Playing the Blame Game

Marky Lynas wrote a piece for the Guardian entitled “How do I know China wrecked the Copenhagen deal? I was in the room,” which is a fascinating read. It gives an insider’s view of the closed-door Head of State negotiations that took place on that final, fateful day of negotiations. But its critical flaw is in wanting to solely blame China.

Lynas writes: “To those who would blame Obama and rich countries in general, know this: it was China’s representative who insisted that industrialised country targets, previously agreed as an 80% cut by 2050, be taken out of the deal. “Why can’t we even mention our own targets?” demanded a furious Angela Merkel.”

It’s very interesting indeed to speculate on what China was actually trying to achieve. The country has actually been quite aggressive in developing renewable technologies. Did China object to even rich countries setting their own emissions targets so as not to lock itself into the same at a future date?

One point I vigorously disagree with Lynas on, however, is his assertion that, ““China’s strategy was simple: block the open negotiations for two weeks, and then ensure that the closed-door deal made it look as if the west had failed the world’s poor once again. And sure enough, the aid agencies, civil society movements and environmental groups all took the bait.”

It is, frankly, naïve to suggest that we shouldn’t blame the world leaders, especially Obama, who failed to push these negotiations forward. China was not the only team at the negotiating table, nor were they the only ones with leverage on other countries. If we don’t give at least part of the blame to leaders of the developed world for this failure, then they can spin the Copenhagen Accord however they want, and we will have lost much of the ground we’ve gained in building momentum for a solid deal to eventually emerge.

Naomi Klein, I think, has it exactly right in her piece, “For Obama, No Opportunity Too Big to Blow:” “Contrary to countless reports, the debacle in Copenhagen was not everyone’s fault. It did not happen because human beings are incapable of agreeing, or are inherently self-destructive. Nor was it all was China’s fault, or the fault of the hapless UN.”

As Klein argues, there is plenty of blame to go around, and many parties deserving of a fare share. But only one country is the world’s largest historical emitter who therefore is most morally obligated to fix the problem; only one country is led by perhaps the most popular and galvanizing politician of our time, who happened to win a Nobel Peace Prize just days before showing up in Copenhagen (the image I’ve used on this post is of a candlelight vigil outside Obama’s hotel in Oslo the night before the Nobel ceremony). Obama could have directed his negotiators to use America’s unique global position, plus some skillful diplomacy, to push China and all other recalcitrant nations to truly work in the spirit of “Here’s what we can do to help” as opposed to “Here’s all I’m willing to do.” But he didn’t.

Klein’s piece lays out three critical junctures at which Obama has had unprecedented opportunity to remake American business and industry in a clean, green mold, thereby ushering in a sustainable future that China would not be able to resist – in fact, China is already a huge investor in renewable technologies, and had we truly committed our economy to a sustainable rebirth of industry, they would have seen it was in their own interest to help pass sweeping systemic change and set bold emissions targets to ensure this sustainable future becomes a reality.

The three opportunities that Klein lists Obama as having blown are the stimulus package, the automaker bailouts, and the bank bailouts. And of course you can add Copenhagen to the list of opportunities Obama has now blown. Because of the historically unprecedented nature of these opportunities to remake business as usual in America, and using that to lead the rest of the world by example, Klein argues that Obama does indeed deserve most of the blame. It’s hard to find fault in that argument.

But whether or not that’s true, I do know one thing: I don’t live in China, and neither do most of my readers, I’d assume. If you live in America like me, then you also have an unprecedented opportunity before you: Despite the many campaign promises Obama has already broken and the temptation to just become totally disillusioned, we can still take comfort in the fact that we managed to get Obama elected, and that we did so even as he campaigned on a rather progressive agenda. We changed the course of this country once, we can do it again.

It’s not too late. Obama may have slipped uncomfortably far into “politics as usual” territory, but that just means we redouble our efforts and push him to work for the change many of us used to believe in, and can still achieve.

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