Richard Faulk. "The Queer Case of the Quarelsome Convocation: Allies, Adversaries, Indifference and Exaggeration in Copenhagen" Andrews Litigation Reporter 30.11 (2009).
They have been at a great feast of languages, and stol’n the scraps. ...
O, they have liv’d long on the alms-basket of words.
–William Shakespeare, ‘Love’s Labor’s Lost,’ Act 5, scene 1
The small Pacific island nations that comprise the “most vulnerable” group of countries, those that stand to suffer the most from global warming, must feel a bit like flotsam and jetsam in Copenhagen. They are struggling to adapt to rising seas and ocean conditions that threaten their very survival. They take principled positions, advocate them eloquently and ask for comparatively little funding compared with other developing states. They do not seek resettlement; they simply want the rest of the world to make sure a place they have always called home continues to exist. Everyone seems to nod and agree that something needs to be done, and a lot of talking is done about “solutions,” but so far, nothing has been done. They are not even offered scraps of aid; only words are piled high on their plate.
There is no doubt, insofar as the United Nations is concerned, that the island nations are in a desperate plight. In fact, the U.N. seized Monday, Dec. 14, as an opportunity to unveil a barrage of new scientific information directly affecting the islanders’ interests. The day climaxed with an appearance by Al Gore himself, who relayed a disturbing forecast of vanished polar ice within five years.
All of the disclosures were orchestrated masterfully, presumably in an attempt to create an irresistible cascade of information that, in turn, would motivate negotiators to reach a global agreement. Unfortunately, by the end of the day, all this effort seemed wasted as the delegates remained quarrelsome, strained and divided. Perhaps worst of all, the credibility of the U.N.’s scientific barrage was seriously undermined by Gore’s exaggerated conclusions. After all the argumentative water receded, the desperate islanders remained stranded just as they were when the day began.
The first new study presented Dec. 14 concluded that sea levels are rising much faster than previously predicted. According to the Danish daily Politiken, the climate panel underlined that the original estimate did not include rises caused by the disintegration of ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. The new study, however, forecasts that sea levels are expected to increase by 0.5 meters to 1.5 meters by 2100, according to professor Dorthe Dahl-Jensen with the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen.
The danger involves more than high water and submersion, however. Also the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity released a major study Dec. 14 that concluded that sea life was increasingly endangered by enhanced absorption of carbon dioxide. According to the CBD study, seas and oceans absorb about one quarter of the carbon dioxide emitted to the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation and other human activities. As more and more carbon dioxide has been released into the atmosphere, the oceans have absorbed greater amounts at increasingly rapid rates. Without this level of absorption by the oceans, atmospheric CO2 levels would be significantly higher than they are now and the effects of global climate change would be more marked.
However, the absorption of atmospheric CO2 has changed the chemical balance of the oceans, causing them to become more acidic, according to the researchers. By 2050 ocean acidity could increase by 150 percent. This dramatic increase is 100 times faster than any change in acidity experienced in the marine environment over the last 20 million years, giving little time for evolutionary adaptation within biological systems, the CBD study said.
“Ocean acidification is irreversible on timescales of at least tens of thousands of years, and substantial damage to ocean ecosystems can only be avoided by urgent and rapid reductions in global emissions of CO2,” Ahmed Djoghlaf, executive secretary of the convention, said in a statement. “Attention must be given for integration of this critical issue at the global climate change debate in Copenhagen.”
“This CBD study provides a valuable synthesis of scientific information on the impacts of ocean acidification, based on the analysis of more than 300 scientific literatures, and it describes an alarming picture of possible ecological scenarios and adverse impacts of ocean acidification on marine biodiversity,” he added.
Among other findings, the study shows that increasing ocean acidification will mean that by 2100 some 70 percent of cold-water corals, a key refuge and feeding ground for commercial fish species, will be exposed to corrosive waters.
If all this is so, why are the Pacific islanders so conspicuously ignored while other nations quarrel among themselves to “divide the spoils” provided by the developed world? Are the developing nations, particularly the comparatively prosperous ones such as China, India, Brazil and South Africa, truly concerned about these vulnerable states, or are they content to use the islanders to inflame the debate, while angling for more cash for themselves? If so, the exploitive strategy is increasingly transparent. Moreover, it may be the biggest negotiating blunder of the entire conference.
While the islanders’ beaches vanish and their subsistence food supply is threatened, the conference proceeds to haggle over issues that are less immediate but involve larger constituencies. Indeed, the main session of the U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen was suspended for five hours Dec. 14 following protests led by African countries. Those nations accused developed countries of trying to wreck the existing Kyoto Protocol. “This is a walkout over process and form, not a walkout over substance, and that’s regrettable,” Australian Climate Change Minister Penny Wong told Reuters.
At a press briefing after the walkout, the U.N.’s climate chief, Yvo de Boer, said informal talks would continue with the negotiating parties and that the discussions would focus on continuing the Kyoto Protocol.
“The vast majority [of countries] want to see a continuation of the Kyoto Protocol,” de Boer said. “This is not just an African concern.”
Asked whether he had heard of any countries indicating that they might boycott the conference, he said, “I am not aware of any country threatening to block anything.”
Apparently de Boer was not very well informed. Voice of America reported Dec. 11 that Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who represents the African Union at the conference, threatened to “scuttle” negotiations if his organization’s demands were not met.
“If Copenhagen is going to be about an agreement that simply rides roughshod over Africa, then we will try to scuttle it, and I think we have reasonable assurance we can scuttle it if our concerns are not addressed,” Meles told reporters. The story was posted on the conference Web site, so the U.N. has no excuse for surprise.
According to Bloomberg, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao assured Meles after that VOA report that China would not sign any climate change agreement in Copenhagen unless African demands for compensation were satisfied. On emissions, lots of progress has been made, Meles said. According to AFP News Services, his primary worry is about funding. Voice of America reported that Meles planned to stop in Paris and London on the way to Copenhagen for talks with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. He planned to seek assurances that the Europeans’ offer was “real money” and not illusory.
Additionally, India, aligning itself with an earlier Chinese position, signaled that it was unwilling to go along with terms insisted upon by the developed nations. In a statement made to the Times of India, also posted on the conference Web site, Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh stressed that India would neither agree to a “peaking” year for emissions nor accept international scrutiny of voluntary domestic measures to tackle climate change. As I’ve reported earlier, these terms are critical for the United States and other developed nations. Ramesh’s statements therefore forecasted trouble and strengthened Meles’ hand for a boycott.
But a boycott for what purpose? Certainly not to save the islanders and their homelands. The African Union’s goals are far more sweeping than that limited objective. By insisting on such measures, the developing world raises unnecessary obstacles to progress. Other more positive and altruistic strategies are available, but they apparently have not been pursued. As a result, the conference is divided into an unconstructive and combative “us against them” mentality.
Sit back and think about it for a moment. Isn’t providing relief for the islanders the least controversial issue of the conference? Can’t the entire world, both developed and developing nations, join together to assist them? And once that is accomplished, won’t there be a cooperative basis for prioritizing and resolving other concerns? And wouldn’t that compassionate and moral focus define the structure of a series of compromises and, just possibly, a series of new agreements or an entirely new treaty? The merits of such a strategy are obvious, unless one is blinded by self-interest, resentment or indifference.
The developing nations’ insensitivity to the islanders suggests that their demands are primarily directed at selfish interests, rather than concerns for those most affected, most exposed and most vulnerable to climate change. Criticizing the “haves” of the planet for failing to assist the entire developing world with gigantic subsidies rings hollow when the developing nations are unwilling to share their own emerging wealth. Here, China, India and their comparatively prosperous brethren lose their moral focus. They cannot credibly delay or deny assistance to their desperate colleagues and, at the same time, challenge the morality of the United States for refusing to subsidize their own competing economies.
The major developing states have missed an opportunity — an opportunity for leadership —an opportunity to shame the developed nations by doing first for their weaker colleagues what they would have their wealthier neighbors do for them. Their failure is complete because rather than leading, they claimed to represent their poorer cousins but instead used their representative status to serve their own interests and the interests of other, more powerful developing states.
Now, as the conference moves toward its climax, new alliances may emerge. Perhaps the developed world will reach out to the islanders and those who are similarly situated. Perhaps the islanders will recognize that they have been poorly represented, break away from the rest of the developing world and accept the assistance that truly concerned parties are willing to provide. Perhaps, just perhaps, the United States and other wealthy nations will gain the moral “high ground” by providing a plan for immediate relief sufficient to resolve the islanders’ concerns, thereby doing with deeds what the developing world promised, at best, with words.
Arguably, China has foreseen this risk and has suggested a willingness to compromise. Over weekend of Dec. 12, according to the Financial Times, China seemed to backtrack on its demand for subsidies from the developed world. In an exclusive interview, He Yafei, China’s vice foreign minister, said his country would not necessarily “take a share” of funding provided by the developed nations and that he “did not expect money to flow” from the United States and other wealthier nations. Did China signal that it was willing to cooperate with the U.N., at least to some degree? Curiously, this report was not posted as on the conference Web site, as are most other newsworthy developments. Is a thaw in the permafrost really occurring? Time will tell — but unless some universally agreed point on the moral compass is achieved, meaningful progress in Copenhagen is unlikely.
As if the conference’s public perceptions weren’t bad enough, Al Gore, the hero of many participants in the climate movement, made a serious error during his triumphal appearance at the conference Dec. 14. The former vice president said the latest research showed that the Arctic could be completely ice-free in five years.
“These figures are fresh,” Gore said in his speech. “Some of the models suggest to Dr. [Wieslav] Maslowski that there is a 75 percent chance that the entire north polar ice cap, during the summer months, could be completely ice-free within five to seven years.”
Unfortunately, it appears that the climate researcher Gore relied upon disagrees with those prognostications.
“It’s unclear to me how this figure was arrived at,” Maslowski said, according to the Times of London. “I would never try to estimate likelihood at anything as exact as this.”
Gore’s office later admitted that the 75 percent figure was one used by Maslowski as a “ballpark figure” several years ago in a conversation with Gore.
The Times also reported that the speech was “roundly criticized” by members of the climate science community.
“This is an exaggeration that opens the science up to criticism from skeptics,” said Jim Overland, a leading oceanographer at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “You really don’t need to exaggerate the changes in the Arctic.”
Gore’s speech illustrated the dangers of mixing politics, where exaggerations are common, and science, where accuracy and reliability are critical. Clearly, climate change has become, in the eyes of many, a political phenomenon, and the movement is worse off because of that transformation. It adds to the confusion and distrust created by the “Climategate” controversy and heightens suspicions that the supporting climate scientists are participating in a campaign, as opposed to legitimate research. The impressions were further intensified by the ridiculous spectacle in the hall of dancing and prancing polar bears — costumed humans — carrying signs and chanting, “Save the humans!” Such antics belong in political conventions or, better yet, in the street outside the venue, not in the middle of a working conference.
Perhaps at the end of the conference, thousands of balloons will fall from the ceiling as the delegates declare some sort of political victory. One wonders, however, how long the beleaguered Pacific islanders, who must then return to their shrinking homelands, will live on Copenhagen’s “alms-basket of words.”