A Note on Copenhagen's Successful Failure

There was success -- but maybe not in the way some had expected.

December 31, 2009, 7:39 PM

Dec. 31, 2009 — -- We like simple labels, often for good reason -- they're practical and, properly vetted, can spur proper action.

But putting a simple single label on the momentous Copenhagen climate summit is proving complicated. Was it a success? A failure?

Judging from a range of articles and conversations, it was both -- and also a classic case of apples and oranges ... arriving in separate crates a month apart.

Copenhagen's basic "failure" was announced and reported one month before its Dec. 7 opening. Its successes have been increasingly apparent since the summit closed on Dec. 19.

And unlike a sporting event, it cannot be simply called a win, loss or tie. Not yet, anyway. We'll probably know, say scientists, within a few decades: Either humanity won, meaning it succeeded in preventing global climate catastrophe -- or it didn't.

At the end of the preliminary negotiations in Barcelona, Nov. 2-6, officials told the press that the major parties had agreed they would not, after all, try for "legally binding" global greenhouse emissions targets at the Copenhagen summit a month later.

Rather, we were told, the world's nations would try to achieve some sort of a "political deal" leaving the emissions caps for the next meeting of the COP -- Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change -- six or 12 months later.

Most post-Copenhagen articles and reports that speak of "the failure" are referring to this predetermined failure to achieve final emissions caps, which had been hoped for in the two years of preparatory negotiations leading up to November's Barcelona meeting.

Going into the Copenhagen summit, that "failure" was already "old news."

No Instruction Booklet

Copenhagen's successes (which we started reporting on the closing day and three days later) were less familiar to reporters, negotiators and policy makers -- less easily labeled -- simply because this global climate crisis is unprecedented in scale and did not come with an instruction booklet.

Two weeks after the summit's close, a wide range of new meetings wrestling with climate change are under way between governments around the world.

The leading science journal Nature reported, "For the first time, all the world's largest greenhouse emitters have signed up to a framework for cooperation on the biggest challenge of our time" -- albeit with the legally binding controls yet to be sealed.

Never before has humanity had to assemble all nations (including the record 128 heads of state or government) in the same place at the same time to deal with what the world's scientists tell them is such a potentially catastrophic a global event -- an event already underway and accelerating.

Figuring out how all nations would get heard and have a say, much less agree, is "new diplomatic territory," environmental economist Gary Yohe of Wesleayn University told ABC News.

"And it's got to be an 'iterative' process," he adds. "That means we need to keep adjusting as we go, since we've never done this before"

Yohe, who continues as a lead author in the Nobel Prize winning IPCC -- Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change -- also argues that the reaction to the summit of some climate "skeptics" and political opposition groups is further proof of its substance.

He cites some U.S. Republican attacks on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that are "claiming, falsely, that she committed the U.S. to give $100 billion to help poor countries deal with climate change, and that this would help our enemies and undermine American competitiveness abroad."

Clinton actually announced at the summit that the U.S. was ready, under certain conditions, to contribute to an international fund to be put together by many of the wealthier nations that, altogether, would provide $100 billion by the year 2020. She did not commit $100 billion from the U.S.

"Counterintuitively," says Yohe, "Copenhagen also gave everybody a chance to blame everybody else -- which helps, because it brought many disagreements into the open."

NASA's Hansen Captures a Paradox

NASA's preeminent climate scientist James Hansen captures the paradoxical nature of Copenhagen's successful failure in his post-summit article in the Observer: "After Copenhagen's Failure, We Can at Last Tackle Climate Change Honestly."

A critical question still lacks a definitive answer: Will the world's 20 biggest emitters agree to the hard work of a drastic reduction of heat-trapping emissions ... and somehow ensure that humanity's overall emissions peak and start declining in no more than 10 years, as scientists generally agree must happen to avoid a global climate catastrophe?

However, judging from new diplomatic activity around the world in preparation for binding agreements before the end of this new year -- and from the many separate deals Copenhagen did produce, including a new international framework to pay developing countries to stop lumbering of forests that produces some 20 percent of annual greenhouse emissions, Copenhagen apparently produced a new diplomatic critical mass that is now generating a kind of global effort the planet has never seen.

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