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Despite Protests, Some Reason for Optimism in Copenhagen

COPENHAGEN, Denmark — On the surface, things here at the COP15 conference in Copenhagen haven’t gone terribly well. Yesterday, there was an “action” — a vocal protest in the convention hall itself — organized by a loosely-knit coalition of African states, youth groups, and NGOs. The protest was centered around the idea that a carbon target which permits the earth’s temperature to rise by 2 degrees Celsius — the figure that the developed nations are expected to converge upon — would be insufficient to meet Africa’s concerns. Today, there was a similar action oriented around the tiny, low-lying island nation of Tuvalu, whose very survival may depend on more ambitious temperature targets. Further actions and protests, particularly as organized by youth groups, are planned for days ahead — and others will follow spontaneously.

Although these actions are not especially large by the standards of, say, a Washington D.C. protest march — they’ll involve, perhaps, a group of 80-100 people — in the context of a buttoned-down United Nations convention, they are considered rather impressive. They involve credentialed participants at the convention: some of the thousands of accredited NGO “observers” who pass through tight security at the Bella Center each morning, and to some indeterminate extent are sanctioned by members of the negotiating delegations themselves.

“Ambitious” — meaning a target of a 1.0 or 1.5 degree temperature rise and no higher — is one of the key adjectives being bandied about the so-called least developed nations. The other adjective is “binding”; these countries want something as close as possible to the framework for a legally binding agreement — and not just a back-of-the-envelope, framework-of-a-framework rough drafts. On each of these points, they are likely to be disappointed. It would be wrong to describe Copenhagen as the first stage in the process — a process which after all has been going on since 1992 — but even under somewhat best-case scenarios, the delegates are unlikely to return with any sort of “signature-ready” treaty back to their home countries. And the significantly steeper curve in emissions reductions that would be required to stabilize the planet’s temperatures at +1 or +1.5 degrees C are something the developed nations are unlikely to agree to.

Nevertheless, there is quite a lot at stake here. And the protests — and the serious, somewhat anxious mood that permeates the Bella Center — may in some sense be taken as a good sign.

The reasons that nations like Tuvalu are figuratively and literally making so much noise are varied — but fundamentally, it stems from their sense that a deal (if not a binding one) may indeed be close, and that this may be their last chance to substantively influence its parameters. One particular concern among some of the smaller members of the so-called Group of 77 (a group of developing countries which, confusingly, is in fact 130 members strong) is that some of the larger and more developed countries in the group — like China, India and Brazil — will somewhat shortchange their interests in order to strike a deal with the West. The drafts that some of these nations have been circulating through backchannels — not the so-called Danish draft that has caused its own controversy — are, I was told, considered reasonably favorable for Western nations, and in particular the United States.

Of course, there is a pecking order here, and the United States sits on top of it. Diverse as the participants are here at the Bella Center, perhaps 30-40 percent of the attendees are English-speaking Americans.

In the context of a climate deal, the United States in some senses best viewed a rogue state that cannot be trusted to act rationally. Its political system, not without justification, is considered fickle and unpredictable; the other nations of the world are therefore very eager to negotiate a deal that can be substantially brought into being while President Obama is in office (lest they wait too long and wind up with, say, Sarah Palin instead). Ironically, this gives the United States a lot of leverage; you have to be careful when negotiating with someone who may not only walk out of the room but who may not return to hear your counter-offer.

But because of President Obama, who still commands the respect of the overwhelming majority of the participants here, the United States is also considered capable of agreeing to a deal that the rest of the world can (barely) live with. Although people are worried about the United States’ ability to commit to greenhouse gas reductions through its Congress (as one American participant remarked to me today, referring to the Senate: “There are 100 human beings standing behind us and a global commitment”) there is a very credible Plan B in the form of regulations mandated through the EPA, which recently declared greenhouse gases a danger to public health. Indeed, it would be hard to overstate the importance of the EPA ruling. Domestically, it could swing business groups behind a cap-and-trade system, which they consider a lesser evil, and Internationally, it gives us credibility — a tangible sign that we’re starting to “get it”.

It appears to me, then, that there may indeed be an overlap between what the United States wants and what the rest of the world is willing to give. That does not mean that we’d be splitting the difference with the rest of the world; the emissions targets we’d receive would almost certainly be fairly lax by the standards of the EU. But the rest of the world, somewhat mollified by the perceived humility of President Obama, have perhaps resigned themselves to the fact that the United States doesn’t have to play fair and will take what they can get.

For some nations, however, like Tuvalu, what they can get might still not be good enough. The effects of global warming are neither linear nor uniform, and if Tuvalu sinks, then it’s sunk, regardless of how pleased the rest of the world is feeling with itself. Would these underdeveloped countries indeed walk away from the negotiating table, undermining a deal that the developing and developed world were willing to broker with one another?

That’s certainly one of ways that Copenhagen could end; although such a move would arguably be irrational, rationality does not always prevail in 190-party negotiations. But if it does end that way, I’d be skeptical that there was a deal to be had in the first place. Although Tuvalu might not be saved by a “bad” climate deal, it’s not clear, with temperatures and sea levels rising every year, that they can afford to hold out for a better one.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.