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Copenhagen: Doomed by Politics, Doomed by Itself

Two days still remain until the start of the Copenhagen climate summit, an international meeting of leaders meant to find a solution to human-caused climate change. But nevermind the negotiations; they're doomed to failure. So are we, if we rely on the politicians.

Harsh words, but they're not mine; I'm paraphrasing the tone of several pre-Copenhagen editorials.

Nevermind that the negotiations have already been downgraded from binding agreements to the framework for an agreement; that's not the problem. The real difficulty is that the entire discussion is ineffectual. A pre-conference analysis points out that the negotiator's targets aren't useful:

THE world has little chance of avoiding at least two degrees of global warming this century -- the projected threshold for unpredictable and accelerated climate changes -- if the emissions targets proposed by rich nations are locked in at next week's Copenhagen summit, an analysis has found.

A report by German-based consultants Climate Analytics says wealthy countries will arrive in Denmark with proposals that would lead to a joint cut in greenhouse gas emissions of between 13 and 20 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020...Factor in climate policies proposed by major developing nations, including China, and global emissions could increase 35 per cent between 1990 and 2020 - a rise that is said to lock in the inundation of island countries such as Tuvalu, the Maldives and Kiribati.

Overall, the negotiations have been dominated by the usual sort of fractious infighting and refusal to accept responsibility that characterizes most international conferences. A global emissions reduction system would require a high level of coordination between nations, so politics-as-usual presents a major barrier.

But wait, the news gets worse, at least according to James Hansen, the scientist who is the most recognized face of climate change. It's not a question of whether nations can agree to high targets, Hansen says. Instead, the entire notion of cap-and-trade is flawed and a waste of time:

"I would rather it not happen if people accept that as being the right track because it's a disaster track," said Hansen, who heads the Nasa Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York. The whole approach is so fundamentally wrong that it is better to reassess the situation. If it is going to be the Kyoto-type thing then [people] will spend years trying to determine exactly what that means."

Hansen is also fiercely critical of Barack Obama â€" and even Al Gore, who won a Nobel peace prize for his efforts to get the world to act on climate change â€" saying politicians have failed to meet what he regards as the moral challenge of our age... In Hansen's view, dealing with climate change allows no room for the compromises that rule the world of elected politics. "This is analagous to the issue of slavery faced by Abraham Lincoln or the issue of Nazism faced by Winston Churchill," he said.

Along with the continuing furor over the recently released Climategate emails, the barriers facing Copenhagen when it starts Monday appear huge. The conference's continuing movement is perhaps a testament to the inertia of political processes.

But there may be another factor keeping Copenhagen going: A genuine concern from world leaders over the possibility of climate change. The reality of that concern will find its first real test if the Copenhagen process fizzles out.

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