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December 23, 2009

How (not) to save the world in 12 days

Climate change may or may not be a certainty, but efforts to curb it are an important barometer of human cooperation.

Was the just-concluded Copenhagen summit on climate change really an initiative to save the world, as some expected?  Probably not, for reasons I enumerate below. Nevertheless, Copenhagen mattered – not to stave off the impending disaster of global warming, but simply as a test case for humankind’s ability to solve complex problems thru cooperation.
First, let me list the reasons why I believe COP15 (the Copenhagen summit on climate change held from Dec 7-18, 2009) should never have been expected to deliver the world from a death-by-warming fate. 

1. Humanly-induced climate change is hardly the cast-iron certainty it is frequently made out to be. The climate is a humongously complex creature, determined by the intersection of phenomena as diverse as solar variations, earth orbital perturbations, variations in the behavior of oceans, the atmosphere, tectonic plates, etc. Each of these – let alone the interactions between them – is too poorly understood, and it will take several years before climate modeling becomes sophisticated enough to begin to definitively answer questions relating to climate change*. For some very thought-provoking arguments as to why human-induced climate change should not be taken as a given see here, here, here, here and here.

2. Even if global warming is assumed to be a reality, it is hopelessly optimistic to believe that placing national emission caps will work to curb it. Such quotas are fiendishly difficult to monitor – countries fiercely resist monitoring attempts as an infringement on their sovereignty. In addition, each country believes some other country / countries should bear a greater load in terms of curbing emissions. Thus, the developed countries believe the emerging economies should do more and vice-versa. Countries that are seen as most affected (e.g. the Pacific Islands) believe everyone else should do much more. Such intractability is typical of a tragedy of the commons situation, of which this is a classic example.

3. People (especially Governments) are not very good at getting together to solve complex problems. Such concerted action is inevitably fraught with distrust, veiled self-interest and political machination. If this were not the case, the United Nations should have consigned armed conflict to the dustheap of history decades ago.

Program and Risk Management 101
Thus at the very least, the Copenhagen summit should have been preceded by far greater preparation. A basic tenet of Program Management is that enlisting the collaboration of all stakeholders needs hard work and can hardly be taken as a given. Beginning months in advance, countries known to be recalcitrant including the emerging economies and the G77 should have been brought round through extensive socialization. The organizers appeared to be taken by surprise at the confrontational stance taken by the emerging economies and the G77 a few days into the summit. Surely this was a risk that should have been anticipated and prepared for. Similarly, the integration of the Kyoto Protocol should have been well thought out, rather than having to be brought up almost as a surprise element (even a deal breaker) well after the summit was under way.

Given the above, it is hardly surprising that the summit ended up settling for a very dilute agreement, and was dubbed a failure by many observers. The final language used was that the summit was "taking note of” rather than “adopting” the accord - a huge difference in diplomaticspeak. Even this tepid outcome was only possible owing to some rather adroit heroics by a few individuals, most notably US President Obama.

So, Did Copenhagen Matter?
While the world’s survival may not exactly have hinged on a positive outcome at Copenhagen, the summit nevertheless represented a test of the ability of humankind to hammer out solutions to complex problems, many of which are certainly going to crop up in future. It is for this reason that Copenhagen’s failure to produce a definitive outcome is a pity. 

Humankind’s ability to get together to solve complex problems was on test at Copenhagen. It failed.

The positive way to see it is that if climate change is indeed true and can have catastrophic effects, there will be greater determination and more concerted efforts in future to solve it. And it is certain that such concerted action will be indispensable, as the world is confronted by increasingly complex problems and threats in the years to come.
* Meanwhile, belief in climate change is not necessarily bad. In fact, it probably helping humans become more disciplined and responsible toward the planet. Greater awareness of the effects of human actions is likely to make people use resources including air, electricity and water more sparingly. Profligacy and ostentatious behavior appear to be on the decline.