Be At The COP15 Table Or Be Part Of The Menu

Copenhagen is a very exciting place right now, with many contrasts. One of the jewels of this beautiful city is Tivoli, a sort of “Disneyland in Las Vegas,” with lots of bright and colorful lights. I wonder what its carbon footprint is. Probably a lot less than it appears, due to the prevalence of wind energy here.

The Bella Center, the main site for COP15, is densely packed with people of unparalleled cultural and philosophical diversity and competing interests. A friend once told me that political negotiations get more vicious when the stakes are lower. Here, it is quite the opposite. The stakes are huge and there seems to be a lot of civility, even amongst demonstrators that abound in the streets (though they seem often outnumbered by a very polite and firm police force).

Every stakeholder wants to be at this table, but meaningful agreements seem distant right now, due to a tendency for individual national interests to prevail over common global interests. For example, Saudi Arabia is worried about loss of revenue in oil sales due to renewable energy initiatives, while Singapore worries about losing ship traffic if the North Pole becomes navigable as Arctic ice melts. The small Island Sate of Tuvalu has a more compelling case. Their highest elevation is 4m above sea level and they worry about being swallowed by the ocean. Tensions between China and the US (respectively ranked #1 and #2 in CO2 emissions) flared up last Friday, after China (who joined the G77 position to seek financial assistance to mitigate and adapt to climate change) was irritated by an American official who stated that the US is unlikely to provide financial assistance to them. Incidentally, the G77 is a group of predominantly Southern developing nations who at times seem to be headquartered at the tower of Babel.

It is Monday afternoon, and I am attending a plenary session for parties, where press and NGOs cannot get in. After one hour of relatively repetitive speeches by governmental bureaucrats, the president of the Maldives asked the chair woman to stop requesting for such long-winded statements as is customary in COP meetings, and break into smaller groups to get to work and reach an agreement within the next two days. This was a wakeup call since heads of state are coming in two days, and negotiations must be over before they arrive to bless or curse whatever is agreed upon.

The strategy by key players seems to favor picking up the low hanging fruit to gain momentum. As US Secretary of Energy, Stephen Chu said this morning, the North will insist on taking care that agreements do not result in a major slow down in global economy. Thus, a radical and ingenious agreement is highly unlikely to emerge this week, but there are some positive trends emerging. Global awareness about climate change is gaining ground over denial–despite climategate.

There is also increasing recognition that whereas our desires and aspirations are boundless, our resources and assimilative capacity have limits. Thus, there is growing public pressure for urgent and decisive action that recognizes that we are all united by a common future. Unity is particularly important for the nations that are most vulnerable to climate change, so that they have a more compelling voice at the table as they negotiate for help to develop and implement tailored efforts to keep out of the menu. As the old adage says, you don’t get what you deserve. You get what you negotiate.

As for the developed countries, it is time to lead, follow, or go home.

Author: Pedro Alvarez

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