Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. New posts: Mondays & Wednesdays.
Obama’s imperious behaviour at the 2009 climate summit is a key reason negotiations have failed dismally in recent years.
Late this week, I’ll arrive in Warsaw where the UN is holding its annual climate summit. I’ll be doing some reporting there for the National Post and will, as a result, be accorded access to this event as an accredited journalist.
It will be interesting to see one of these summits up close, rather than from thousands of miles away. I expect to take heaps of photos and will be posting them here on this blog.
Realistically, no one expects much to happen during this round of negotiations. At the best of times, these summits are little more than theater – and much of the world currently has other things on its mind.
German chancellor Angela Merkel is preoccupied with finding partners with whom to form her new government. Paris will be hosting the 2015 climate summit, so France’s focus is there. UK leaders, meanwhile, are coping with public outrage over rising home heating bills. Even slow learner British politicians are starting to realize that stricter emissions targets will push those bills higher.
UN climate official Christiana Figueres recently alienated Australia when she had the temerity to publicly criticize its election results, so it’s no surprise that the Aussies aren’t sending any high-ranking officials. And then there’s America.
Rupert Darwall’s recent book, The Age of Global Warming: A History, suggests that President Barack Obama single-handedly wreaked havoc on these talks when he appeared at the Copenhagen summit back in 2009.
Chapter 32 discusses Copenhagen at length. Many interests and power blocs vie for supremacy at these gatherings. Accusations and animosity are routine. Posturing abounds.
In Copenhagen, Gordon Brown, the UK Prime Minister, delivered a four-horsemen-of-the-apocalypse speech. Merkel talked about the need to “change our way of living, our lifestyle.” And French President Nicolas Sarkozy declared that failure at the conference “would be a catastrophe for each and every one of us.”
Then Obama arrived. Here are some snippets from Darwall’s book:
As daylight broke on Friday morning, Air Force One touched down at Copenhagen’s Kastrup airport…it seemed as if the drama that tumultuous day centered on the schedule of the president’s plane…President Obama used his [speech] not to persuade but to lecture…To those who hoped Obama would rescue the conference by making some grand offer, it was a terrible letdown…
A few hours later, according to Darwall, Obama insulted the Chinese delegation and then the French:
Obama turned to Sarkozy. ‘Nicolas, we are not staying until tomorrow,’ he said. ‘I’m just letting you know, because all of us obviously have extraordinarily important other business to attend to.’…the Europeans were not only isolated. They had been crushed. For them, climate change was an existential issue. There could be no more important business than saving the planet
…Events then took a bizarre turn. In an account given to journalists traveling back with the president on Air Force One, Obama wanted one more try. [bold added]
In an impromptu meeting with Brazilian, Chinese, Indian, and South African officials – a meeting from which the summit organizers themselves were excluded – Obama spent 80 minutes hammering out a rogue text.
This allowed him, personally, to claim some dubious glory in front of the television cameras a bit later – but it sidelined all the other major players and kicked sand in the face of their painstaking, diplomatic efforts.
The US president’s behaviour would not be soon forgotten or forgiven. Writes Darwall:
Speaking to journalists in Berlin, Merkel swore she would not risk the same humiliation again. She was as good as her word. Of the European leaders, only Norway’s Jens Stoltenberg attended the next [summit] in Cancun. [bold added]
In other words, there are many reasons why climate negotiations have failed dismally in recent years. Obama’s imperious manner and poor grasp of foreign affairs is a significant – if largely unappreciated – part of that story.