Monday, 21 December 2009

Europeans and Americans see Copenhagen through different eyes


So, was Copenhagen a failure or not? It would appear the answer depends on which side of the Atlantic you’re on when you ask the question.

The Copenhagen Accord, finalised after hours of intensive negotiations, theoretically recognises a goal of limiting global warming to two degrees Celsius, but contains no targets to achieve that. There are no specific emission reduction actions by developing countries and no specific commitments on long term financing for mitigation and adaptation efforts. Not only is it non-binding, the agreement wasn’t even adopted by all UN countries. Instead it has just been 'noted', which means that countries recognise its existence but don’t necessarily agree with it.

European NGOs and governments were united in their condemnation of the Copenhagen climate summit’s result this weekend, which failed to include any kind of binding agreement and was only able to muster an optional “accord”. Though the language the political leaders were using was obviously more diplomatic than that being used by the climate activists (Greenpeace’s director called Copenhagen a “crime scene”), the basic message is still the same: the summit failed. Swedish prime minister Frederik Reinfeldt, still holding the EU presidency, said the agreement, “will not solve the climate pressures, the climate threat to mankind.” Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso said, "The level of ambition is not what we were hoping for." The British leadership has been railing against the Chinese all weekend, pointing the finger of blame squarely in their court. Brown said that they were, "clinging to their version of what an international organisation should not do,” and British environment minister Ed Milliband delivered the extraordinary charge today that the Chinese hijacked the summit. If there is a mainstream European publication that did not use the word ‘failure’ today to describe the summit, I am not aware of it.

So the consensus in Europe is clear. But my colleague who was with some American journalists in the wee hours of Saturday morning said they were approaching the summit’s result from a very different perspective. Though she and the other European journalists regarded the result as a failure, the American journalists said this result was as much as could have been expected. It was, she noted, as if the European and American press pools had attended two different conferences. But really, it’s probably down to the fact that their expectations going into it were so different.


Europeans were honestly expecting some kind of major announcement from Obama when he gave his speech on Thursday, and they were stunned when he made no additional commitment. The American journalists seemed perplexed by the reaction of the European press. Did they really think Obama was going to parachute in and announce a 30% emission reduction target for the US? At this point it’s looking unlikely he’ll even be able to get the 17% reduction already announced passed by the US senate. The climate bill needs 60 votes to go through, and right now it only has 42.

 The American press reaction this morning reflects those sentiments. Though no one is heralding this outcome as a wild success, they’re calling it “a good starting point” and a roadmap. Politically, they point out that the accord allows Obama to tell sceptics in the US senate that China is on board as well (one of the biggest concerns is that the US should not sign on to any reduction commitment that its up-and-coming superpower rival does not.).

Even the difference in reaction between the European and American NGOs is stark. My colleage points out that when she navigated to the web site for the National Resources Defense Council, one of the leading conservation groups in the US, she finds a press release calling the agreement “a vital first step” on the way to “real action against global warming, real cuts in carbon pollution, real American jobs at home.” Contrast with Friends of the Earth Europe’s reaction, whose web site says that on Saturday “rich countries have condemned millions of the world’s poorest people to hunfer, suffering and loss of life…we are disgusted.”


Because the dangers of climate change has been such a mainstream accepted reality in Europe for so long, perhaps Europeans forget that the rest of the world is not exactly where they are on this issue. The number of Americans who believe that climate change is happening is actually falling, down to its lowest point in three years according to a poll conducted in October. Republican commentators in the US, including those on the country’s most-watched news network Fox News, not only don’t believe in climate change – they actually suggest it’s a conspiracy whose objective is to lower American standards of living. China is in the midst of the fastest industrialisation process in human history, and while its government believes in the dangers of climate change, they are unwilling to consider solutions to it that could slow their growth.

With these very different perspectives in mind, it’s not hard to see why American journalists would be impressed that any agreement could be worked out at all. Even if it is a non-binding, vague ‘statement of intent’.

1 comment:

french derek said...

The failure (and it is such) of Copenhagen centres on China. That is not to say that China is to blame - quite the opposite. It was more about the treatment of China.

First, their lead negotiator Mr Wen, was held (incommunicado) by Danish immigration officials for days, when there were ill-informed accusations being hurled at the Chinese delegation about their "inexcusable" emissions. As China had indicated (to anyone with any willingness to listen), they recognised their level of emissions, but noted that this was only 1/6 of that of the US, per capita.

Second, Mr Obama - playing to a home audience, no doubt - publicly harangued Mr Wen (by now released to take part). Anyone with any limited knowledge of Chinese etiquette would know that this would be taken as a considerable insult, and would only result in hardening opposition. Mr Wen has, apparently, said that he arrived in Copenhagen ready to sign a deal (the Chinese were making a considerable gesture in terms of cuts): yet all he received were slights and insults.

For sure the meeting failed on other fronts, too. But Mr Obama did not help to get to a result. Where was this famous "soft diplomacy"?