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US-Led Copenhagen Accord Decried as Flawed, Undemocratic

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The climate summit in Copenhagen came to a close Saturday with the world’s nations reluctantly agreeing to “take note of” but not endorse a non-binding accord President Obama announced Friday night. The twelve-page agreement seeks to limit global warming to a maximum of a two degree Celsius rise in temperature. But it does not specify targets for cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. We speak with Guardian columnist George Monbiot and Lucia Green-Weiskel of the China-based organization Innovation Center for Energy and Transportation. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We are back in New York, but the climate summit in Copenhagen did come to a close on Saturday, when Democracy Now! was still there, with the world’s nations reluctantly agreeing “to take note of,” but not endorse, a non-binding accord President Obama announced Friday night. Yvo de Boer, the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework for Climate Change, described the deal as a, quote, “modest success” and a “letter of intent.”

In a recorded speech Friday night, President Obama declared that an agreement had been reached after a closed-door session with the leaders of Brazil, China, India and South Africa.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Today we’ve made meaningful and unprecedented — made a meaningful and unprecedented breakthrough here in Copenhagen. For the first time in history, all major economies have come together to accept their responsibility to take action to confront the threat of climate change.

AMY GOODMAN: The twelve-page agreement seeks
to limit global warming to a maximum of a two degree Celsius rise in temperature. But it does not specify targets for cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.

During a brief question-and-answer period restricted to the White House traveling press corps, President Obama defended the non-binding nature of the agreement.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It will not be legally binding, but what it will do is allow for each country to show to the world what they’re doing, and there will be a sense on the part of each country that we’re in this together, and we’ll know who is meeting and who is not meeting the mutual obligations that have been set forth.

AMY GOODMAN: In an all-night session that
followed Obama’s announcement, delegates from around the world denounced the US-led deal as an undemocratic sham that sacrificed the interests of poor countries. Ambassador Lumumba Stanislaus Di-Aping, who chairs the largest grouping of developing countries called the G-77, though it represents more than 130 countries, condemned the agreement as “extraordinarily flawed.”

    LUMUMBA STANISLAUS DI-APING: It represents the worst development in climate change negotiations in history. And I say this because gross violations — gross violations have been committed today against the poor, against tradition of transparency and participation on equal footing by all nations and parties to the convention, and against common sense, because the architecture of this deal is extraordinarily flawed.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, civil society groups
excluded from the talks staged a protest outside the Bella Center holding up pictures of Obama and signs that read “Climate Shame.” On Saturday, Indian environmentalist Suparno Banerjee said the entire summit was a failure.

    SUPARNO BANERJEE: We are saying that it’s a complete failure. We have failed to agree at a sort of a solution which will lead us to a viable action plan towards controlling climate change. And we believe that it’s disastrous for climate, and it’s especially disastrous for India’s poor and the vulnerable sections, because they are going to be, you know, most severely hit.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, I’m joined now by Democracy Now! video stream from Britain by author and Guardian columnist George Monbiot. And joining us here in New York, Lucia Green-Weiskel is with us from the Beijing, China-based organization Innovation Center for Energy and Transportation.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s go to George Monbiot. I think we have you on the phone right now. Talk about what happened. Talk about the results of this meeting, if you can call it an accord.

GEORGE MONBIOT: Well, it’s a complete disaster. It’s not even an accord. There’s nothing binding in it. There’s no targets and no timetables. And, ominously, we now have the head of the UN process, Yvo de Boer, saying we are going to move the talks to Mexico; it will all be fine there.

You probably remember this, Amy, but in 2001, the world trade talks collapsed in Doha, and the head of the World Trade Organization said it’s all fine; we’re going to move the talks to Mexico, and it’ll all be resolved then. And they moved to Cancun and were never seen again. And I wonder — I’m beginning to wonder if Mexico is the diplomatic equivalent to the Pacific Garbage Patch, the place where failed negotiations go to die.

This is a wipeout. It’s the — it would be hard to conclude that this is not the end of the process, because once you’ve lost your diplomatic momentum, once the red carpets have been rolled up and the cutlery has been cleared away, it’s just very hard to regain it.

In fact, I interviewed Yvo de Boer, the man in charge of the process, last year, and I’ve got a direct quote from him, very different to what he’s saying today, by the way. And he then said, “The worst case scenario for me is that climate becomes a second World Trade Organization. Copenhagen, for me, is a very clear deadline that I think we need to meet. And I’m afraid that if we don’t, then the process will begin to slip. And like in the trade negotiations, one deadline after the other will not be met, and we sort of become the little orchestra on the Titanic.”

AMY GOODMAN: I actually saw Yvo de Boer yesterday in the Copenhagen airport. And I was just standing in front of him. I must say he did not seem very happy, to say the least. I asked him for comment, and he said no, as he eventually heads back to Bonn.

But talk about who won here. Talk about President Obama coming into Copenhagen, the early morning hours of Friday, and what you understood from there. The way the US media is playing it here in the United States is that he came, he burst into a private meeting of several countries — I think he was — they said Brazil, India, China, and he said that there has to be transparency, and he demanded an accord.

GEORGE MONBIOT: Well, I can hardly express my disappointment with Mr. Obama. Like many of the world’s people, especially those on the liberal and left, progressive ends of the spectrum, I placed great hopes in him. He was a man who was a source of inspiration. And I feel incredibly let down and betrayed.

What Obama and the US delegation have done this time round is very similar to what George Bush did over Iraq, which was to bypass the United Nations, to go behind the backs of the majority of nations, and try to create a coalition of the willing. And in doing so, he effectively trashed the talks. It’s absolutely true that the Chinese delegation was being very intransigent and very difficult, but Obama, what he did was to demand that the Chinese delegation change its position without offering anything at all in return.

And we all assumed that — those of us who are environmentalists, who have been following this process, assumed that the dreadful US negotiating position was just an opening bid, that the very poor target and very poor timetable offered by the United States was just the bargaining position and that it would open up from there on. But it soon became clear that there was nothing else on the table and that Obama was not going to raise that bid, and that while he was demanding that the rest of the world take action, he was not prepared to take any further action himself.

And the reason this is such a disappointment is that this was a man who was going to put aside childish things. This is a man who was going to do what was right, not what was expedient. And in this case, he was faced by the greatest challenge the world now confronts, and he was the only man who could break the deadlock. And instead of breaking the deadlock, he ensured that that deadlock became inevitable, and he broke the talks. And we now have a situation where the momentum might never be recovered —-

AMY GOODMAN: Wait, wait. But, George Monbiot, explain what you mean by “he broke the talks.”

GEORGE MONBIOT: Well, he just was not prepared actually to negotiate; he was prepared only to demand. He made demands on the other nations, but he didn’t offer anything in return. And that’s not negotiation. That’s just gunboat diplomacy. And unless you are prepared to offer something in return, all you can do is to humiliate the other side. And, of course, the Chinese, in particular, are very sensitive to humiliation, and losing face is a very, very big thing in China. And the way Obama laid it on the line to them, it was “Do as I say, or the whole thing collapses,” rather than, “If you do this, I’ll do that, and we’ll have a deal.” There was no deal making being done. All it was was just this brutal demand. And I can understand that if it was coming from the Bush presidency; it’s much harder to understand coming from the Obama presidency.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain exactly what the demand was.

GEORGE MONBIOT: Well, the demand was that China open itself up to verification and monitoring of its greenhouse gas cuts. Now, that, in itself, is a perfectly reasonable demand. And in negotiation, everybody makes demands of everybody else. That’s what it’s all about. That’s how you strike a treaty, you strike a deal. But in this case, Obama was not saying, “If you do this, we will do that, we will raise our targets, we will improve our timetables, we will firm things up.” That just wasn’t put on the table.

And then he sort of, finally, walks out saying, “We have a deal,” lands it on the rest of the world, which hadn’t taken part in that deal -— I think there were only five nations involved in these private meetings he had — and then says, “Sorry, must go to Washington. Bad weather.” And I’m afraid it’s just not good enough.

AMY GOODMAN: It was interesting that bad weather was the reason.


AMY GOODMAN: The climate was the reason for cutting short the talks.

GEORGE MONBIOT: I know. I mean, this is — the bad weather that made him fly back to Washington is nothing by comparison to what we’re likely to see as a result of him flying back to Washington without a deal being done.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, explain that, George Monbiot, because I don’t know if you’re aware of how this is covered in the United States — hardly at all. I mean, when there is extreme weather in this country, what flashes on the meteorologists’ news screens — because people do tune in to weather reports all over, especially now, the East Coast just blanketed in snow — underneath, what we call the lower third, it screams “extreme weather” or “severe weather.” Imagine if those two words were replaced by another two words: “global warming.”


AMY GOODMAN: I think everyone in this country would care, because that would be most of the coverage you’d get on global warming in this country.


AMY GOODMAN: But explain what you mean when you say what this could mean for the rest of the world and the United States — specifically, the climate.

GEORGE MONBIOT: Yeah. Well, human beings are extraordinary in that we can live in a wider range of conditions than almost any other species. But we’ve had this incredible good fortune over the past few thousand years, because the climate has been really kind to us, and it’s enabled us to spread into almost all the regions of the world. There are very few places in which we can’t live: deserts, mountaintops and oceans and the rest. But everywhere else, we’re pretty well filled to capacity, and these optimum climatic conditions have allowed our population to expand to about seven billion.

But a shift in global temperatures reduces the range of places in which human beings can live. For instance, during the last Ice Age, there was only a four degree temperature difference, four degrees Centigrade, between the Ice Age and today. And it meant that human beings were entirely driven out of the high latitude parts of the world. Well, a shift of two or four degrees in the other direction could entirely drive human beings out of the low latitude areas of the world, simply because they’d dry up. There’s not enough rain to support crops and to support people.

And at the same time as huge regions of the world effectively become uninhabitable, because the optimum conditions are no longer there, even in the temperate parts of the world, in the higher latitudes, sea level rise means that less and less land is available, either for living on or for growing crops. And so, we have this dreadful situation where it’s very hard to see how we can sustain current levels of global food production. It’s very hard to see how — where many of the world’s people are going to live. I mean, certainly, if we’re under pressure in the temperate regions, we’re going to be much less inclined to let people in from regions which are becoming uninhabitable. And we have this almost perfect storm of humanitarian disaster. And you have what’s called structural global famine, which means that even in a good year you can’t produce enough food for the world’s people.

And, you know, this just casts everything else into the shade. This makes all previous disasters look like sideshows at the circus of human suffering. And yet, somehow, this just isn’t impinging on our consciousness. And, you know, what’s marked out all the negotiations and the period leading up to the negotiations is indifference and apathy on most people’s parts. There have been very few people involved in the protests. There’s been very little pressure on governments. In fact, the penalty for governments for doing the right thing in taking serious action on climate change has been much graver than the penalty for doing the wrong thing, because there’s just not the political mobilization that we need to see.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, George Monbiot of The Guardian, who — we’re speaking to him via Democracy Now! audio stream. We’re also joined here in New York by Lucia Green-Weiskel, who just came back last night, actually on the same flight that we came back, through Reykjavik, Iceland. She is with the Beijing-based Innovation Center for Energy and Transportation.

Lucia, you spent a lot of time with the Chinese delegation. When Hillary Clinton gave her news conference on Thursday, just before Obama came into town, clearly targeting the Chinese, talking about the lack of transparency, explain what was happening with China through these days.

LUCIA GREEN-WEISKEL: Right. Well, first, just wanted to say a little bit of background about China’s position. China has been saying that these negotiations were a success, actually, that the leaders have been stating that in the news. And the US media has been saying that the — if there’s anyone to blame in these negotiations, it’s China, because it was resisting this transparency issue that Hillary Clinton brought up when she came to Copenhagen.

But many of the big issues that China is dealing with when it comes to climate change were not discussed at all in the negotiations by anybody. China, as we know, is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, overtaking the United States just in 2006. But on a per capita basis, China is still very low in its emissions. And also, 80 to 90 percent of the emissions that are in the atmosphere right now were put there by the United States and Europe, not by China or by the developing world. So China has attached itself to this idea of common, but differentiated, responsibilities. And that language was in the Kyoto Protocol. China wanted that language to be also put into the Copenhagen accord. And basically what that means is that because the developed world is responsible for the emissions that are in the atmosphere now, the developing world will respond to the ability that it’s able. So that’s a very important point that China has pursued throughout the negotiations at all levels of the Chinese delegation, but also the NGOs from China were saying that, as well. So I think it’s on that basis that China is saying this is a success, meaning, “We were able to stick to this agreement of having common, but differentiated, responsibilities.”

But that said, in the months leading up to the Copenhagen negotiation, leaders from China were saying that the United States needed to take very strong action. One of the Chinese officials said that the United States should pledge to reduce its emissions by 40 percent by 2020, which is obviously much higher than what Obama has pledged himself to. They also said that the United States should pledge one percent of its GDP to developing countries to help them mitigate climate change, and that hasn’t happened, either. So I am sure that the delegation from China also is very disappointed by Obama’s commitments or lack of commitments.

I think we all thought that Obama was going to escalate his commitment, that the sort of pattern between the United States and China has been that the US makes a commitment and then China will follow. Just ten days before the negotiations, Obama announced his target, and then China came in and announced their target to reduce energy intensity by 40 to 45 percent of 2005 levels by 2020. So I think that China was definitely expecting more from the United States and didn’t get it.

AMY GOODMAN: And China being blamed now in the United States for the failure of the talks, with Obama swooping in at the last minute to save it? That’s very much how it’s being described right now.

LUCIA GREEN-WEISKEL: Right, yeah. It’s the old story of blaming China. And I think, from the Chinese perspective, it’s more the United States’ failure, that the United States really should have led the way, and then China would have followed.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m interested in — China has just surpassed the United States in terms of overall carbon greenhouse gas emissions, although per capita the US way exceeds China. But, for example, cars — the standards in China — I mean, we still mainly in the United States, it’s large cars. What is the trend in China now?

LUCIA GREEN-WEISKEL: Well, China is — just a couple of months ago, a delegation from the US went to China and spoke to their counterparts in the Chinese government about China’s targets and undertakings in terms of its environmental practice. And one of the things that came out of that trip was that China was talked about by US politicians as becoming a leader in public transportation and especially in electric and hybrid vehicles. And China has also passed very stringent fuel economy standards and, in many cases, even more stringent than what we have here in the United States, even under Obama, which was more stringent than under Bush.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for example, where would the Prius fall?

LUCIA GREEN-WEISKEL: Well, right, the Prius would be — and I don’t know exactly the year —-

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the hybrid.

LUCIA GREEN-WEISKEL: Our most efficient vehicle, the Toyota Prius, in a couple of years will -— would not be legal in China if it were made in that year. So —-


LUCIA GREEN-WEISKEL: Because Chinese fuel efficiency standards are more strict than here in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Are much higher than that.

LUCIA GREEN-WEISKEL: That’s right, exactly.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s amazing.

LUCIA GREEN-WEISKEL: That’s right. And also, China is one of the only countries in the world that is really establishing a large-scale, mass market electric vehicle industry. And so, there is a lot of hope that China, instead of following the model of the United States that’s, you know, the SUVs and highways everywhere, that China may be able to still, although they do have a lot of highways, and more and more people are having cars, and it’s a major problem, but there still is some hope that maybe China will be able to follow a model that includes public transportation and these fuel-efficient and electric vehicles.

AMY GOODMAN: And the idea that the US would have to bail out China and the $100 billion the US proposed by 2020 that would come, well, not, to say the least, just from the United States, but they join in some multinational effort, and even that would be public and private. What did the Wall Street Journal actually say recently about what that would mean? They talked about the global fund, saying as for the $100 billion a year by 2020, US officials said the vast majority of it would come from the private sector, in particular, through the buying and selling of carbon credits and not from the government coffers.

LUCIA GREEN-WEISKEL: Well, I think that that issue of money is -— or the financial component of Obama’s promise is there’s still a lot up in the air. I think China is wondering how much of that $100 billion per year the US will be contributing and where it will go.

AMY GOODMAN: And will China get some of that?

LUCIA GREEN-WEISKEL: And will China get some of that, right. We don’t know any of that right now.

AMY GOODMAN: So China bails out the United States, and then the US —-

LUCIA GREEN-WEISKEL: Yes. Yeah, right. I was -—

AMY GOODMAN: — gives money to China?

LUCIA GREEN-WEISKEL: On Saturday night, I was with my colleagues in Copenhagen, and we were having a laugh about this, because we thought, well, if —-

AMY GOODMAN: Your colleagues being the Chinese NGOs?

LUCIA GREEN-WEISKEL: In China, right. And they were saying, well, all of US money right now is coming from China. If they have to loan more money in order to contribute money to this $100 billion fund, well, that money comes from buying cheap goods. Those cheap goods are being the most -— are the most carbon-intensive for China. So this is another example of how China gets this — the burden of the — you know, the carbon ends up landing on China, even when it actually goes into the US’s coffers, you know.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to end with George Monbiot. Talk about the significance of China here, China being blamed in the United States, and where you think this climate accord, or discord, goes from here.

GEORGE MONBIOT: Well, there’s a meme, if you like, which long predates climate change discussions and all the rest of it, which is that, if in doubt, blame China. This has happened — this happened, for instance, throughout the period of British colonialism. It’s happened throughout the period of trade conflict between the West and the rest. And the Yellow Peril is constantly invoked as the big reason why nothing which the world’s people might want to be done can be done. And in almost all cases, China is used as a scapegoat for policies which actually the rich world doesn’t want to pursue anyway. And this is just another instance of that. We were told we couldn’t have fair trade because the Chinese would undermine it. We are now being told now we can’t have a fair climate campaign because the Chinese would undermine it. And the Chinese are repeatedly used as the West’s excuse for inaction. But as we saw during the talks, if the West had come up with the goods itself, it could not hide behind that excuse anymore, because China would have had the opportunity to respond. But there is nothing that the Chinese could have responded to.

AMY GOODMAN: And what happens from here, George Monbiot? So, this deal is sealed. I actually think Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary-General, used that term, which was the demand of activists through the two weeks — “seal the deal, seal the deal” — but I don’t think this is what they were talking about.

GEORGE MONBIOT: No, no. I mean, there’s nothing recognizable as a deal which has been sealed here, because we have no targets and no timetables and no firm commitments of any climate —-

AMY GOODMAN: And the carbon markets now are going down.

GEORGE MONBIOT: Well, that’s inevitable. The only thing which would ensure that fossil fuels fell out of fashion and that they were eventually replaced by renewables would be the confidence in the markets to start investing in renewables and disinvesting from fossil fuels. And what has just happened produces exactly the opposite result. And we’re going to see massive disinvestment now over the next year in this period of total uncertainty about what’s going to happen next from renewables, and we’re going to see the fossil fuel industry heartened to start massive reinvestment in producing more coal and oil and gas. And so, this is incredibly bad news on a whole lot of levels.

And what happens now, well, is anyone’s guess, but it doesn’t look good. It’s going to be very hard now to salvage this agreement now that the momentum has been lost. And as I suggested at the beginning, the head of the process, Yvo de Boer, was very much aware that the momentum is all-important, and governments kind of lose interest if they don’t get a deal straightaway. They’ve got other things to do. They move on. They do those other things, and they’re not -— they’re just not switched on.

AMY GOODMAN: Mexico is the next big meeting at the end of the year, 2010?


AMY GOODMAN: Well, George Monbiot, I want to thank you for being with us, British journalist and author —-

GEORGE MONBIOT: Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: —- columnist with The Guardian in Britain. And speaking to us here in New York, Lucia Green-Weiskel. Beijing-based Innovation Center for Energy and Transportation is her organization. She spent much of her time with Chinese NGOs and the Chinese delegation in Copenhagen. She’s just back.

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