Talk About a Climate Catastrophe

The deal Obama brought home from Copenhagen wasn't just weak—it wasn't even really a deal. David Roberts on what went wrong—and what Obama has to do next.

Martin Meissner / AP Photo

Saturday morning witnessed one of the most extraordinary and dramatic debates in the 17-year history of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. The Copenhagen climate talks (Conference of the Parties 15, or COP15) were supposed to conclude with formalities. Instead, a heated dispute threatened to derail them entirely.

At stake was the Copenhagen Accord, an interim political agreement cobbled together by Barack Obama via some frenzied diplomacy during his one-day visit Friday. Obama left before the final vote—somewhat ironically to beat a snow storm descending on D.C.—but he sounded confident that the accord would be adopted. Instead, in the wake of his departure, a small group of developing countries, including Sudan and Venezuela, rebelled, decried the process by which the accord was produced, and insisted that they would not allow it to be adopted. Since the UNFCCC process requires unanimity to move forward, Danish Prime Minister Lokke Rasmussen could only look on, bewildered, as country after country restated its position in increasingly emotional terms. At one point, Sudanese official Lumumba Stanislas Dia-ping, chairman of the Group of 77 poor nations, compared the accord to the Holocaust. Then things went downhill.

Perhaps most fatefully, gone was any explicit pledge to formalize the agreement as a binding treaty next year. That’s worrisome, because Copenhagen is only the first challenge in a three-part political obstacle course.

Many hours later, after contentious debate, confusing proposals and counterproposals, and an extended adjournment filled with hushed huddles, the session ended with the somewhat baroque decision that the COP would "take note" of the accord rather than formally adopting it, effectively exempting Sudan and its allies.

Not exactly the spike-the-ball moment Obama's supporters envisioned.

What's remarkable is that the accord already represented an enormous diminution of hopes and expectations, wan even compared to drafts that had circulated earlier in the week. It achieved only the barest of Obama's aims: one, to draw the major emitters among the developing nations—China, India, and Brazil—into a process that would yield concrete commitments on their part, and two, to get funding flowing from developed countries to developing countries to aid their efforts to deal with climate change. The idea was to pull big emitters into a political agreement that would, at next year's COP16 in Mexico City, become a legally binding treaty. Obama adopted this two-step process after it became clear that a full treaty simply wasn't in the offing this year; he wanted something that could be operationalized immediately and serve to build trust in the intervening months.

Thanks to what Obama called, at a Friday-evening press conference, a "fundamental deadlock in perspectives" (read: China won't budge!), the accord ended up in an attenuated form that even its architect conceded is "not enough" to do what needs to be done. Gone was the firm commitment to reduce global emissions 50 percent by 2050. Gone were any short-term emissions targets for 2020. Missing were the concrete commitments to "measurement, reporting, and verification" Obama wanted from China, in its place vague language about "national communications."

Perhaps most fatefully, gone was any explicit pledge to formalize the agreement as a binding treaty next year. That's worrisome, because Copenhagen is only the first challenge in a three-part political obstacle course Obama will need to navigate to reach success on climate change. First was drawing China and India into an agreement. Next will be using the Copenhagen accord to fortify the U.S. Senate to pass a climate bill. Third will be to use that U.S. climate bill to convince UNFCCC countries to sign on to a binding legal treaty in 2010.

At any point, the wheels could come off. Indeed, it looked for a while as if they might come off before Obama was even under way. However ugly it may have been, however, he seems to have careened around the first obstacle more or less intact. One down, two to go.

David Roberts is a senior staff writer at, where he covers climate change, energy and the politics of both. His work has appeared in Fast Company, Popular Science, Outside, and Mother Jones.