Learn from Copenhagen's failure

The way the global commons is run must be turned upside-down. (From zadek.wordpress.com)
Simon Zadek
19 December 2009

Tomorrow’s history is rarely created by extraordinary moments, it is merely punctuated by them.

Copenhagen will be seen as a failure of vision, leadership, and compassion. The Copenhagen Accord, ‘noted’ in extra time at COP15, will be stuck with the Sudanese’s naming as a “suicide pact”. And President’s Obama, Hu and many others, however they speak to their domestic constituencies, will have been party to this failed attempt to strike an ambitious deal.

Tomorrow’s history, i suspect, will profoundly disagree with this finger pointing diagnosis.

Studied history will point to Copenhagen as the last serious attempt to use 20th century techniques to arrange our 21st century affairs. Seeking consensus between 193 sovereign states through a zero-sum negotiation process was always going to be a fool’s errand. It failed because it handed exclusive rights to national governments, leaving 99% of the energy of business, civil society, cities, and the youth (just to same a few) as frustrated bystanders (see them in my Walk through Babylon). It failed because it sought to secure a “one for all, and all for one” consensus, unworkable even in the relatively simple world of trade. It failed, finally, because of its use of old style negotiation techniques where we have learnt so much from the “deliberative” approaches of communities and business in envisioning change and creating unlikely pathways to achieving it.

Walking through Babylon from SImon Zadek on Vimeo.

For Copenhagen to serve us well, we must learn from it.

It has failed because our global commons can no longer be managed by top-down, government-led, compliance focused, publicly-funded agreements between nations. Presidents and prime ministers, along with legions of negotiators, have been complicit in this by playing, frankly, their well-defined allotted roles in appealing to their domestic political constituencies (accountability) and in seeking re-election (whether in democracies or not). Who can blame folks for doing what we ask them to do, even if in the last hours we demand that they shift gear and behave as if they were chosen to lead in saving the global commons (which they were decidedly not).

Two things need to, and can happen now.

The first of course is to deal with climate with the right people where the action is. Whilst not wishing to trivialize today’s pain, we can deal with climate more effectively by catalyzing ambitious national action leveraged with international co-operation. We can get a better global deal, but only once nation’s have whetted their appetite for low carbon growth and development through action, not theory. This is not, as i have repeatedly argued, downgrading expectations, but upgrading them by leveraging where the real energy for change lies, and then uploading the results into a far smarter global deal going forward ( see my Revising Plan A).

Second concerns our global governance arrangements. Reforming global governance has been an esoteric topic for many years pursued by policy analysts, academics and international bureaucrats offering unintelligible diagnostics and incremental and largely technocratic recommendations. Copenhagen, and its potentially ghastly implications, makes this obscurity unacceptable. In the last two decades we have in fact already invented far more effective ways to do business internationally, from how we do global health through public private partnerships to building the hadron collider in CERN (it works now, but the amazing thing about it is how the global scientific and political community made it happen, not merely that it is ‘about the origins of everything’). We do not need another Commission made up of those who have presided over our failing global institutions, we need fresh blood and urgency in surfacing today’s institutional innovations and working out how to make these work in practice.

COP15’s real legacy.

Coming back, then, to climate. We should surely be disappointed by the final deal. But we are now poised to have to invent an alternative pathway in moving forward. John Maynard Keynes, the most extraordinary 20th century economist, argued that ‘our challenge is not to invent new ideas, but rather to let go of old ones’. Well, if he was right, and i suspect he was, then COP15’s greatest contribution to the public good may be to bury, once and for all, our outmoded ways of doing global governance. Such an achievement, whilst sad to contemplate today, may turn out in tomorrow’s history to be an extraodinarily important legacy that served us and our children well in decades to come.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData