Coming up Short in Copenhagen: Puzzling a Multilateral Meltdown

Today is Winter Solstice in Central Canada. From this point forward, and for the next six months, the days begin to get get longer.

That is an encouraging thought. And a superior one when compared to anything that I can muster when reflecting on the meaning of the just-concluded Copenhagen conference on climate change.

Some background. For the past few weeks I have been preparing the detailed syllabus for a graduate seminar in Science, Technology (S&T) and International Policy (IP) which I will be teaching next term at the University of Toronto’s Munk Centre.

One of the central themes the course, and indeed of Guerrilla Diplomacy, is the need to bridge the near complete disconnect between the worlds of S&T, on the one hand, and IP, on the other. This is necessary because science and technology are profoundly implicated in the majority of the principal threats and challenges facing international policy managers and decision-makers in the globalization age.

Nowhere has the gulf separating these two solitudes been more clearly revealed than over the past several weeks in Copenhagen, where COP 15 dissolved December 19th in a fiasco of damage control and forced face-saving.

Despite best efforts on the part of conference organizers to somehow salvage something from the ashes of the event, no amount of spin could obscure the vacuity of the results, which amount to little more than an almost inaudible whimper. Absent entirely from the “Take Note” agreement are verifiable emission cuts targets, numbers,  dates, and deadlines. Nor is there any reference to a strategy or a time frame for the conversion of this vague statement into a detailed and binding treaty.

By any reasonablee measure, Copenhagen radically underachieved on even the most modest of conceivable expectations. Without high level political commmittment, direction and drive from the largest greenhouse gas emitters, the process drifted aimlessly. The negotiations were disperate and unfocussed, and the outcomes, for those looking for fundamental change, were appalling. Early on the event descended into  a circus of infotainment, and it never recovered. The void created by the lack of any real news related to substantial progress on the issues was filled by the mass media, who with little better do reported  on whatever sideshows happpened to be running whenever it came time to file.

Dashing the hopes of millions and defying the benefit of years of planning, the Copenhagen Accord amounted to an  empty vessel at a time when the need for freight is acute.

The ramifications for global governance are little short of depressing. Based on this experience, the prospects for effective international collaboration towards the design of brighter collective future are slender.

And for Canada?

Things did not pan out as might have been hoped. Instead, it was the disjuncture between this country’s long established image and ruptation as a progressive, constructive and engaged participant in international negotiations, and the present, distant reality which was on prominent display. This very public transformation and departure from past peformance was noticed, not least by the NGO community.  Their representatives dished out dollops of scorn, rebuke and ridicule upon a country who not long ago placed a premium on international environmental stewardship, leadership and partnership with civil society.

Lest we forget… Canada once led the world by initiating action on environmental treaties designed to help protect the ozone layer of the atmospherereduce acid rain, and clean up the Great Lakes. Canada was the motive force behind the organization of the 1992 Rio Conference on Environment and Development, which, building upon the foundations set out in the Earth Charter,  produced Agenda 21, the Biodiversity Convention, the Statement of Forestry Principles, and – yes – the first Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The difference between then and now is so stark as to be shocking.

Jean Charest was Canada’s federal Environment Minister at that the time of the Rio Conference. He was also at Copenhagen, this time as Quebec premier. Like most delegates, he arrived in Copenhagen with a full agenda. Like all of them, he left with little to show for his efforts.

Who knows how he must have felt?

I, however, do know how I feel.

Sadness, mainly. And shame.

For Canada.

And for the world.

Let’s hope that this miserable failure can at minimum serve as a learning experience, and that massive multilateral meltdowns of this nature will not be repeated.

Yet if the climate change science is at least indicative, and baring any short-term breakthroughs in bio-remedies, the world and its leaders are going to have to learn very, very fast.