News & Media Opinion Pieces Copenhagen COP-OUT

Copenhagen COP-OUT

by David Shearman

This review in the December 15 newsletter to all members was an immediate response to Copenhagen. Now that more information is available it will be modified in future articles. Appended are some views from members.

Copenhagen was bitterly disappointing. The outcome was inconsequential compared to the task in hand. A non-binding statement mentions limiting climate rise to 2 degrees but even if achieved this offers only a 50/50 chance of avoiding ‘dangerous’ climate change and the existing commitments to emission reduction will allow for a temperature rise of 4 degrees.

The following is my blunt analysis of Copenhagen and some thoughts about how we should move forward. I hope members will send me their analysis and I will post contributions on our web site early January before writing our views to Ministers. Cabinet will make decisions in January. Your Committee is not the font of all knowledge and wisdom so please help. I will be working on this through the holiday period.

The article by John Hari from the Independent UK at was written at the beginning of the 2 week Copenhagen conference. In retrospect it was a predictor of one important reason while the conference would fail. I was reminded of the article when I watched ABC News immediately after the conference. A succession of business and mining interests offered their sound bites reflecting self-interest on what should be done with the CPRS to assist them further. There was no sound bite to represent the interests of our children or humanity. We need to work to provide one.

My Analysis
The leaders of Western developed countries have failed to free themselves from the shackles of vested interests and their own political needs to provide for future generations and the less fortunate in the world. They confronted only their political needs and ignored secure science. We are faced with a future in which the governance systems of the fortunate can deal effectively with their immediate financial and consumer wants but are defeated by complex incremental threats such as climate change or Murray Darling decline. But their biggest failure was a psychological one, the impact of their position on their neighbours. This odes badly for the future and the situation is well described by Bill Becker of the Presidential Climate Action Project.

“Imagine you’re a well-to-do person attending a dinner of your peers. The food is top-rate and there’s plenty of it. Course after course is laid upon the table. A group of less-advantaged people has been watching from the sidelines. When the dinner is done, you invite them to join you at the table. After the restaurant staff has served coffee, the bill comes. You and your rich peers insist that everyone now at the table must share in paying the entire bill”.

At the conference the 193 countries divided into three groups. The first group, self selected, consisted of the USA and the major developing countries India, China, South Africa and Brazil. They created the compact and Europe fell into line apparently with reluctance. India and China are low emitters per capita but large emitters in total. The efforts of China to reduce emissions are already considerable; but they are not going to share the bill till their poor are fed. India says the same but its position is more ambiguous. It is a country of rampant capitalism with many more billionaires than the USA who coexist with teeming poverty at the behest of weak government.

The second group of countries, the developing countries of Asia Africa and South America, largely the G77 countries, who already suffer from the health impacts of climate change, yet were condemned to the side lines in writing the compact. The two approaches to their problem remain unaddressed. Firstly technological transfer requires money and structure; many of these countries are too corrupt and incompetent to implement strategies but there are ways to circumvent this. Their share of $100m over 10 years was dependent on joining the compact! However, even during the financial boom, promises of aid from the G8 and other meetings never materialised. Till proven otherwise the latest cheque will bounce. In these countries the loss of fresh water, the crop failures and famine will escalate and they have no escape.

A potentially important proposal to help those countries that still have forests them, REDD (The United Nations Collaborative Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries) essentially involves paying money to look after forests. This has problems. Firstly it continues the exposure of Australia as hypocritical—along with other Western countries we propose to use a mechanism to decrease our emissions by earning credits to pollute when the rest of the world regularly sees pictures of the subsidised devastation of Tasmanian mature forest by government agencies. Secondly there is no structure or adequate surveillance of REDD and this can lead to more harm than good’s-anti-deforestation-plan

The third group of countries, the island States in various parts of the World, those condemned to be submerged, have been disregarded, written off because the political sacrifice would have to be too great to help them. A cheque in the mail is irrelevant to them, only urgent reduction of emissions will help them.

How about Australia? We have our heads in the sand which is expanding slowly south across our continent. During one of the two weeks of the Copenhagen Conference I was travelling in rural NSW and in ACT. The land was a profound shock to me; 80% of a state in drought is just a number till you see it. Literally hundreds of thousands of trees are past the point of recovery even if rain falls now; soil is blowing off pastoral land; swathes of trees in the Thredbo valley burned in the 2003 bushfires have failed to recover. And the Opposition wants to plant more trees to reverse climate change! Where? While on my travels in my “Copenhagen week” the radio informed me that the NSW government had approved a big expansion of the coal mine at Helensburgh and confirmed the sale of electricity assets for profit rather than prudent management for climate change. The radio told me that Australians had moved to the top of the league table for biggest houses in the world and that our use of energy per capita had gone up 70% whilst that of California had gone up 10% during the same period. Federal Cabinet should sit on January 2 and develop some measures commensurate with the size of the problem and our need to act now.

While I feel a little better for spelling out my frustration—which I expect will mirror yours— my intent is to ask what we can do

Firstly, encourage government to put their house in order.
The rich countries have to lead the way and if they don’t then nothing will happen at the next negotiation. It is the classic Chicken Little. The government will be under increasing pressure from the Opposition “told you so, delay the CPRS”. Some countries must move forward with market measures to cut emissions as a signal of intent. The CPRS should be revised to encompass a 350ppm target. This means negotiating with the Greens and abandoning the buckets of money going to polluters. The way forward is simpler because there is no point in negotiating with those who have not yet reached base camp on climate change as shown by the statement that “Climate change is crap”

There must be a sincere initiative to prevent coal expansion and increase investment in the renewable industries which are failing to move forward because of indolent banks and vacillating government regulations.

The charade of carbon credits for forests in counties with failed governments, corruption and tribal land rights need to be recognised as a cop-out. We need a sincere approach to the problems of corrupt neighbouring governments and the problems of land tenure and tribal rights. Destruction of our own forest must stop.

We need Mr Rudd to deflect his energies presently devoted to Asian trade and security to China and to use his diplomatic and language skills to a meeting of minds with China; to provide the bridge the West so badly needs

Secondly, that we, as individuals, put our house in order
Probably only 1-2% of our colleagues is committed to personal or professional action on climate change. Each of you can do something about this. We need to lead by example as does our Government

We can widen our educational effort to profession and public. Please look at the power point presentation on our home page. Thank you to Dimity Williams and to Grant Blashki. This is for you to down load and use. Soon a further batch of slides will be available from Tony McMichael

DEA must redouble it s efforts to influence government and we must re-focus our energies in lobbying to those with immediate power to act.

It is not our role to stop coal trains in Newcastle though many might see this as an equivalent to removing the handle from the Broad Street pump when a British government failed to act to safeguard the public good.

Comment from Bryan Furnass, DEA member, Canberra
Thank you for your perceptive but depressing newsletter about the Copenhagen conference. Since you have invited comment, I attach a copy of a letter published in the Canberra Times on 22/12/09

In the global heating debate I think insufficient attention is paid to destruction of carbon sinks, through forest clearing and the leaching effects of industrial agriculture, driven by population increase and oil consumption. As you have previously noted, climate disruption should not be seen in isolation, but as part of human destructive actions against the biosphere. We should learn to take a less anthropocentric/egocentric viewpoint and try to adopt a more biocentric one, in the interests of our own and innumerable other interdependent species.

Dear Sir,
Tim Flannery’s statement that the Copenhagen climate accord is a ‘huge advance’ must be taken with a grain of salt (December 21, p. 1). The allocation of $10 billion pa to poor countries to mitigate climate disruption is a miniscule proportion of global funds available for consumption and destruction.

Globally, the financial allocation to poor countries amounts to a mere 0.5% of media and entertainment spending (US $2 trillion), 0.7% of military expenditure (US $1.46 trillion), 1.4% of banks bailout (US $700 billion), 6.9% of gambling industry (US $144 billion) and 7.1% of sports market expenditure (US $141 billion).

Clearly, the governments and corporations which distribute the Almighty Dollar have no concern for equity or for the future of the human species under the ‘business as usual’ scenario, which will generate a temperature rise well above 2C.

Comment from Peter Parry, DEA member, Adelaide
I think it would be worth all DEA members reading this very ominous analysis of Copenhagen –
It seems we are now all beholden to China the superpower, just as the US finally elected a man of some substance fate seems to have robbed him of the superpower status to make a difference. To get a totalitarian regime to change will be well nigh impossible. Lobby/educate the Chinese middle class? There’s always a few million Chinese students at universities around the world, they could be influenced and go home to influence their sometime high-ranking parents. Perhaps NGOs around the world need to all learn Chinese or get in Chinese translators…It was a very depressing article, I think the writer was in some kind of shock himself. My reaction after reading it was somewhat despairing. I suppose hope springs eternal, and I wonder now how the world will remarshal around this issue. A lot of effort went into Copenhagen and it is unlikely to be lost. The silver lining from the Guardian article is that if it weren’t for China a very good deal for the planet (at least in what human politics are capable of) would have eventuated. Presumably other nations will put pressure on China from here on. It is important that NGOs and civic society and the media do too. China may be totalitarian but it is not totally immune to world opinion.

Comment from Martin Williams DEA member, Victoria
My take on these issues is that while much of what happened in Copenhagen is very worrying, including the seeming dismantling of the UN process, there is an optimistic view as well. The UN process for the last 20 years hasn’t achieved anything significant in terms of emission reductions. Obama and his cohorts have acknowledged that the current pledges on the table are not what the science demands and that much more needs to be done. They are not trying to pretend the job is done. They are seeking national mitigation commitments by Feb 1 to be tallied for their overall effect. This will fall far short. The next logical step would be to ask everyone to commit more. Given the momentum for real action that Copenhagen has clearly fed among global citizens, the hope would be that democracies around the world will indeed be able to offer better cuts when they see the current pledges are inadequate. Maybe things will keep going from there until we really are approaching the cuts we need, and then these commitments can be included in a new treaty.

So I’m glad there was no agreement, because it would surely have been for inadequate action. In terms of what we can do now, I think the main thing is to keep raising awareness of relatively detailed science, so that people understand the need to push for much stronger action than what is being considered now. I am doing this myself in the form of a detailed educational survey for my waiting room. When I fine tune it a bit more I will make it available along with my own interesting results for DEA members. One example is that in the last four months since I started work on it, the proportion of respondents who recognise the climate emergency and threat to human civilisation has increased from one third to about a half. I’d like to think that other DEA members will see the mostly educational value of such a survey and consider getting involved.

Comment from George Crisp, member of DEA Management Committee from WA
It highlights the fact that governments (particularly Western “democratic” governments) are not structured or able to take the decisions required to address future problems that exceed election cycle significance, even when they challenge our long term survival. Big business is also focused on short timeframes and more self-interested.
Although a disappointment, it is not altogether a bad thing. We need no longer labour under the misapprehension that someone else is going to do it for us
We cannot rely on leadership from either business or government. We must find it in our community.
The health profession is not just well placed to stand up and advocate for the future health of humanity, it has a responsibility to be part of that process.

Comment from John Iser, DEA member from Victoria
Thank you so much for keeping me informed and for you perceptive analysis of the state of play.

Like most others, I use work as my excuse not to be more active, but I am becoming so frustrated that the shackles will soon break. If the big scene can’t be changed (who really thought it could?) we just have to keep pressing for progressive small percentage changes, such as photovoltaics, geothermal and wind power. Why the caution and resistance? These measures won’t do any harm, and they can be presented (to the ignorant) as necessary simply from the need to prolong our known fossil resources!

Comment from Greg Glazov, DEA member from WA
I agree that the more we do to educate the community about climate change , actions they can take and influencing of politicians will have a snowballing effect especially in this election year.

It’s a pity that getting through to some of our medical colleagues can be difficult , but I am pleased to note that there is a very strong movement within the Anglican Church which I attend. in Perth we are running a pilot program called the Anglican Carbon Emissions Reduction Project which involves an awareness and educational campaign to help households and churches to reduce their carbon emissions through lower energy use and uptake of sustainable energy products. It is aligned to the Days of Change project which started in the WA country town of York. Recently we ran a couple of weekend training sessions to enable Volunteer Sustainability Ambassadors (SA’s) from each parish to conduct powerpoint information sessions and then conduct energy assessments in households . Alternatively the people attending these sessions may sign up for a free Green Loan Home Asssessment which is paid by the Federal Government which can entitle then to an interest free loan to install energy saving measures. We had over 50 SA ’s trained and further training sessions are planned as a lot of interest was generated. I am looking forward to presenting a session this Sunday and more after that. There will be follow up data collected to track the effectiveness of the whole project in reducing energy use. A rollover effect of this project is expected to occur in other churches and organisations . Hopefully we can get through to thousands of people and more .