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Saturday, December 19, 2009

Jeffrey Allen, Why I would sign the Copenhagen Accord

Why I Would Sign the 'Copenhagen Accord'

Jeffrey Allen,, December 19, 2009

COPENHAGEN ( -- I was one of the very few people around the world listening to world leaders as they took the floor one after another in the wee hours of this morning to justify their positions in favor or against the so-called "Copenhagen Accord." I was one of the even fewer people who also followed the ups, downs, frenzies, and stagnations of the Copenhagen Climate Summit for the 11 days and nights that led up to last night's dramatic oratorical jousting session.

Over the course of those 11 days as part of the team streaming live from the Bella Center every day and night, I interviewed experts on topics from ocean acidification and coral reef destruction to forest-cover monitoring and emerging technologies. I spoke directly with Connie Hedegaard, Bill McKibben, and seemingly everyone in between. It's been a whirlwind two weeks. And it all came down to last night.

Countless texts had appeared, been leaked, retracted, redacted, debated, eviscerated. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity of stalemates, Obama appeared, then disappeared behind closed doors, appeared again with little to say and less to show, disappeared again, and then reappeared again with what he called a deal. Eerily, though, he appeared in voice only, since his final press conference was neither televised nor open to the world press. Regardless, by 10 p.m. last night, a single final document was on the table.

The details of the document emerged slowly, late in the night, as the text began to circulate beyond the select group of countries involved in its drafting. Obama and his U.S. press pool were long gone.

The initial reaction came from civil society -- the voice of the voiceless worldwide -- and it was loud, clear, and utterly damning. The text offered nothing new, they said. A reference to holding temperature rise to 2 °C, sure, but no clear path to make that happen (the emission targets currently pledged get nowhere near the 2-degree goal). A small amount of short-term funding to help the poorest countries adapt ($30 billion total for the next three years), and a bigger longer-term package ($100 billion per year by 2020), but this is far too little, and not entirely in the form of public grants without strings, the civil society groups said. The only good thing about the "Accord," they noted, was that it was so vague that it left immense room for potential improvements in the coming weeks and months.
At the UN climate summit closing plenary. © UNFCCCAt the UN climate summit closing plenary. © UNFCCC 

The EU spoke next, clarifying that they had helped draft the text, and that they had wanted it to be more ambitious, including a pledge to cut emissions 50% by 2050, but were rebuffed by unnamed nations and groups of nations who, the EU representatives said, still don't get the severity and urgency of the climate situation. Nevertheless, the EU was backing the "Accord."

So clearly, we now knew, this document was the product of a negotiation including at least the major world economic powers: the United States and Europe. But what of the most vulnerable countries, the ones whose voices and opinions were supposed to be protected by this consensus-driven process. Were they on board? Had they even been consulted? That would make all the difference to me as I tried to figure out what to make of all this -- and where I personally stood on the key question: to support the final document or agree with those recommending the conference adopt nothing rather than legitimizing this deeply flawed document.

We heard from the EU that Sudan and "a few other countries" were opposed to the document -- but there was no indication of how many other countries and who they were. Was Sudan's opinion reflective of the entire African group? If so, that could well spell doom for Obama's "deal." What about the small island nations, who had repeatedly said they would not sign any agreement that would not hold global temperature rise to 1.5 °C and do it in a legally binding way. Anything else would amount to a suicide pact for their countries, they had passionately declared time and again these past two weeks.

We waited and waited as Friday turned over into Saturday, trying to glean little bits of information in that stark, cold, conference hall dominated by delegates in suits and pants suits and almost devoid of the colorful, creative, and informative voices of global civil society, who had been excluded from the center for the previous two days.

Finally, just as we started considering cutting off our broadcast for the evening -- a little after 2 a.m., I think -- the plenary hall stirred on our computer screen. We immediately started streaming it to our viewers.

The Danish president of the conference was calling the delegates to order, and within a flash we had what seemed to be our answer. The delegate from Tuvalu, Ian Fry, who had taken the collective breath away from the assembled negotiators earlier in the week with his emotional declaration that "the fate of my country now rests in your hands," was at the mike.

Tuvalu's lead negotiator Ian Fry. © COP 15Tuvalu's lead negotiator, Ian Fry. © COP 15

His judgment of the document was swift and uncompromising. The "deal" would not save his country. Tuvalu would not accept it. The hall echoed with applause. Fry was immediately followed by a bevy of outraged delegates from Latin America. Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba, Costa Rica, Nicaragua all would not sign, as they felt the deal was being "imposed" on them from above rather then negotiated in good faith among all the world's nations. Sudan spoke vehemently about how the deal would mean "incineration" for Africa, as a global 2 °C increase would likely mean a 3.5 °C increase for Africa, which is more susceptible and sensitive to temperature increases than other parts of the planet. The Danish president called for a break in the "discussions."

It had to be close to 4 a.m. now. The deal could actually be killed, it seemed. Had Obama miscalculated? Would the world's poorer countries band together this time to quash a deal that they felt would not save their livelihoods, their cultures, their people? Would the world body try a new approach this time -- choosing "none of the above" rather than its usual: "lesser of two evils"? Had the heightened stakes -- the future of humanity and most species on the planet -- altered the traditional calculus? I was just about ready to start printing my "I am Tuvalu" t-shirts.

Then the plenary hall stirred again, and Maldives president Mohamed Nasheed took the mike. He was the only head of state to stick it out through the night, as far as I could tell.

Nasheed has an incredible story. After decades within an embattled opposition party, and having spent years imprisoned by his country's autocratic rulers -- Amnesty International designated him as a prisoner of conscience -- and living in exile, he finally managed to take over the leadership of the Maldives last year in the country's first free and fair elections ever. He has since declared that his country will be the first in the world to go entirely carbon neutral, and has waged an impressive international campaign to put ambitious climate action at the top of the world's agenda.

Nasheed's country is the lowest on the planet, with an average ground level only 5 feet above sea level. No political leader in the world has more to lose from climate change than Nasheed, and so none prioritizes the global climate interest as high as he does. He speaks logically, reasonably, and passionately about the issue, and is 100-percent  informed about the realities -- both scientifically and politically. If Nasheed were to join his Tuvalan colleagues in opposing the admittedly weak draft before the UN body, there would be no telling how the rest of the developing countries would fall, but I certainly would be sure of where I stood on the issue.

He did not. Around 5 in the morning, Nasheed calmly, but resolutely told the world that, in this case, it was best for his country to move forward with the unambitious and non-binding "deal" on the table. He said that, though he highly respected his colleagues' objections, he believed that the best chance of survival now lay in accepting the limited offer on the table and then working to make it much more ambitious -- and legally binding -- by the end of 2010.

In essence, Nasheed was giving Obama the green light to punt on all the hard decisions until next year. Perhaps he decided that 2009 was about putting the Maldives -- and Tuvalu and Grenada and Sudan and all the world's most vulnerable countries -- on the world's radar screen. And putting the wealthier countries on notice that not enough was being done, and they could very well face an even stronger insurrection in 2010 if they do not come through with emission cuts.

Perhaps Nasheed has calculated that Obama just needs a few more months to let the economy begin to recover and message the American people about global warming (something his administration has done very little of). Blowing up the entire process -- which Nasheed may or may not have had the power to do -- would probably have meant no binding targets for developed countries anytime soon, and thus almost certain destruction for the Maldives.So instead, it seems Nasheed has bought Obama some time and political cover, while at the same time putting him the U.S. president on notice with the good-cop, bad-cop routine he ran with Tuvalu's Ian Fry.

There is no doubt that the "Copenhagen Accord" is a bad, bad deal for the world's most vulnerable people and countries. The failure to work out a fair, ambitious, and binding treaty here is a absolute disappointment that threatens the future of all humanity, not to mention the rest of life on Earth. But when it came time for the final up or down decision, every leader had to decide what response, at this extraordinarily precarious moment in human history, would most likely result in success down the road.

Mohamed Nasheed knows the science, he knows the politics, and I'm confident he's acting in the best interest of stabilizing the global climate as much and as soon as humanly possible. If this "deal" is good enough for him, then it's good enough for me.

--- Jeffrey Allen,


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