The Failure in Copenhagen

December 24, 2009

Claudia Ciobanu

It could be that as a young journalist caught in the Copenhagen climate change conference, I overstate its importance, hence the deep frustration of coming back to my country and seeing people going on with their excessive lifestyle, saying it doesn’t really matter what happened there because they and their children will not suffer.

But if I think about it again, trying to detach myself from the personal impressions, I stick to the frustration. This was important. 

And we will refer back to this failure in decades to come. When it finally reaches us, in our confy homes in Europe. 

Though it does reach us even now, but we just don’t give a shit about it. It reaches us now, when people go across continents to get into Europe and we either let them sink in boats or we kick them out of their makeshift huts in Calais, when we let them be kept for months in detention centers for just wanting to live in Europe. It’s there even now, we just push it aside, or we let others, our politicians and police forces do the dirty work for us.

What’s annoying about being an Eastern European in this situation is the blindness it allows. We’re not former colonies, so the historical responsibility is not screamed at our faces. But we polluted nevertheless in comparable amounts. Our socialist industries were burning that coal just like the capitalist factories. And now, for 20 years, we do just what the Western world does, proving we’re equally greedy, but we didn’t have the chance to be greedy, that’s all. And we have the excellent excuse to be still considered poor, so excused. It’s annoying to be told by people who have built huge mansions in Bucharest and work for multinationals making tens of thousands of euros a month that they live in a poor country and this is not the time to worry about the world. 

It’s annoying when people don’t look around them. 

Copenhagen was sad. Tens of thousands of people came there with so much hope. Activists from all over the world, from small struggling NGOs — not only from Greenpeace or FoE who brought in thousands. Peasants from Latin America and Africa coming to tell their stories and genuinely believing that if all those people come together in Copenhagen, something good will happen. Not that the peasants believed in the politicians, but they did believe in the people. They believed that if tens of thousands of people from all over the world came to Copenhagen and demonstrated and advocated and the international media was listening, maybe this signals a change, maybe now something will happen. 

It didn’t. It was fucked up from the start. In the first week, with only technical negotiators there, when the legally binding two-track deal was still an option (which would mean keeping emissions targets for industrialized countries, increasing them, adding aid for adaptation to climate change and a whole series of measures to prevent deforestation and sustain investments in green energy in developing countries), even though an unlikely one, it was still obvious the deal would not be fair. The complex legally binding deal would be centered on market mechanisms anyhow. It would be centered on carbon offsetting, continued from Kyoto, allowing rich countries to keep polluting while paying off for that through investments in green technologies and prevention of deforestation. And on carbon markets. This would mean allowing the industrialized to keep polluting and creating new niches for them to make more money through investing in green energy and through speculations on the carbon markets. The aid discussed, the historical debt for pollution — the price of which is paid by the poorest, by those who never had the time and chance to industrialize — that aid was always unmentionable or, when finally mentioned, puny.

People outside, activists, were screaming no deal is better than a bad deal. They were screaming that market mechanisms would only perpetuate the inequalities. And they were right. But inside negotiators from developing countries – which are anyway not a united block, they are small island states, African states, they are China and India, they are oil producers, how can all of them be united? – were trying to make the best out of those deals. Maybe something would still work in favor of the poor even if the rich would continue to run the games. The system is there to stay, maybe you can at least work it in your favor?

But you can’t. Negotiations were unequal from the start. The Danish have a draft prepared already, prepared without small island states which are already sinking, prepared without the African countries which are already losing their seasons, without the Bangladeshi who are losing their coastal villages to cyclones. And the US –with its subservient EU– are pulling hard to kill Kyoto, to kill emissions targets for the rich.

One of the best things to happen in the negotiations is the African delegations walking out at the beginning of the second week. Showing they cannot be stepped over in this way. The G77 (including China and India) followed at that time, though they did give in at the end, when Obama came in. 

Those who had something to gain gave in at the end. The small island states, the Africans, the always uncomfortable (in a world where really, there need to be uncomfortable voices) Venezuelans, those didn’t take the final Obama charm. Neither did the Indians or the Chinese get fooled by the charm, but they needed more than the poorest an agreement to keep growing dirty. 

This conference was a big failure. But not so much because a proper deal was not signed at the end. But because all the terms of the conversation were faulty. Even the best deal would have not done anything for global justice. Even the best deal would not have done enough for the suffering. The best deal, like no deal, would have worked best for the US and the EU, for their companies and their consumers. The conference was a big failure because the terms of the debate doomed justice and solidarity from the start. It was a big failure that, even inside those terms guaranteeing continuing inequality, the US and the EU still strove to marginalize the voices of the Africans. It was a big failure because the citizen groups, those which helped make environmental and social justice issues news and agenda items, were kicked out of the conference center in the second week. Because the Danish police could pass a law to arrest anyone whom they think might commit a crime. It was a big failure because developing countries could not play a united game, but split in the end, with the Indians and the Chinese betraying the lot. It was a big failure because, while in a room in the conference center victims of cyclones and starving farmers were telling their stories, just across the corridors the Danish were proposing yet another draft written without any African contribution.

People say the conference was at least a success for people, for civil society. The alternative conference for civil society, KlimaForum, the huge colorful demonstrations, all that communication and discussion, the strengthening of those connections and voices. Yes, in this sense, yes, if the people coming to Copenhagen don’t get discouraged, it was a success from that perspective. A columnist in the Guardian was writing the other day that now it is really up to the people to do something, the politicians have proven once again they will not do anything, even in the face of so many testimonials not only from witnesses, but from their beloved scientists as well. So maybe the people witnessing Copenhagen will go back determined to do more, to keep up the fight.  

But for this to make a difference it would mean so many of us would have to care. And so many of us don’t. And so many of those who care can’t manage to find ways to put that care to any practical use. 

This conference would not have fixed the world. But it was a repetition, in front of so much global attention, that the faultlines are the same.

I came back from Copenhagen deeply sad and haunted by these images of cyborg-like Europeans and Americans isolated in the middle of their continents, encircled by big walls to keep all other people at bay. But that’s what we are now anyhow. And that’s a childish image from a childish observer of these big talks. 

Better end with some of the great things I heard there. We must give up our fetishism for cars and big transport infrastructure. We will continue the struggle. We must continue to fight against the economic apartheid defining the world. The poor people will continue to struggle, they have no other choice. As for us Europeans, maybe the talks helped some see the hypocrisy of their leaders. Maybe it exposed others for the first time to some realities. Maybe it served some purpose.

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