Issue 11, March 2010 | David Ritter


Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen
Friendly old girl of a town
'Neath her tavern light
On this merry night
Let us clink and drink one down
To wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen
Salty old queen of the sea
Once I sailed away
But I'm home today
Singing Copenhagen, wonderful, wonderful
Copenhagen for me

Lyrics from Hans Christian Andersen [Loesser, 1952][1]

CIA Superior: What did we learn, Palmer?
CIA Officer: I don't know, sir.
CIA Superior: I don't f*ckin' know either. I guess we learned not to do it again.
CIA Officer: Yes, sir.
CIA Superior: I'm f*cked if I know what we did.
CIA Officer: Yes, sir, it's, uh, hard to say
CIA Superior: Jesus F*cking Christ.

Last lines from Burn after Reading [Cohen & Cohen, 2008][2]

The clock has ticked past the appointed hour. We are living in the post-Copenhagen world. In hindsight, the thinking seems oh so wishful. Some feared a greenwash outcome of superficial gains masking weak commitments, but few predicted the absolute extent of the summit’s malfunctioning. World leaders coming together to reach a fair, ambitious and binding agreement on climate change was a fine ideal, but the result fell so colossally short as to make the original premise seem absurd with hindsight. Optimism buckled in a pathetic undoing. Negotiators and lobbyists emerged from the wreckage of the talks with faces covered in metaphorical dust, eyes fixed in long stares. The prisoner’s dilemma was played out to the last act, as the blithe spirit of liberal internationalism was blown away by the inexorable logic of domestic political preoccupations. With very few and partial exceptions, none of the governments of the major powers feared that they would pay a domestic political price for failure in the Bella Center and so they failed with hearts that feared no electoral consequence. Every powerful state was a winner from talks in which none yielded the necessary ground, with the paradoxical result that we are all losers. Now, in the long shadow of the Little Mermaid, how should we read the failure and what comes next?

Some of the commentariat and participants have tried to explain the debacle through an interpretation that might be described as ‘it woz the Chinese wot dun it’. In a much read comment piece in The Guardian, Mark Lynas asked rhetorically ‘How do I know China wrecked the Copenhagen deal? I was in the room.’[3] Despite Lynas’ compelling account, even the most amateur of hack historians should know to pause cautiously at the declarations of a man who claims to know because he was there. No doubt China bears some culpability, but the People’s Republic is hardly an orphan in that regard. The Lynas thesis is a necessarily simplistic rendering of a complex event. ‘Eye witness accounts’ are inevitably partial, omitting wider context as the focus narrows. China’s negotiating position was surely no more problematic than various others on the table. And how was it that some key western developed states seemed inadequately briefed and prepared on the Chinese position?

Another great villain of the conference is said to have been the USA. Obama was not able to deliver the world from climate change with a single imperial touch; his speech to the conference a grave disappointment that met with more hoots than trumpets. The outcome of Copenhagen represents both the extent of US power and its limitations. The rest of the world was unable to penetrate the domestic preoccupations of Washington as the international process became captive to the concerns and timetables of Capitol Hill. Yet neither was the United States able to leave the conference without another question mark over its capacity for unilateralism. Further, the prestige of the US is increasingly called in to question by the self-evident state of the union. The rest of the world observes the perverse rhetoric of the health care debate, sees the power of corporate lobbyists and the sclerotic nature of US politics, puzzles about military spending and decision making and notes that Wall Street has comprehensively shafted Main Street in the aftermath of the 2008 crash. We watch The Wire and wonder.

Copenhagen also represented a humbling of civil society. NGOs of the world united, determined to ensure the success of the conference, and manifestly failed. The physical locking out of enormous numbers of NGO delegates from the talks bluntly symbolised the broader inability of civil society to force a decent result. It was not for want of desperate exertion and passionate determination; but ultimately civil society could not shift power as was needed. Perhaps it is impossible for any movement lacking deep and unified roots in nation, ethnicity, class or religion to budge deep political foundations from below. There are no doubt strategic lessons to be learned: with domestic politics so clearly trumping all, civil society the world over will be skeptical of further fixation on multilateral processes. It is timely to recognize that at some level, a fair ambitious and legally binding global deal on climate change represents goal displacement of sorts: we don’t actually need an agreement, what we need is emission reductions. International concurrence is not an end in itself.

Meanwhile, not everyone is forlorn amidst the wreckage. Climate change deniers of all stripes have been buoyed by the failure of Copenhagen. Like battlefield scavengers plucking over corpses, the denier community sees profit in the common carnage. It is a ghoulish crowd that is on the march. From intellectually dishonest political opportunists like Tony Abbott, to conspiracy theorists like Lord Monckton; from callous contrarians espousing the (Groucho) Marxian doctrine of ‘whatever it is, I’m against it’, to those for whom any potential restraint on their individual right to do precisely as they want must be opposed; from fossil fuel lobbyists purveying doubt as their profitable product, to right wing pugilists looking for a new front in the culture wars: climate change deniers the world over feel reason to be cheery. But sadly for those who hope vainly for altruistic reasons that there might be some validity to the ravings of the climate change deniers, there is nothing in the recent email or glacier controversies[4] to do anything to dent the strength of the evidence of anthropogenic global warming. A few bad apples do not upset the vast orchard of scientific evidence that has matured over time.

The science has been clear for a while, but now the course of international politics is plain too. The fog around Copenhagen has dissipated and we can see with stinging clarity the current trajectory. The logic of our present political economy means we are on track for a world beyond three degrees. The flight path is straight towards the wall. As time passes and the failure to act becomes ever more consummate and compound, we are reaching the stage where faith provides more comfort than reason; yet optimism is still the option of only resort. Fatalism must be resisted and pessimism allowed no further than the intellect. Copenhagen may be over, but the struggle over the politics of climate change, its consequences and discontents, is only beginning. In local boroughs, in regional capitals and in national centers, decisions are being made that will decide development pathways for decades to come. The capacity to influence is in front of us. We don’t need to wait on international processes; we can bring the struggle home and determine our own domestic politics, in hope and trust that others will do the same in their own countries. The track to radical emissions reductions is as accessible as the ability to politically organize. Let’s suck in a deep breath, get back to our feet and move.

[1] Loesser, Frank (1952) “Wonderful Copenhagen” from Hans Christian Andersen

[2] Burn After Reading, 2008 [Film] Directed by Ethan and Joel Cohen. USA: Relativity Media

[3] Lynas, M (2009, December 22) “How do I know China wrecked the Copenhagen deal? I was in the room” The Guardian. Retrieved from

[4] Pearce, Fred (2010, February 5) “Climate emails cannot destroy proof that humans are warming the planet” The Guardian. Retrieved from