CLIMATE -- December 21, 2009 at 12:05 PM ET
Ray Suarez: A Look Back at Copenhagen
Fresh off of his reporting trip to Copenhagen for international climate talks, Ray Suarez stopped by the Rundown Monday to talk to Hari Sreenivasan about the summit's conclusions and lingering questions over the climate agreements reached. Watch their conversation here and read Ray's blog recapping his reflections on his week in Copenhagen below.
Read more from Ray Suarez on the Copenhagen climate talks:
I've just spent a week watching tens of thousands of people talk past each other.
The government ministers were here. The old-fashioned and newfangled energy industries were here (sometimes in the same suit). The environmental groups were here. The protesters and police and soldiers were all here in force.
People fumed. People demanded. People lamented the past and looked to the future. And then ... what?
Hundreds of thousands of words were spoken into microphones and then duly committed to paper. Thousands of journalists pounded away into laptops, snapped pictures and shot video. Earnest and weighty questions were asked, and answers came in the early hours of the day until late into the evening. From morning to night, my e-mail inbox filled with allegations, denunciations and bottom lines. Then when it was all over, it was hard to tell if an agreement was worthy of all that labor.
Maybe I should back up a little.
In Kyoto, Japan, and then in Bali, Indonesia, representatives of the world's nations gathered in the past to talk about what was clearly becoming a problem: Either because of pollution, or merely nudged along by it, bad things were happening to the natural systems that govern the daily operation of Earth. The potential energy trapped in gas, wood, oil and coal was being released in abundance, as ever more people with ever greater demands did whatever was cheapest and best for them, because we had never put a cost on polluting.
Pollution has downstream costs -- in years of human health and life, in the health of soil and water systems and in the life of other species on the planet. But because the air never sent a bill, and the oceans passed along no itemized statements and the land kept no accounts, pollution had become an externality without a cost.
For a long time, we've known that if you charge people more money for collecting the garbage from their curbs, they will produce less of it. If you charge people more money for providing the clean water that comes into their homes and removing the dirty water that runs out of it, they'll waste less. When gasoline costs more money, people find a way to use less of it. You get the idea.
Suggest that pollution should have a cost that reflects its downstream costs, and get ready for howls. Rich countries complain that their economic models built around carbon intensity will be rocked to their foundations. Poor countries complain their future prosperity might be compromised. They're both right, but so what? If pollution costs them nothing, they can only continue on their current path. And if climate scientists are just mostly correct, the eventual bill will be a fearsome one.
So I toddled off to Copenhagen and watched the world's people, in all their dazzling diversity, stand up and be perfectly reasonable. But that other sound you heard coming from Copenhagen was the noise that's made when tens of thousands of heels dig in at once. Of course, remember, everyone was being perfectly reasonable.
We humans have spent the last two centuries creating jaw-dropping wealth as we ingeniously figured out new ways to make and sell things. In that same time, from the steam engine to urban electrification to the coal-fired power plant, we've made life more comfortable and longer for most people. All the while, we were also building a challenge of such complexity and high stakes, it may take more ingenuity than we've got to unravel it and start over.
Every interest had a bargaining position in Copenhagen that was both interlocking and perfectly clear. The wealthy industrial world conceded that while it had belched most of the CO2 blanketing the globe, it needed other nations to understand the political and technological challenges presented by stopping what it has done so successfully for so long.
The poorest countries -- in Africa, Latin America and Asia -- pointed out their fragile environments, which were showing the most stress from climate change, and that it was happening faster than even pessimistic models had predicted 20 years ago. They said they needed money from the wealthiest countries to cushion that blow and for the transfer of new technologies to help their economies grow without walking down the same old dirty path.
The small island nations -- the Maldives, Samoa, Kiribati, Tuvalu, Palau and many others -- pointed out that while the world had long discussions about what to do, the threat of rising ocean levels meant they could be swamped in the next surge tide that followed an earthquake in the Indian or Pacific Oceans. Rising ocean levels could make these small countries the first to simply disappear from the map.
In the slipstream of the island nations were poor coastal nations that drained major river systems, like Bangladesh in South Asia and the Gambia in West Africa. They are low lying, flat, wet and very vulnerable to erosion and the tides, which salt their soil and reduce agricultural production. Perfectly reasonable.
The oil producing countries chimed in as a group. They pointed out that while the world scrambled to rid itself of the main product they sell, CO2 reductions put their economies in grave danger. They would need money to transition away from dependence on fossil fuels.
The guardians of the lungs of the planet -- tropical forests in Asia, Africa and Latin America -- have petitions in one hand and chainsaws in the other. The forests, they point out, are exploitable resources filled with goods. They also correctly point out that the world wants and needs those same forests to remain intact and healthy.
The former Soviet Union was a lobbying group with plenty of knotty issues as well. These countries had spent almost a century trying to use resource wealth to quickly bootstrap into industrial wealth, whatever the environmental cost. As a result, places like Russia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan were polluted, oil dependent and produced less GDP per unit of energy expended than any other economies. They were going to need help, too, to move away from oil and gas, remain politically stable and clean up the mess they've already made.
Last, but most challenging: the new industrial giants. They had very rapidly grown into some of the most industrialized countries on the planet, and were still home to hundreds of millions of poor people who depended on the land to eat. They came to Copenhagen wanting to be treated with the respect and deference their new industrial might commanded, but at the same time be treated as the poor countries they still really are. China, India and Brazil spent a lot of the week talking about the historic responsibilities of the wealthy industrial economies and their own need to continue growing quickly -- and dirtily -- if need be.
Though they have huge and growing industrial sectors, their incomes per person are still pretty low compared with places like the United States, Germany and even Poland. So, they concluded, the wealthy industrial countries owe a debt to the rest of the world for the decades of pollution that led up to the conferences in Rio de Janeiro, Kyoto and Bali. At the same time, their own pollution thresholds should be raised while the rich are made to cut even more steeply.
The industrial countries said "yes" a lot in Copenhagen. They said yes to big money for the least developed countries. They said yes to setting (eventually) specific targets for emission reductions by 2020, and yes to enormous cuts in emissions by 2050. They agreed that history plays a part here, and that the industrializing countries have a point when they plead that they need to grow to bring benefits like rural electrification to their hundreds of millions of poor citizens. They just couldn't say "yes" in Copenhagen, and probably won't say yes down the road to targets without verification and limitless money for every environmental wrong that can be identified by an interest group.
An old thought experiment played out in college ethics and game theory classes involves something called the "Diner's Dilemma." If a group of people decides to eat together and to split the bill equally, how will people make individual choices about both cost and utility? Will you order lobster and steak knowing everyone else will subsidize your choices? Will you order salad to bring down the cost of the meal, even if people order the filet mignon?
An international Diner's Dilemma played out in Copenhagen. Countries wisely wondered about their own self-interest while puzzling out the value of paying costs or making sacrifices their own people may not see in the short or even middle term. But every time a rich country delegate began to muse that few of his people would notice changes on the island of Tuvalu (population 12,373), up popped an example of how everyone will eventually feel the effects of unbridled C02 emissions.
At the world's common table, everyone who can have the most expensive meal wants it, even as a quick glance around the table shows many fellow diners getting nothing to eat.
The people who have done the least to create global climate change are many of the same people who have the most to fear from it. The people who are guardians of the forests -- massive carbon sinks and with a dazzling variety of plants and animals -- are also poor enough to see significant short term advantage by burning and cutting their forests.
For the Copenhagen conference to have achieved more of its long-stated objectives, more people in more places were going to have to give a little. Perhaps many of those same leaders overpromised in advance of the conference. Its results showed how difficult it will be to get a regime that works for the diverse stakeholders, and how much easier it is to take the path of least resistance even when scientists are ringing the alarm bells.
The next world climate conference is set for about a year from now in Mexico. It will be interesting to watch how the Copenhagen accords shape the agenda, if at all. Many delegates said it was unthinkable to leave Denmark without a strong agreement that starts immediately on changing the course of climate change. But thousands of the most influential people in the world appear to have done exactly that.