What Really Happened in Copenhagen - By Brian Tokar

What Really Happened in Copenhagen?
or, "50,000 people went to Denmark and all they got was a lousy 3-page
political agreement"

-- Brian Tokar

Detailed accounts from participants in the recent Copenhagen climate
summit are still coming in, but a few things are already quite clear,
even as countries step up the blame game in response to the summit's
disappointing conclusion.

First, the 2 1/2 pages of diplomatic blather that the participating
countries ultimately consented to "take note" of are completely self-
contradictory, and commit no one to any specific actions to address
the global climate crisis. There isn't even a plan for moving UN-level
negotiations forward. Friends of the Earth correctly described it as a
"sham agreement," British columnist George Monbiot called it an
exercise in "saving face," and former neoliberal shock doctor-turned-
environmentalist Jeffrey Sachs termed it a farce. Long-time UN
observer Martin Khor has pointed out that for a UN body to "take note"
of a document means that not only was it not formally adopted, but it
was not even "welcomed," a common UN practice.

Second, the global divide between rich and poor has never been
clearer, and those countries where people are already experiencing the
droughts, floods, and the melting of glaciers that provide a vital
source of freshwater expect to find themselves in increasingly
desperate straits as the full effects of climate disruptions begin to
emerge. Not to mention the small island nations that face near-certain
annihilation as melting ice sheets bring rising seas, along with
infiltrations of seawater into their scarce fresh water supplies.
Especially despicable was the changing role of the governments of the
rapidly developing "BASIC" countries (Brazil, South Africa, India and
China), who claim to speak for the poor - in their own countries and
around the world - when it is convenient, but mainly seek to protect
the expanding riches of their own well-entrenched elites.

Third, even the meager and contradictory progress of the past 17 years
of global climate talks is now at risk, as is the flawed but
relatively open and inclusive UN process. After the 2007 climate
summit in Bali, Indonesia, the Bush administration tried to initiate
an alternate track of negotiations on climate policy that involved
only a select handful of the more compliant countries. That strategy
failed, partly because its figurehead was George Bush. Now that the
Obama administration has adopted essentially the same approach, with
the full collaboration of the "BASICs," the utterly substanceless
"Copenhagen Accord" can be seen as this coercive strategy's first
diplomatic success.

As I wrote just as the Copenhagen meeting was getting underway (see my
"Repackaging Copenhagen," posted in early December), the US had
planned for some months to attempt to replace the quaint notion of a
comprehensive global climate agreement with a patchwork of informal,
individual country commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and
undertake other appropriate measures. If the Copenhagen document means
anything at all, it establishes that process as a new global norm for
implementing climate policy. Nothing is binding, and everything is
voluntary, only to be "assessed" informally after another five years
have passed. (Pages 4 and 5 of the "accord" actually consist of a pair
of high school-caliber charts where countries are free to simply write
in their voluntary emissions targets and other mitigation actions,
nominally by the end of January.)

The document was hammered out in a back room, WTO-style. It hedges all
the important issues, and appends loopholes and contradictions to
every substantive point that it pretends to make. While discussions
will nominally continue under the two UN negotiating tracks
established 2 years ago in Bali, the "accord" provides a justification
for leading countries in the process-which Bill McKibben has termed
the "league of superpolluters," plus a few wannabes-to continue
subverting and undermining those discussions in the name of a more
efficient and streamlined process to continue business as usual for
the benefit of the world's elites.

As some have pointed out, it could have been worse. A useless non-
agreement may be better than a coercive agreement that entrenches
insufficient targets and destructive policy measures, such as
expanding carbon markets. But the potential loss of an accountable UN
process could prove to be an even worse outcome than that. The US, of
course, has always tried to undermine the United Nations when it
couldn't overtly control it, but replacing the processes established
under the 1992 UN climate convention with a cash-for-compliance,
anything-goes circus that more closely mirrors the World Trade
Organization's discredited mechanisms doesn't bode at all well for the

Did anything positive happen in Copenhagen? For climate justice
activists around the world, Copenhagen may have been a long-sought
Seattle moment. It was a unique opportunity for activists and NGO
representatives from around the world to gather, forge personal ties,
and begin raising the global profile of an essential climate justice
agenda. Independent journalists, most notably Amy Goodman's Democracy
Now team, helped amplify the voices best able to explain how climate
disruptions are no longer an abstract scientific issue, but one that
is already impacting the lives of those least able to cope. Even the
mainstream US press featured some notable stories of people around the
world who are struggling to live with the effects of climate chaos.
More than ever before, people are coming to understand that the only
meaningful solution to the climate crisis is to "leave the oil in the
soil, the coal in the hole, and the tar sands in the land," following
the slogan raised by campaigners against oil drilling in Ecuador's
endangered Yasuni National Park.

It was also a pivotal moment for the ALBA countries of Latin America-
most notably Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Venezuela-which continued to the
very end to stand up to intimidation from the US and other powerful
countries, and refused to buckle under last-minute pressure to approve
the vapid and destructive "Copenhagen Accord" as an agreement of the
assembled nations. This is in stark contrast to the role of the
European Union, which once stood for a strong worldwide agreement on
greenhouse gas emissions, but has now fallen in line with the
disruptive strategies of the US. Another positive income is that there
was no new bone thrown to the world's financial elites, who were
banking on a Copenhagen agreement to help inflate their artificial
market in tradable carbon allowances. Carbon prices in Europe have
begun to decline, which may help prevent the enshrinement of carbon
markets (so-called "cap and trade") as the primary instrument of
climate policy in the United States.

So now the struggle returns to the national and local levels, where
people may be best able to create examples of just and effective ways
to address the climate crisis. There is no shortage of positive,
forward-looking approaches to reducing excess consumption and
furthering the development of alternative energy sources, especially
ones that can be democratically controlled by communities and not
corporations. But the power of positive examples is far from
sufficient to address the crucial problem of time. A few years ago,
climate experts shocked the world by saying we had less than ten years
to reverse course and do something to prevent irreversible tipping
points in the global climate system. The disastrous outcome of the
Copenhagen conference makes it harder than ever to feel confident that
it isn't too late.


Brian Tokar is the current director of the Institute for Social
Ecology (, author of The Green Alternative and
Earth for Sale, editor of two books on the politics of biotechnology,
Redesigning Life? and Gene Traders, and co-editor of the forthcoming
collection, Crisis in Food and Agriculture: Conflict, Resistance and
Renewal (Monthly Review Press). He works with Climate SOS and the
Mobilization for Climate Justice (,

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