The Emperor’s New Climate-Change Agreement

COPENHAGEN – Dressing up failure as victory has been integral to climate-change negotiations since they started 20 years ago. The latest round of talks in Durban, South Africa, in December was no exception.

Climate negotiations have been in virtual limbo ever since the catastrophic and humiliating Copenhagen summit in 2009, where vertiginous expectations collided with hard political reality. So as negotiators – and a handful of government ministers – arrived in Durban, expectations could not have been lower.

Yet, by the end of the talks, the European Union’s climate commissioner, Connie Hedegaard, was being applauded in the media for achieving a “breakthrough” that had “salvaged Durban,” and, most significantly, for achieving the holy grail of climate negotiations, a “legally binding treaty.” According to British climate minister Chris Huhne, the results showed that the United Nations climate-change negotiation system “really works and can produce results.”

Sure, the agreement would come into effect only in 2020 – which sounds oddly complacent when environmentalists and political leaders warned ahead of the Copenhagen conference that we had just six months or 50 days to solve the climate problem. But, as the British newspaper The Guardian assured readers, this was a breakthrough, because developing countries, including India and China, were, for the first time, “agreeing to be legally bound to curb their greenhouse gases.” And, just as importantly, the US was making the same promise.