International negotiations aren’t what they used to be. When Metternich convened the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the crowned heads of state (including the Czar, British King and various obscure dukes) spent six months wining and dining each other and did deals over late-night cards in the ballroom. Relieved at having got rid of Napoleon, the Austrian government picked up the tab.
130 years later, when Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill met at Yalta, only a few select diplomats accompanied them. The world’s media were entirely absent: the Royal Air Force did not deem it necessary to shuttle them to the Crimea via Liberia and Egypt (Roosevelt’s approach route) or by flying boat through Gibraltar and the Dardanelles (as Churchill arrived). There was no civil society present when Churchill drew the post-war balance of power in Europe on a paper napkin and Stalin nodded his assent.
By contrast, Copenhagen 2009 has been, until the last 48 hours, an open, democratic process. The Bella Centre, a vast hangar on the outskirts of the Danish capital, has room for 15,000 people. Over 45,000 people applied for passes, most of them associated with non-governmental organisations. Even the official parties to the negotiation, who had preferential access to the centre, included many participants who were neither diplomats nor government figures. The delegation I went to see got me a ‘party’ badge. (I never found out if there was an ‘after-party’ badge).
The conference may be doomed to failure, but in part this reflects impossibly high expectations. A multilateral negotiation process, involving over 200 countries and many other non-state entities, cannot possibly lead to a mutually satisfactory ‘global deal’. Global deals, by their nature, involve small numbers of powerful people talking to each other in closed rooms. To be successful, they require a sense of urgency (even fear), extraordinary levels of gumption, a willingness to take risks even though the numbers and implications are unclear. We’ll know in the next 48 hours if those conditions were present.
The youth hostel I stayed in was handing out ‘Direct Action Handbooks’ to all comers, but the people who shared a dorm with me just looked very tired. The protests, in any case, tell a misleading story. There is tremendous anger and frustration at the world’s inability to deal with climate change, but it does not take outsiders to make the point—it is deeply apparent in the official proceedings. Speaker after speaker in the plenary lambasts other countries for blocking a deal. The poor blame the rich for their stinginess. The rich blame the poor for their fecklessness and lack of unity (surely an unfair accusation to level at a group of countries as diverse as the Maldives, China and Ethiopia). It’s a lot like global trade talks.
Unlike global trade talks, however, these ones matter. During my (very) brief stint in the conference centre on Wednesday, there was a look of concentration, even of pain, in the red eyes of the thousands of negotiators and hangers-on. The lead negotiator took a steady stream of calls, whispering in his boss’ ear between them. I ran through the numbers—$100m spent on sea walls saves $200m of flood damage here, avoiding deforestation on 5,000 hectares at $5 per ton funds another batch of high-yielding cassava there—but they hardly seemed to matter. Chirpy interns and campaigners dressed as polar bears were unable to lift the gathering gloom, nor avoid the impression of being sidelined as the world waited with baited breath for the heavies to show up.
What can the heavies achieve, though? Each country has a tiny cubicle in which ministers and delegates come and go; the overwhelming impression is one of chaos. How can a Sarkozy, a Merkel, or even an Obama possibly impose order on this madness? How can we end up with anything other than a weak form of words patched together at the last minute?
There are some hopeful signs. An agreement to pay developing countries to protect their rainforests looks likely. The US is putting more money on the table than ever before. China is shifting towards clean energy at breakneck speed. Most importantly, the energy, transport and industrial sectors are moving fast to deal with the new reality. When a home-owner on the coast of Florida is refused insurance, that will have a greater impact on their willingness to accept climate change than a hundred treaties and photocalls.
I predict there will be no global deal and all of us who care about this will have pretty miserable Christmas. I also believe it is worth continuing, indeed redoubling, the fight—not at a rhetorical or a diplomatic level, but a deeply practical one. Take the train. Cycle more. Buy home insulation. Vote for politicians who put up gas taxes. Eat less meat. Support research and innovation, even if it’s risky, because technology got us into this mess and technology will get out of it. Let’s accept that the deals will be partial, imperfect, even unfair, but let’s keep talking and acting, in everything we do, AS IF the responsible powers had reached a proper deal this week. If our politicians duck the challenge, we must vote them out, again and again, until they get the message and the skeptics die, go home or go to wherever the creationists and the flat-earthers live.
As for me, I left the briefing feeling tired, with a little more hope for the people I work for and a strong feeling that we have no alternative but to continue, whatever the forces of recession, pessimism and Arrow’s impossibility theorem throw at us. If only they built a high-speed rail link from Denmark to Germany , I would even have gone home by train. As it is, I boarded a flight, feeling guilty. There is a ferry, but it takes 20 hours and costs 4 times as much. Maybe next time we should do the whole thing by video conference.