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Redefining Success in Copenhagen

November 20, 2009

It’s trendy to redefine things. Ball State’s motto is “Education Redefined”. Luxury is ‘redefined’ annually during the holiday advertising season. Redefinition is not just trendy, it’s political. It involves changing part of the worldview of lots of people. It’s about changing what people call ‘common sense’. That’s serious power. Currently, the Obama administration is engaged in a sweeping, international redefinition project – redefining success at the Copenhagen climate talks. And by the looks of it, they’re succeeding.

In college, there are some commonly held definitions. For instance, “failure”. If you score below 59%, you fail. Simple as that. Not all students attach the same significance to an “F” on their report card, but it still stands for the same thing – you failed. It’s important to look at the power dimension. Who defines success? The educational institution. Who accepts the definition? Students looking to graduate. OK, now let’s get back at the climate talks.

Many country delegates, the international NGO community, and the UNFCCC leadership have pushed a “Seal the Deal in Copenhagen” campaign for the last two years. They have defined “failure” as anything short of a binding, international agreement with emissions reductions commitments from all industrialized countries plus concrete policies on (1) adaptation funding, (2) technology transfer, and (3) emissions trading. Country delegates have reinforced this definition with speech after speech. Committee chairs and even the UNFCCC Executive Secretary have reiterated this expectation innumerable times. The definitions were formalized in the Bali Road Map, a timeline signed in 2007 by all parties to the UNFCCC. Success is a full treaty with binding targets. Failure is anything less. The definitions appeared thoroughly and clearly defined.

While many countries have announced reduction targets, the United States hasn’t. We can’t because we don’t have a national climate policy. Congress has been working on it for years, but the President recently announced that it won’t pass before Copenhagen.

“I think everybody understands that the Senate won’t have acted on climate change legislation before Copenhagen,” Obama said last Tuesday. Earlier this week, Senator Kerry said it might pass by next spring.

Separately, Michael Froman, a national security adviser, gave his assessment of Copenhagen: “I don’t think the negotiations have proceeded in such a way that any of the leaders thought it was likely that we were going to achieve a final agreement in Copenhagen, and yet [they] thought that it was important that Copenhagen be an important step forward, including with operational impact.”

Obama tells us we should have known better than to hope for the U.S. to be ready on the international timeline. And Mr. Froman suggests that no leader actually thought a full treaty could be agreed upon in Copenhagen.

Mr. Froman’s claim seems contradictory to the immense preparation by leaders around the world who have developed national and regional climate strategies in anticipation of Copenhagen. This subtle re-writing of recent history looks like an attempt to shift responsibility for delayed treaty away from the United States. If we couldn’t have gotten a treaty anyway, then it doesn’t matter that the U.S. isn’t ready, this story goes.

Is anyone arguing otherwise? If they are, they aren’t getting much coverage in the mass media. But most students in our international climate policy class and many NGO sources argue that if the U.S. passed a national policy, other countries would fall into place. Unfortunately, most Congress members are either opposed by party lines, by climate science denial, or by arguing we need to wait for other countries to commit before passing reductions targets.

Some countries have committed to cuts without a clear U.S. position, but most big players are waiting for the U.S. before they make big commitments. Many commitments already announced are conditional on other developed country targets.

Announcements by Obama, Kerry, Froman, and other U.S. and foreign leaders indicate that Copenhagen won’t deal with binding emissions targets. Nor will it bring final decisions on adaptation funding, technology transfer or offset trading. In other words, Copenhagen will be a failure. At least according to the definitions UN officials, world leaders, and NGOs have worked with for the past two years. But the Obama administration is working hard to redefine success and failure to conserve U.S. reputation on the world stage.

Remember, the definitions have existed for two years, and the redefinition started last week, only three weeks before the Copenhagen summit.

That’s equivalent to redefining the way your final exam is graded as you begin the first question. Other students already spent the whole semester working on group projects and individual assignments. They studied the study guide diligently for the past two weeks. Then you stand up before the exam, change the essay questions, change the grading scale, and assume that other students will be OK with this little, last-minute switcheroo. The obvious difference is that the climate treaty doesn’t just affect a grade in a college course. It’s a life-or-death situation for many living in developing countries.

Obviously, definitions of “success” and “failure” are more malleable in international politics than they are in classroom. In this case, the U.S. has enough power and enough emissions to redefine these concepts. Many other developed countries are buying the new definitions because they see the U.S. as a critical player that needs to come on board eventually and complaining won’t bring compliance.

In an interview with Reuters, President Obama said, “I’ve repeatedly explained that America is not a speedboat; we’re a big ocean liner. And you can’t reverse course overnight.”

I’m sure it was unintentional, but he nearly compared the U.S. to the Titanic. A bold experiment of magnificent proportions and promise propelled by a fatal mix of competitive can-do spirit, scientific innovation, and hubris? I don’t think this enormous, fossil-fuel-driven machine is an inappropriate metaphor for our country. Ironically, we’re not about to hit any icebergs, we’re about to melt them.

President Obama’s difficulties in creating a national climate policy make it even more important that Americans convey to their leaders the urgency of U.S. participation in a full, binding climate treaty with emissions reduction targets that match the science. True success – a binding, international plan to achieve a stabilized climate system – requires our voices. Especially when Congressional inertia resembles an unstoppable steamship.

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