Measuring political success
Q: Is the Copenhagen Accord a real deal? Are there any beneficiaries of this decision? What responsibilities do nations have going forward?
Through the lens of science -- against the scale of the climate threat and the urgency of action to transform the world's energy systems -- the outcome of the UN negotiations was disappointing indeed. All of the national pledges, added together, will reduce emissions by perhaps half the amount required to avoid serious and irreversible harm.
However, science provides only the frame and motive for political action, and political action can only be hurried so much. Just as members of Congress are motivated by individual calculations of public benefit, political cost and partisan advantage, so, too, are countries participating in the global climate talks. And just as major legislation requires a long period of dialogue and public education before it can be passed, so, too, does a new climate change agreement.
What was significant about Copenhagen was that a negotiation about climate change commanded the participation of more than 120 national leaders -- not environment ministers, but heads of state and government. Among that group, there was little real disagreement about the necessity of taking action. Those who found fault with the Copenhagen Accord wanted the commitments to be stronger.
By establishing a registry of national actions, the Copenhagen Accord created a scorecard by which nations will be judged -- the basis for a race to the top. The participation of China, thanks to the intervention of President Obama, was particularly significant in this regard. For the first time the Chinese abandoned their concerns about national sovereignty and agreed to international review of their emissions reports.
These two outcomes of Copenhagen -- a near-universal consensus on the need for action, and the engagement of rapidly growing economies like China, India, Brazil, and South Africa in shaping the Accord -- set the stage for a renewed push for a global agreement in Mexico City next year. Through the lens of politics, that was progress. If that progress encourages Congress to act on a climate bill, it will be significant indeed. Through the lens of science, is it fast enough? We can only hope.
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