Copenhagen Negotiators Bicker and Filibuster While the Biosphere Burns

George Monbiot despairs at the chaotic, disastrous denouement of a chaotic and disastrous climate summit

The Guardian/UK
Saturday, December 19, 2009

by George Monbiot

First they put the planet in square brackets, now they have deleted it from the text. At the end it was no longer about saving the biosphere: it was just a matter of saving face. As the talks melted down, everything that might have made a new treaty worthwhile was scratched out. Any deal would do, as long as the negotiators could pretend they have achieved something. A clearer and less destructive treaty than the text that emerged would be a sheaf of blank paper, which every negotiating party solemnly sits down to sign.

This was the chaotic, disastrous denouement of a chaotic and disastrous summit. The event has been attended by historic levels of incompetence. Delegates arriving from the tropics spent 10 hours queueing in sub-zero temperatures without shelter, food or drink, let alone any explanation or announcement, before being turned away. Some people fainted from exposure; it’s surprising that no one died. The process of negotiation was just as obtuse: there was no evidence here of the innovative methods of dispute resolution developed recently by mediators and coaches, just the same old pig-headed wrestling.

Watching this stupid summit via webcam (I wasn’t allowed in either), it struck me that the treaty-making system has scarcely changed in 130 years. There’s a wider range of faces, fewer handlebar moustaches, frock coats or pickelhaubes, but otherwise, when the world’s governments try to decide how to carve up the atmosphere, they might have been attending the conference of Berlin in 1884. It’s as if democratisation and the flowering of civil society, advocacy and self-determination had never happened. Governments, whether elected or not, without reference to their own citizens let alone those of other nations, assert their right to draw lines across the global commons and decide who gets what. This is a scramble for the atmosphere comparable in style and intent to the scramble for Africa.

At no point has the injustice at the heart of multilateralism been addressed or even acknowledged: the interests of states and the interests of the world’s people are not the same. Often they are diametrically opposed. In this case, most rich and rapidly developing states have sought through these talks to seize as great a chunk of the atmosphere for themselves as they can – to grab bigger rights to pollute than their competitors. The process couldn’t have been better designed to produce the wrong results.

I spent most of my time at the Klimaforum, the alternative conference set up by just four paid staff, which 50,000 people attended without a hitch. (I know which team I would put in charge of saving the planet.) There the barrister Polly Higgins laid out a different approach. Her declaration of planetary rights invests ecosystems with similar legal safeguards to those won by humans after the second world war. It changes the legal relationship between humans, the atmosphere and the biosphere from ownership to stewardship. It creates a global framework for negotiation which gives nation states less discretion to dispose of ecosystems and the people who depend on them.

Even before the farce in Copenhagen began it was looking like it might be too late to prevent two or more degrees of global warming. The nation states, pursuing their own interests, have each been passing the parcel of responsibility since they decided to take action in 1992. We have now lost 17 precious years, possibly the only years in which climate breakdown could have been prevented. This has not happened by accident: it is the result of a systematic campaign of sabotage by certain states, driven and promoted by the energy industries. This idiocy has been aided and abetted by the nations characterised, until now, as the good guys: those that have made firm commitments, only to invalidate them with loopholes, false accounting and outsourcing. In all cases immediate self-interest has trumped the long-term welfare of humankind. Corporate profits and political expediency have proved more urgent considerations than either the natural world or human civilisation. Our political systems are incapable of discharging the main function of government: to protect us from each other.

Goodbye Africa, goodbye south Asia; goodbye glaciers and sea ice, coral reefs and rainforest. It was nice knowing you. Not that we really cared. The governments which moved so swiftly to save the banks have bickered and filibustered while the biosphere burns.

  1. #1 by k1980 on Sunday, 20 December 2009 - 9:04 pm

    Who emits the most CO2 on a per capita basis? Force them to change their opulent lifestyles first

  2. #2 by OrangRojak on Sunday, 20 December 2009 - 10:19 pm

    …. them … first …
    You realise you’re using the same argument that UMNO uses to keep the ISA, don’t you?

  3. #3 by Dipoh Bous on Monday, 21 December 2009 - 9:35 am

    Perhaps this ‘global warming’ thing is a good way for nature to clear this Earth from the existing inhabitants who are so bend on destroying it besides always trying to destroy each other.

    Later on,perhaps, a superhuman life form might emerge. Who knows…..

  4. #4 by Jeffrey on Monday, 21 December 2009 - 9:37 am

    ///Goodbye Africa, goodbye south Asia; goodbye glaciers and sea ice, coral reefs and rainforest. It was nice knowing you.///

    All these summits are useful to proclaim good intent. They try morally refine the selfish instincts of world citizens and balance them against global responsibilities.
    But as always, international law/obligations are structured based on consent of the nation/party. In absence of sanctions, the rules are more honoured in breach than adherence as nations like people lapse back merrily to go about in their customary selfish ways even if such ways will collectively damage for certain the common global interest. Before talking of international environment law to mitigate global warming, how many nations ratify something as basic as even United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and its various treaties for application to their own peoples? In practical terms people, whilst having an eye to the future, live mostly in the Present. In Malaysia, Petronas trimmed half its profits, and people worry the immediate : if the govt gets less from Petronasd taxes it will exact more via GST. You think we would worry about carbon emissions from fossil fuel as if we could do much about it when big oil producers and companies go merrily reaping their profits all the same and cause the same result even if we change our behaviour? People will think more of their present needs : like driving the car to work, using the computer, never mind carbon emissions, foot print from their activities. That’s priority. How many would think about “goodbye glaciers and sea ice, coral reefs and rainforest. It was nice knowing you” or that one day in the distant future, when sea level rises, large swathes of low lying areas of Malaysia will be inundated, and the country becomes half its diminutive size? They are no more alive to witness this, much less suffer from it. They can’t even forcast when this will happen. Before it does, maybe the world or large areas of it will be earlier devastated by nuclear or other devastating conflict. The problem is pushed to future generations to resolve that predicament. Meanwhile for citizens there are more urgent problems requiring immediate address – how to survive a political system reeking with corruption, racial discrimination or power abuse. For politicians, these international summits are an opportunity to raise their profile for domestic support whilst they are more committed to how maintain their position to reap the spoils. Would they get more votes from their constitutency if they want to preserve glaciers and sea ice, coral reefs and rainforest??? Preservation of “Ketuanan” will get more voites!

    In the engagement of individual benefit versus collective survival, again individual benefit takes priority if the threat to collective survival is not deemed clear, present and immediate. In the Present versus the Future – the Present always wins.

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