Was Copenhagen A Disaster Or Decent First Step?

by Bradford Plumer | December 18, 2009

Among environmentalists, there seem to be two emerging schools of thought on the tentative deal that was just struck in Copenhagen. And the rift is pretty similar to the liberal divide we're seeing on the health care bill. On the left, you have folks like Bill McKibben arguing that the weak agreement Obama just cobbled together, with its vague targets, lack of binding commitments, and blanks aplenty, is grossly inadequate to the problems facing the planet and probably worse than nothing. Here's McKibben, livid:

[Obama] blew up the United Nations. The idea that there's a world community that means something has disappeared tonight. The clear point is, you poor nations can spout off all you want on questions like human rights or the role of women or fighting polio or handling refugees, but when you get too close to the things that count —the fossil fuel that's at the center of our economy— you can forget about it. We're not interested. You're a bother, and when you sink beneath the waves we don't want to hear much about it.

Yikes. But, on the other hand, you have moderate analysts arguing that, yes, this pseudo-deal is a  flimsy first step, but it's still a step, and the thing to do now is to continue to fight to strengthen the deal at future climate talks. The Center for American Progress's Andrew Light lays out this view:

There is however a different aspect of this deal that could be the beginning of a game changer in how the world looks at ending carbon pollution. The Copenhagen Accord was not forged among our closest allies in the developed world; it was the product of cooperation between the US and a group of the largest carbon emitters in the developing world. In fact, this same group had met prior to the Copenhagen meeting in China to declare that they would never move beyond one of the core guiding assumptions of the Kyoto Protocol: that the world is divided between developed and developing countries and that only the former are required to take steps to curb their carbon emissions and be held accountable for those reductions. …

A framework has finally been advanced for cooperation between developed and developing countries on reductions rather than continuing a process mired in the old divisions which have hampered us for so long. Though there will be differences among the expectations of emissions reductions among this group the major emitting countries all will be expected to carry their fair share of emissions reductions thus avoiding the creation of a world where decreasing carbon pollution is only advanced at the expense of economic competitiveness.

I'm sympathetic to McKibben's view that a weak climate deal is flirting with disaster—as he likes to point out, there's no haggling with atmospheric physics. But I haven't yet seen critics lay out what, realistically, Obama should have done instead. He can't just snap his fingers and make a robust treaty materialize out of thin air; there are severe constraints at play. The Senate has yet to pass a hard cap on carbon, and given the difficulties in rustling up 60 votes for an ode to apple pie these days, that's a big, looming unknown. (We'll have to see whether this pseudo-deal makes a climate bill any more likely.) So was there a better route available at Copenhagen? Could Obama have done more to rally public opinion? Tried different bargaining tactics? Let's hear it...

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//blog/the-vine/the-copenhagen-deal-disaster-or-decent-first-step