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Expired · 7th January 2010
Ray Grigg
The heroic efforts at Copenhagen in December of 2009 failed to reach a binding international agreement on greenhouse gas emissions because such a global consensus requires a sea-change in human consciousness that does not yet exist.

In reality, humanity is still a divided community of different values, interests and objectives without a collective sense of urgency. The willingness to cooperate on a subject of worldwide concern such as global climate change means different things to different nations. For some poor countries, it means assistance in combating the effects of climate change while reaping financial and technological benefits that will help them achieve greater affluence. For some rich countries, cooperation means concessions to other nations and a consequential erosion in their own autonomy as they relinquish national interests for the well-being of the collective world community.

If global climate change is to be addressed, the concessions to be made by those countries that have won the competitive battle for resources and power will be greater than for the losers. Indeed, as the economic disparity between rich and poor countries continues to increase, the concessions expected from the winners will grow correspondingly greater. Not surprisingly, strong nationalists in wealthy countries have an instant aversion to international agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol and its proposed successor, the Copenhagen Accord. Nationalism, the equivalent of tribalism, still perceives the world as compartmentalized. Until it can construe cooperation as self-Interest, it will reflexively resist any consensus agreements to address global climate change.

But all countries will eventually impose limits on greenhouse gas emissions when they are forced to do so by either strengthening scientific evidence, by rising public concern or by traumatic climate change. However, reaching binding agreements by negotiation is the preferable option, the one that remains available until environmental conditions deteriorate beyond a certain tolerable limit. Once dramatic weather events and social disruptions reach an undetermined intensity, nations will be too engrossed in their own protective interests to trust, help or cooperate with others. Fragmentation and suspicion will become the new global norm.

This is the most worrisome result of the failed objective of reaching a binding agreement in the Copenhagen Accord. For a slowly escalating crisis such as global warming, the opportunity for nations to cooperate exists only for a short time after the threat is identified. Efforts to act too early can easily fail because the severity of the threat cannot be accurately assessed. But wait too long and deteriorating climatic conditions may force nations to erect protective barriers that reduce opportunities for cooperation.

The unresolved character of the Copenhagen Accord will set in motion a year or more of complex multi-national discussions. The overwhelming risk to the success of these talks is that controls on greenhouse gas emissions are inextricably linked to almost every nation's vital interests: resources, trade, technology, culture, identity, standard of living, food and energy security, et cetera. Since poor countries usually aspire to the affluence of rich countries, they perceive the global climate threat as both an opportunity to improve their well-being and a looming ecological disaster.

But rich countries are averse to paying "reparations" or "conscience" money for historical industrial "wrongs". They want to measure greenhouse gases as largely an emissions issue. For them, social justice, financial assistance and technological sharing are just complex attachments to the essentially quantitative matter of too much carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere. Cooperation and financial assistance to poor countries will cost them billions while eroding their margins of competitive advantage. The failure to agree on the kind, amount and supervision of financial assistance to poor nations was a key element in the failure to reach consensus at Copenhagen. At the same time, however, cooperation must eventually supersede competition on a planet where most forces are acting globally, whether they be through economies, politics, culture, security or interconnected ecologies.

This conflict between cooperation and competition will be an essential concern of the next decade as nations attempt to resolve the difference between domestic interest and collective interest. How are the priorities of individual nations to be balanced with the well-being of humanity when the two are so often inseparable? On a shared planet of limited resources, of finite space and of stressed ecologies, we must find a more cooperative way of relating to each other and to the planet as a whole.

The Copenhagen meeting was an ambitious exercise in hope, an heroic effort to find a new way for a rising human population with growing needs and expectations to live together on a shrinking and distressed planet. Like the meeting in Kyoto, Copenhagen was just another step on a long and challenging journey toward a global consciousness that will eventually translate into collective behaviour that is globally coordinated and wise. We really don't have another viable option.

If the Copenhagen meeting was not entirely successful because it was too ambitious, it will inspire ongoing discussions and agreements. The coming decade will be critical as the imperative and pressure to cooperate intensifies. Humanity is rapidly running out of time and excuses on its faltering way to maturity.