Chen Weihua

US still lacks in power of its examples

By Chen Weihua (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-12-22 07:33
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It would be a sheer lie for world leaders to say they are happy with the Copenhagen climate accord. Many of them only reluctantly signed the toothless declaration last Friday.

I was excited at first when my iPhone news headlines showed world leaders reaching the accord, described by United States President Barack Obama as "meaningful and unprecedented". As I read the text, that kind of thrill soon turned into frustration and anger. The two adjectives used by Obama are clearly an overstatement.

The Copenhagen conference had drawn "unprecedented" attention on climate change, with leaders from more than 190 countries attending, so there was high expectations that these leaders would have the "unprecedented" wisdom to move forward with real solutions, instead of taking a step backward by striking a deal with no real "meaningful" substance.

With the current accord, neither the developed nor the developing countries have achieved what they wished for. The real losers are the 6.7 billion human beings on this planet, as well as our future generations.

There was no shortage of smart negotiators in Copenhagen. But as the Chinese saying goes: Clever people often become victims of their own cleverness, and these negotiators seem to have widened, rather than narrowed, the differences between the rich and poor countries regarding what each should do for climate change.

The developed world kept shirking its responsibility for its environmental debt by constantly stressing a cap on the developing world. If that happens, it will truly "lock the people of the developing world into a cycle of poverty forever", in the words of Sudanese leader Lumumba Di-Aping, the lead negotiator for the G77 and China.

Why should the rich countries take it for granted that their per capita carbon emission could be four or five times high than poor countries? It seems that a carbon emission rationing system would be a much more fair and just one, even in the context of human rights. Otherwise, populous countries like China and India will be forever in a disadvantaged situation, simply because it makes no sense to compare total carbon emissions by China or India with that by Cambodia, for example, whose population is only a small fraction of theirs.

With a selfish mindset overlooking the serious responsibility of rich nations and the dire need of developing countries to lift their people out of poverty, it is not surprising that world leaders failed to reach a truly "meaningful" agreement.

The US, which views itself and is viewed by many as a world leader, should be held just as responsible as anyone else for such a meaningless accord. Obama basically flew to Copenhagen without anything meaningful to offer, such as an ambitious US plan to cut emissions or one that at least matches the ambitions of the European Union.

Making things worse was the China-bashing tone used by Obama and his negotiators, unlike his November visit to the country. That was a tactical blunder, since the more you try to publicly press and humiliate Chinese, the less you can get things done. That is Culture Shock 101.

Still, that tactical change is understandable, considering Obama has been under sharp domestic criticism from his opponents for kowtowing to Chinese during his visit. He does not realize, however, that his multilateralism and his willingness to listen reflect his strength, not weakness, as a US leader. It is also an attitude welcomed by the rest of the world.

Obama has tried hard to differentiate himself from his predecessor in fighting climate change, yet what he offered in Copenhagen was no more than rhetoric, rather than meaningful actions to be taken by the world's superpower, whose per capita carbon emission ranks among the top in the world.

Bill Clinton said the US should lead by the power of its examples, rather than examples of its power. So unless the Obama administration truly sets good examples in fighting climate change, he would not show any meaningful difference from his predecessor, who refused to sign the Kyoto treaty.