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Roots of Copenhagen's failure: nature does not recognise nations

By Bo Ekman - posted Tuesday, 6 April 2010

On the evening of December 18, 2009, an increasingly shaky world order came to the end of the road. Seventeen years of climate negotiations - via Kyoto - had collapsed. The photographs documented the leaders’ despair, tormented by their inability to deliver the deal they knew the world needed. The so-called “deal” reached by the US and five developing nations was a fig leaf to cover the collapse - an impossible political solution to a geophysical problem. Unless the interconnected, systemic nature of the challenge we face is recognised, there will be no turning back from the disaster.

In my view, the Copenhagen process had no chance of success. If historian Barbara Tuchman were alive today she would have added another chapter to her book, The March of Folly, on humanity’s capacity for collective follies throughout history. Copenhagen provides yet more evidence that the current constitutional regimes are incapable of resolving global problems. The financial crisis showed this, as did the failure of the biodiversity conference, Doha trade round and the whole host of issues.

The world today works as tightly interwoven, interactive and trans-boundary systems with power organised piecemeal, split among individual nations, emerging through historical accidents and political developments. The continual struggle of nations to assert their own interests ends up hurting common interest. We presume that conflicts are to be resolved in negotiations, which are ultimately based on sovereignty postulates. It was the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 that gave birth to the order built on the principle of national sovereignty. But no world order lasts forever. Its legitimacy lasts only as long as it delivers a balance of power, growth, and is good at solving problems. The current regime, formulated after World War II, has proved ineffective as globalisation moved some of the prerequisites for solutions to the supranational level.


In no other area is this clearer than on the environment and climate change. The biosphere is itself a planetary, adaptive, interactive, constantly changing and self-regulating system. It is an indivisible whole. Nature does not logically divide into nations. You cannot fix the seas alone, the forests on their own or the atmospheric CO2 balance, or the interaction between biodiversity and ecosystem productivity on their own.

The negotiating process on climate issue, shaped by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), had the impossible task of finding a solution to an extremely complex geophysical and ecological problem by getting 192 nations to agree, based on everyone's own national interests, goals, means and to share responsibilities for actions for years to come. But had 192 nations reached the "perfect agreement", it would have lacked the financial supervisory authority, or powers of enforcement over those nations in case of their non-compliance. Instead the negotiators tried to solve the wrong problem: to reach the political compromises which would primarily secure the hegemonic interests of the major powers. But to avert climate change, actions must be taken based on the ecological system conditions, not according to the relative bargaining power of nation.

In fact all of the UN environmental conferences and conventions have demonstrated the ineffectiveness of the current approach to solving global systemic problems. Kyoto became a paper tiger, torn apart by short-sighted lack of mutual solidarity among nations. Of some 500 international agreements, only a handful are followed to the letter. A nearby example for Sweden is the Baltic Sea, a drainage basin fed by the waters of 14 countries. Four international treaties are in force to protect the sea from oxygen depletion caused by runoff from agriculture and pollutants from shipping and other sources, though with mixed result from the late intervention.

The problem is more fundamental. For a couple of centuries, science and learning have been characterised by a reductionist method. Man has sought to know more about increasingly narrower and fragmented phenomenon. That’s why we say that the devil is in the details. But the financial crisis and environmental crisis revealed that the real devil is in the system. Most important is to understand the whole picture, how things are interconnected. It is only then that we can shape or repair the system for safety and resilience.

It is thus an absurdity that leaders should rely on their very own national scientific advisers. Ecosystems are not national, but a large part of the research is. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) consisting of thousands of scientists from all over the world (set up in 1988) was a promising initiative. But its scientific credibility has been questioned along with its political neutrality. The recent decision by the United Nations and IPCC to establish an independent review by the Netherlands-based group of 15 national academies, the InterAcademy Council, is a welcome attempt to restore the panel’s scientific integrity. This international scientific review will likely uncover a number of deletions from the original Summary for Policymakers at the insistence of non-scientist governmental officials. But it should also show the recent sensationalised irregularities in the 2007 report, such as the conclusions on the Tibetan glaciers that did not source back to peer-reviewed research, were discovered by IPCC scientists themselves, an indication of a well-functioning, ongoing scientific inquiry.

The reality of an interconnected and interdependent world has rendered current constitutional maps outmoded. The world does not have the mechanisms needed to solve today's major challenges. Therein lies the growing danger for conflicts and war.


In the field of economics, the financial crisis showed that current institutions and regulatory frameworks were not sufficient to predict or manage the financial risks that the intensification of global dependencies had created. The political grouping, the G8, became the G20. But it is an informal grouping, not rooted in democratic foundations, comprised of the 20 most important industrial and emerging-market countries. The G20 does not have close contact with an electorate or local opinion. The G20 also sees the problem only from one, but of course, very important point of view, namely to foster co-operation on global economic stability and to strengthen the international financial architecture.

National boundaries inevitably set limits for political solidarity. If the world was a single country, it could never operate politically with the gaps, inequalities, exploitation of man and nature which are today’s reality. The international system's imperfection in relation to today's reality is at the heart of tomorrow's conflicts. This came to the surface in Copenhagen.

President Roosevelt convened his closest confidants the week after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, on December 7, 1941. He asked them to begin thinking immediately about how the world should be structured for peaceful coexistence in the peace to come. He took a pro-active responsibility for the future. Therefore, the debacle in Copenhagen should be taken for what it actually is, the collapse of already bygone institutions and mechanisms to reach agreement.

The world now needs new configurations that secure economic growth, social stability and ecological re-stabilisation in a relentlessly, globalising world. The task is enormous. And one that no nation can do alone. The important question to ask is not what went wrong in Copenhagen, but how a democratically grounded order will be formed in this new world. It is time for answers to the question: How on earth can we live together with nature?

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This essay is translated and adapted from the piece first published in Dagens Nyheter. Reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online ( Copyright © 2010, Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, Yale University."

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About the Author

Bo Ekman is chairman of Tällberg Advisors and founder and chairman of the Tällberg Foundation, an organisation dedicated to sustainable globalisation and the creation of a secure relationship between man and nature.

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