Column: ‘On the new and never previously seen star’

Published on December 15, 2009.

COPENHAGEN—IT SEEMS LIKE A NO-BRAINER. If the prevailing scientific consensus points to human responsibility for much of global warming, then mankind must do something to stop it. That is the hope that animates summits like the 15th Conference of Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, now on its second and crucial week in this sunlight-starved, metal-gray city.

But humanity is divided, or organized, into nation-states, and it is a truism that nations negotiate with their national interests in mind. This is the reality that makes the negotiations in the Bella Center, the sprawling conference venue, both necessary and intricately difficult.

The United States is a nation-state, only more so. While most delegates (I suppose) welcome the renewed engagement of the US in the climate change negotiation process, after eight years of early retirement in George W. Bush’s magnificently isolated ranch, many delegates (I wager) still see the US as demanding and dominating, asserting its national interests in unmistakable, sometimes hard-line fashion; in a word, a bully.

The Americans read the same science, of course; indeed, they are responsible for quite a bit of the latest and ever-more-accurate information about the effects of climate change. And yet I think it fair to say that, in the end, it is not the science, or even the money (of which an inordinate amount will be needed in the next half-generation or so), that will determine the final US position in Copenhagen, but its internal politics.

Out of many possible stories I can quote from, let me cite this passage from The New York Times, which ran a story on Todd Stern, the US envoy on climate change, the day he arrived in Denmark.

“Mr. Stern said one of his biggest frustrations was the inability of his counterparts to understand the political constraints he must operate under. ‘They look at what Congress has already done and say, “Can’t you do 10 percent more?” The answer is no, not really,’ Mr. Stern said. ‘They have learned more about our congressional system and things like filibuster rules than they probably ever wanted to know.’”

That last statement tells us there is a new president in the White House. Taking their cue from Barack Obama, American negotiators are learning to look at things, or at least phrase them, from the non-American perspective. Everything that came before that statement, however, tells us that the US continues to be a world of its own.

To put the matter over-simply: Obama is in the Wilsonian tradition of an interventionist foreign policy, but even his landslide victory a year ago could not change the strong Washington-esque tendencies of a still significantly isolationist Senate. (A decade ago, the US Senate rejected the Kyoto Protocol by a vote of 95-0.) In other words, what the US agrees to do in Copenhagen will be determined largely by the White House’s reading of what a Senate it controls is prepared to accept.

If the US does not sign on to whatever “politically binding agreement” (Obama’s phrase, first raised in Singapore last month) issues out of Copenhagen, that agreement will be dead in the water.

Only one other country wields the same clout, and carries the same effective veto: China. If the dazzling spectacle of the Beijing Olympics did not convince the world that China had gained superpower status, its firm and determined stance in Copenhagen should erase any doubts. Who is the Chinese equivalent of Theodore Roosevelt? Here at the climate change talks, China has certainly been talking softly but carrying a big stick.

Stern and his Chinese counterpart, Su Wei, have exchanged words in the last few days. This has had the effect of sharpening the divide between developed and developing countries—and raising the already high profile of the two most influential economies.

Is there hope for a compromise? The negotiations will boil down to two basic questions, top negotiator Tony La Vina, dean of the Ateneo School of Government and the United Nations’ lead negotiator in the REDD+ talks, told me on Sunday: Will there be two tracks or only one? And when is the final deadline for producing a treaty?

The second is the easier to answer. It looks likely that the final treaty, legally binding on all participants, will be signed a year from now, in Mexico.

The first is tricky. Stern has repeated the official US line many times: The Americans cannot accept the extension of the Kyoto Protocol, which mandates emission reductions on developed countries but not on developing economies, China and India included. Will a completely new track be laid down in Copenhagen, or will Kyoto be extended (this will benefit developing countries) and at the same time a new agreement reached, to engage the US? We should find out in three days.

On this point, the choice of name for the main plenary hall in the convention venue may be of some moment. The rooms have been named for famous Danes. The main hall is named after Tycho Brahe, a key figure in the history of astronomy. Brahe, too, is a crucial link in the history of science itself—if we follow Thomas Kuhn, who proposed the whole notion of a “paradigm shift.” Very briefly, Brahe’s work in astronomy, especially his invention of precise measuring devices, helped Johannes Kepler light upon the concept of elliptical orbits, which eventually led to the completion of the Copernican revolution.

In other words, Brahe, who also wrote influential treatises such as “On the new and never previously seen star,” can serve as an appropriate model, or inspiration, for the change in paradigms that is vitally, absolutely necessary to get anything done on climate change.

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