Andrew Charlton attended the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference as a Senior Advisor to then-Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, and recalls his surprise that even with the eyes of the world steadfastly on it, nothing of substance at this “summit to save the world” was accomplished.
Prime Minister Rudd – one of the many world leaders present for the conference in 2009 – admitted to being disappointed with the way things turned out, he recalls. Afterward, there was a lot of finger-pointing. “Through the haze of the fatigue and crushed expectations there was one outstanding question: how could this have happened?”
There were no easy answers. President Barack Obama acknowledged afterward that the conference did not achieve enough, while environmental activists derided some of the participants as “guilty men and women fleeing to the airport,” in the aftermath of the failed talks. And journalists characterized the Copenhagen talks as “a historic failure that will live in infamy.”
But the fundamental problem, Andrew Charlton later reflected, was not with any particular nation or alliance. What really happened was that the conference in Copenhagen exposed “the central dilemma of our century,” which boils down to a choice between progress and the planet.
“Our planet is home to seven billion people,” he wrote. “Of these, roughly one billion live in rich countries...[whose leaders] arrived in Copenhagen persuaded of the urgency of the environmental challenges facing” the earth.” The remaining six billion of Earth’s inhabitants live in developing countries. A third of them are so poor that they barely have enough food. The chief concern in these countries is poverty, while leaders of developing countries came to Copenhagen “with their own priorities.”
The point was made bluntly, Andrew Charlton recounted, by a Chinese official who said: “You cannot tell people who are struggling to earn enough to eat that they need to reduce their emission.” And a negotiator for a Latin American country frankly told him: “Your countries have prospered by exploiting the world’s resources...how can I tell the slum dwellers they must stay poor to help clean up your mess?”
For some two decades, Andrew Charlton wrote, wealthy nations have tried to force poor ones to accept their solutions to climate change. But these poor countries, as a group, are having none of it. “The lesson of Copenhagen is that rich countries can no longer impose solutions to global problems that ignore poor countries or assume their acquiescence in the rich countries’ agenda.”
Andrew Charlton earned a doctorate in Economics from Oxford University, and at present is the director of AlphaBeta.
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