Dispatch from Copenhagen: A tough day—and a “theater game”

Monday, Dec. 14, was a tough day at the climate negotiations in Copenhagen. The place is mobbed, with the heads of some non-governmental organization delegations waiting in the cold outside the Bella conference center for up to eight hours to register to attend the conference. Inside the negotiating rooms, the air was just as chilly. “There is a lot of mistrust between countries,” says Jo Leinen, chair of the European Parliament. “You can feel it. There is a frozen atmosphere inside.”

And for much of the day, the talks themselves were frozen. African countries led a walkout from the talks, blocking the negotiations. The ostensible reason: They feared that the developed world was on track to kill the Kyoto Protocol, rather than working to extend the 1997 treaty. There is a grain of truth in the accusation. Since the U.S. never ratified the Kyoto Protocol (which didn’t include commitments from developing nations), the whole point of the Copenhagen talks is to come up with a new treaty. Negotiators dub the new effort the LCA track (for Long-term Co-operative Action).

The industrial countries insist they aren’t trying to ditch Kyoto. “We are prepared to discuss all issues, including all issues under the Kyoto Protocol,” says Andreas Carlgren, Sweden’s environment minister and the European Union’s environment spokesman.

But the underlying animosity runs deep. Just listen to Pablo Solón, Bolivia’s ambassador to the United Nations. The developed world has created the climate problem, stuffing the atmosphere with carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, he says. Now, the developing countries need to be able to emit their share. “We, the developing countries, need space in the atmosphere for our development,” he says. “The developed countries have occupied this space that we need to eradicate poverty.”

And if the industrial world doesn’t let the poor countries grow their economies with fossil fuel, well then, they need to pay up. “We’re already spending money on adapting to climate change that we should be using for education,” says Solón. The offer that’s come up for a transfer of funds from the developed world to developing countries—billions of dollars per year—is “nothing” compared to earnings on Wall Street, he says.

The walk-out was enormously frustrating to the negotiators from the industrial countries. Leinen calls it a “theater game.” Adds Carlgren: “I’m eager to reach an agreement. But the best way to able to cut a deal is to discuss all measures on which we disagree.” Blocking the discussions “is the worst way” to proceed.

By the end of the day, however, the “theater game” was over. The negotiators found a way to bring the developing countries back to the table, agreeing to talk on both the Kyoto and the LCA tracks.

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