It would have been interesting if this question had been answered prior to the December 2009 United Nations Climate Change Summit, and then updated with a new answer now that the summit is over, but at this writing all we can do is look back. The problems with the Copenhagen summit were the same as with any other international effort to combat climate change: how much can or should each country agree to reduce carbon emissions, will it be enough, how will it be enforced, and what’s the political and economic cost of making those commitments. The summit did result in an international agreement, but the Copenhagen Accord does not contain any “hard target” goals for carbon reductions by the major polluting nations, and it lacks an enforcement mechanism which is a constant problem in any international setting. Political pressures at home, particularly for the United States and China, posed another difficulty. Many US conservatives, already wary of President Barack Obama for other reasons, are skeptical either that climate change is real or that the measures proposed to mitigate it are wise and warranted; in China, there are those who believe that climate change is a pseudo-problem dreamed up by Western nations in order to justify forcing China to slow down its rapid economic expansion. For a nation to pledge an actual numerical reduction in carbon emissions by a certain date, as many hoped the major polluters would do at Copenhagen, it’s signing on to a tremendous effort that could result in considerable economic problems domestically; it burdens future politicians with the politically unpalatable choices of upholding those targets even if they’re politically or economically ruinous, or risking international condemnation by abrogating them; and it subjects them to the inevitable criticism that whatever targets they do agree to are too little, too late and won’t really solve the problem. From a political and economic standpoint, therefore, agreeing to reduction targets is usually a “lose-lose” proposition, and since most of the political leaders who gathered at Copenhagen last December were democratically elected, they can only choose to “do the right thing” for the world environment at considerable risk to themselves and their agendas, not just in environmental issues but others that may be more important for their constituents. For these reasons I think the deck was stacked against any meaningful deal, and it could be said–though I personally don’t necessarily agree–that the fact the Copenhagen summit achieved anything at all under thesse circumstances is itself remarkable.
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