Contradictory Friends: Rudd and Copenhagen

Published: Wed 25 Nov 2009 12:16 PM
Contradictory Friends: Rudd and Copenhagen
Cynicism, observed H.G. Wells, is humour in ill-health. There is much of that variety of humour present as the Copenhagen talks on climate change approach. Instead of building bridges to the conference, existing ones are being removed or modified. One might say they are being shortened or destroyed altogether. All we can hope for now is a ‘framework’, and not a particularly firm one at that. It would seem that delegates and observers are rehearsing for a pantomime on the environment.
Such talk, which on the one hand is minimalist (minimal change) and disingenuous, can be found in the speeches and warnings of Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. The busy leader has been trying to craft a role as the industrious whiz kid of international diplomacy. His skills at the negotiating table have been supposedly rewarded, with an invitation by the Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen to act as friend of the chair along with his Mexican counterpart Felipe Calderon. But he is proving to be a rather cautious friend. His messages about the conference leave their pessimistic (dare we say realistic?) trail, going back to July, when the media picked up the negative note in his discussions with Rasmussen.
As he explained in a recent BBC interview with Nick Bryant (23 Nov), Rudd hopes that the gathered member states will land a ‘Copenhagen agreement’ which tackles sustainable temperature increases (2 degrees centigrade); permissible targets for major developed economies; what commitments are to be made by major developing economies (India and China); and what finance arrangement will be required to implement this.
All in all, these remarks are hardly glowing, and suggest a microcosmic, bureaucratic appraisal of the problem. World leaders, it would seem, have run out of steam before they start. Such sentiments were reflected by the latest APEC leaders summit, which suggested that countries had to prepare for failed talks at Copenhagen. The only option, leaders mooted, was a two-step process: first, political commitment, followed by some amorphous ‘action plan’.
The contradictions of the Copenhagen summit on climate change, even before it starts, are well summed up by Rudd’s appointment as ‘friend’ of the conference chair. As the world’s largest exporter and per capita emitter, Australia’s position is curious. Even as Rudd government officials fear the annihilation of the earth through climate change, millions of dollars worth in federal funding is being put into expanding coal export facilities in the states of New South Wales and Queensland. Surely not since the appointment of the anti-internationalist John Bolton as US Ambassador to the United Nations has an international appointment given such room for puzzlement.
Domestically, Rudd has been doing battle with an intransigent, and divided opposition, on the subject of an Emissions Trading Scheme. Public support for such a scheme has been sliding, betraying a general malaise in will for establishing an emissions regime. Such schemes are hard to advance in a country where the coal magnate is king.
Rudd and members of his government have had to resort to Gore-like apocalyptic visions of flooded homes and destroyed properties in coastal communities to drive home the message and outflank their opponents. The Australian environment minister, the ever- compromised Peter Garrett, has volunteered his own nightmares for public consumption: the Kakadu National Park denuded to a gigantic salt marshland; and the Australian continent rife with tropical disease. Financial Services Minister Chris Bowen has seen the carbon-trading scheme as a lucrative chance that may go begging. Australia had the opportunity of becoming ‘the carbon trading services hub of the Asia-Pacific region’.
What elements can be prized from this ‘framework’ Rudd is suggesting? ‘Non-binding’ schedules for cutting emissions have been suggested, a sweetener for unenthusiastic developing nations, and, one can hazard a guess, developing countries like Australia which are unlikely to meet them. Policing will be minimal. Rudd, when asked how ‘verifiable and measurable’ changes might be made on emission cuts, had this answer: ‘yet to be determined through the conclusion of negotiations.’ That, and it would seem, much more.
Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University. Email:

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