Climate talks and global political integration

Copenhagen is turning into exactly the sort of shambles everybody feared it would be. The only official text still has almost two thousand square brackets indicating points of disagreement, although there is less than two weeks to go. And now all the rival, unofficial texts are starting to emerge.

Copenhagen is turning into exactly the sort of shambles everybody feared it would be. The only official text still has almost two thousand square brackets indicating points of disagreement, although there is less than two weeks to go. And now all the rival, unofficial texts are starting to emerge.

The first to be leaked was a Danish proposal that was backed by a number of other industrialised countries. It would simply scrap the Kyoto protocol, the only legally binding treaty in existence that makes countries reduce emissions, and ditch the measures it contains on financial assistance and technology transfer to poor countries. A new treaty would be constructed on a green-field site, with everything up for grabs.

The developing countries, needless to say, were furious – but in the next few days the BASIC group (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) will release its own proposed text. The least developed countries, the African bloc and the overall G77/China grouping are also expected to present their own texts, as are the small island states.

The last group, unsurprisingly, is threatening to veto any outcome that does not create a legally binding treaty, because it contains a number of small island countries that are likely to disappear entirely if the sea level rises even a metre. Yet it is very hard to believe that a binding treaty can be negotiated in the next seven or eight days – the conference ends on 18 December – and in the end the island states will probably be bribed and bullied into accepting something less.

One hundred and ten heads of state will show up for the final couple of days, so SOMETHING will have to emerge that can be represented as a success. But it is likely to be merely a ringing statement of principles that steers around all the unresolved disputes, and then everyone will go home leaving the job half-done.

But cheer up. “Last chances” are rarely what they seem. The job of removing all the square brackets from the text will probably be resumed early next year, with the goal of bringing something closer to a final draft back to another Conference of the Parties as soon as possible. (This is COP 15, and COP 16 is already scheduled for Mexico City next summer).

So what does this process remind you of? If it were all happening within one country, and the blocs of states manoeuvring at Copenhagen were just local interest groups defending their turf, then you would recognise it instantly. It is the normal political process we are all familiar with, transposed to the global scale. And that is new.

It is hard to celebrate a process as clumsy, and occasionally as ugly, as the horse-trading and arm-twisting going on at Copenhagen, but that is how human politics works. We may all recognise that there is a global emergency, but every government still has its own interests to protect. Nevertheless, we have come a long way.

Seventy-five years ago there were only about fifty independent countries in the world, and more than half of the human race lived in somebody else’s empire. The one existing international organisation with any pretensions to global authority, the League of Nations, had collapsed, and we were entering the worst war in the history of mankind.

Forty years ago, there was a new, more ambitious global organisation, the United Nations, created mainly to prevent more such wars, and in particular a nuclear war. There were a hundred independent countries, many of them dictatorships, but they did represent the interests of their people better than the empires. The world was divided ideologically between East and West and economically between North and South, but the realisation was dawning that in some sense we were all in the same boat – and in the end we did avoid nuclear war.

Now there are 192 governments at the Copenhagen conference, most of them democratic, and they KNOW that we are all in the same boat. That’s why they are there. So now, for the first time in history, we have real global politics. It is as messy and incoherent as politics at any other level, but it is better than what we had before.

There are those on the right who think that climate change is a left-wing plot to impose a world government on everybody, but nothing of the sort is remotely likely. Those who built the first atomic bombs were not plotting to create the United Nations, nor did the scientists who first detected global warming have the Copenhagen conference as their ultimate goal.

We are all just dealing as best we can with threats that require a global response. We bring our old political habits with us, because there is no better model available. And yes, if we succeed, the world will be more politically integrated than ever before. Not because it is desirable – on that there are many possible views – but because it is necessary.

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