and South African President Jacob Zuma. It was at that meeting—in which no European leaders were present—that the final touches were put on the three-page document that would become known as the Copenhagen Accord. In this agreement, despite Chinese resistance, Obama could claim to have—in principle at least—achieved his key objective of obtaining greater international transparency and accountability for emissions reduction targets;"

This tells a different story. Obama may have had too restricted a goal, and domestic politics may have weighed too heavily at that moment, but it seems that he made damn sure he got something.

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