The jury is coming in on the UN Conference on Climate Change recently concluded in Copenhagen – “jury” in this instance being critical observers from around the world who warn of the worsening worldwide situation especially for poor and “developing” nations. The verdict is mixed – no one is calling the “accord” an unqualified success. Some are calling it a disaster, others a shameful capitulation to the pressure from the developed nations to avoid effective but costly cuts in carbon emissions that are virtually universally agreed to be driving climate change. (Yes, Virginia, “the science is settled.”) If there seems to be a general sense of what was or was not accomplished by a conference that was to take the world “beyond Kyoto” it is disappointment.
China, it would appear, has been identified or designated the villain of the piece, for vetoing the imposition of legally binding cuts in carbon emissions. But China is not alone in resisting the strenuous measures that are now necessary to prevent further environmental deterioration on a global scale. The rich and powerful nations of the world all seem loathe to restrict industrial production effectively in view of inevitable long-term environmental harm given the short-term demands of a global economy in tatters. China is engaged in particularly harrowing effort to achieve social and economic progress while simultaneously forestalling massive environmental deterioration. With a population larger than that of the United States and Europe combined, that is no small challenge. Hindsight may well reveal that it was also not a reasonable excuse for scuttling Copenhagen.
President Obama’s timely but disappointing appearance at the conference only underscored the consequences of US indebtedness to China, our major trade partner whose monetary investments alone are a central pillar supporting a still-fragile American economy. Despite his strenuous efforts to hammer out an acceptable deal, not even Barack Obama is likely to bite the hand that feeds us.
Another UN climate change summit is scheduled for next year in Mexico. It is possible, if now unlikely, that it will be able to enact a balanced, legally-binding accord which will commit developed nations to greenhouse gas reductions of at least 40% by 2020 – based on 1990, not 2009 levels. But without such an accord, and without greatly increased funding to assist poor and emerging countries develop green technologies and protect themselves from the worst impacts of climate change, the future health of the world – environmentally and economically – will be dire indeed.
As with the US health reform bill that is creeping like a whipped dog between the House and Senate, politics is the art of compromise. But compromise is also the bane as well as the art of politics. The freakish weather plaguing Europe and the eastern seaboard of the United States in mid-December may serve as a timely warning. The window of opportunity to achieve needed reform (both in environmental policies and health care) is inexorably closing.