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The Imprudent Copenhagen Gamble

Holding to the prevailingly brash tenor of the international climate-change debate, the Australian prime minister equated a delay on the enactment of green policy to outright denial of climate change. In doing so, he set himself — and others — up for trouble in Copenhagen in less than a week.

Speaking in Washington yesterday and specifically referencing his country’s own climate-change policy woes, Kevin Rudd said:

Let’s just be very blunt about it. After ten years of delay on climate change, further delay equals denial on climate change. Delay on climate change equals denial on climate change. And it’s time, instead, we voted in support of this bipartisan Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, because to do so votes to act. A failure to vote, or shall I say a vote to delay on the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, is a vote to deny the climate change science. A vote to delay this bipartisan Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme is also to deny Australia’s ability to act on climate change.

Rudd is hardly alone in setting dangerously high expectations for concrete and speedy climate-change policy. Across the world, leaders have expressed similar sentiment, and not just on domestic climate-change policy. “We must seal a deal in Copenhagen,” said UN Secretary-General Ban Kyi-Moon. Copenhagen is “capable of delivering the turning point we all want,” said British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. And in a news release issued by the White House itself, John Kerry said that “the fact that the President will attend the Copenhagen talks underscores that the Administration is putting its money where its mouth is, putting the President’s prestige on the line.”

But that’s risky rhetoric, and it puts proponents of stricter global-climate-change policy at a disadvantage.

First, an urgent and for-us-or-against-us approach like Rudd’s automatically alienates those who approach the climate-change debate with healthy skepticism or hesitancy. But it’s also hard to believe any international climate-change agreements can be reached without the help of moderates. And given the recent accounts that the scientific and academic community has suppressed climate-change debate and fogged up evidence, the demonization of skeptics should be hardly the message believers like Rudd want to convey. Further, as India and China have made abundantly clear, climate-change policy is also economic policy. This is not the time for a rushed decision, especially given the global recession.

Second, Rudd has opened the door for a public-relations problem for himself and others at Copenhagen. If anything short of action is evidence of denial, then anything less than total victory in Copenhagen must betray enormous international doubt that a climate-change problem actually exists.

Staked reputations should be the last consideration on the agenda in Copenhagen. But climate-change advocates have needlessly put themselves in a prickly position. There’s no longer much room for such outspoken leaders to hedge against the considerable conflicts they will doubtless face. And with such lofty expectations already established, they’d be foolish not to realize that the political, if not the environmental, clock is ticking. Now they have ensured that time is of the essence.