Latin America Makes an Impact at Copenhagen Amidst Conflicting Charges of Lula’s Leadership and ALBA’s Deep Dissatisfaction

- Brazilian President Lula consolidates his role as a global power broker even though the final product at the global warming conference was a a markedly feeble Accord
– Whitehall leads attacks on China and ALBA countries for “holding the world to ransom”
– As recriminations fly, Brasilia joins ALBA in criticizing Washington’s lame approach to the negotiations

A frustrated group of European politicians has, over the past several days, come down hard on a number of Latin American countries whom it considers to have thwarted attempts to reach a legally binding agreement at the climate change talks, which ended in Copenhagen on Friday, December 18. Leading the chorus of blame has been the British Energy and Climate Change Minister, Ed Miliband, who authored a damning op-ed in the December 21 edition of the Guardian, which mainly accused China of standing in the way of a more definite deal. However, a front page article in the same newspaper claimed that Miliband’s aides “made it clear that he included Sudan, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Cuba, which also tried to resist a deal being signed.” The minister’s message to those countries was unequivocal: “we will not allow [you] to block global progress.” Miliband was joined later that same day by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who in a webcast posted on the Downing Street website said, “never again should we let a global deal to move towards a greener future be held to ransom by only a handful of countries.”

Nevertheless, the Guardian’s editorial that day succeeded in finding one positive development that could legitimately be seen in the aftermath of the conference: “The rich world was forced to haggle with the bigger emerging economies on more equal terms than ever before,” it observed. Indeed, this point was illustrated most clearly by the presence of Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula Da Silva among the exclusive group of five last ditch negotiators working overtime to save face on the final day of the talks – his partners in that effort being the leaders of Asian giants China and India, South Africa, and, of course, the United States’ Barack Obama. Ostensible saboteurs on one hand, vital power brokers on the other, Latin America’s leaders emerged from Copenhagen having been spun in wildly different directions by the various public relations mega-machines present there. In reality, however, post-conference rhetoric helped establish that Lula, Venezuela’s Chávez, Bolivia’s Morales and the Castro administration are united on the most important point: that the United States, along with its kowtowing friends in London and the rest of Europe, has done perhaps the most damage to the prospects for some of the world’s poorest people, over the past two-and-a-half weeks of Copenhagen.

Brazil Steps Up to the Top Table

Lula has rightly been lauded for his conduct at the summit, and specifically, for announcing for the first time a contribution of Brazilian capital to a fund established by rich nations to help poor ones handle the effects of climate change. It is a fact that Brazil is not yet considered to be part of the ‘developed’ and ‘rich’ world which consists largely of the European Union and North American countries. But under Lula’s stewardship, the country has rapidly gained a diplomatic stature befitting the direction in which its economy is heading. This has provoked heated debate among Latin America analysts over the degree to which this influence can be maintained after Lula leaves office in 2010. A number of the nations with which Lula was negotiating with at the top table at Copenhagen would in fact do well to take a few lessons from their Brazilian counterpart. The United States, in particular, has come under fire from commentators, activists and a host of other countries (including, but by no means limited to, the Hugo Chávez-led ALBA bloc of Latin American nations), for its flat refusal to make similar concessions regarding the conservative position with which it had armed itself even before entering the Copenhagen talks.

President Barack Obama was the man on whom everyone’s hopes ultimately rested as the conference headed for failure, only for him to dash them by stooping surprisingly low in the rhetorical stones he hurled at China during his speech, before he publicly displayed the temerity to label the feeble accord he cobbled together at Copenhagen, with the help of a handful of fellow leaders, as an “important breakthrough.” Unlike the Brazilian delegation, Obama arrived in the Danish capital with a fixed set of proposals, and made it clear that countries could take them or leave them, along with the slender pile of dollars that they were promised. Despite claiming to be offering to reduce emissions “by 17%” by 2020, Washington was in fact relying upon a different reference point than everyone else. For example, the EU has pledged a reduction of 20% by 2020 based on 1990 levels of emissions. Using this measuring rod, the U.S. proposal would be a pathetic 3% reduction, according to Climate Action Tracker, a tool run by a collaboration of European research groups whose members work closely with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Considering the current domestic realities which he must face, Obama looks more like he doesn’t have the appetite for yet another bruising fight with the Senate rather than a leader whose hands are firmly tied.

Similarly, China itself – a country in a similar position to that of Brazil in terms of its transition from ‘developing’ to becoming a member of the global elite – ought to sit up and take notice of Brasilia’s attitude towards seemingly acquitting itself with its newly won global status. After all, Miliband et al have been accurate in a number of the points that they made about Beijing. While taking such petty steps like sending junior officials to crucial meetings of heads of government arguably may be neither classy nor clever, they certainly cannot pretend that these are constructive negotiating methods. Likewise in terms of substance, China, in much the same way as the U.S., had a host of questions to respond to about its willingness to concede ground on emissions targets and to commit itself to that new buzz-phrase of the past few weeks, a “legally binding treaty.”

One of the few criticisms that can justifiably be leveled at Lula is, ironically, that he has placed his name among the authors of the ultimately hollow Copenhagen Accord. The Brazilian has become well known for his pragmatism, and true to form, he joined many Western leaders in adopting the philosophy that ‘any deal is better than no deal at all.’ However, others were far more idealistic in asserting that no deal should be signed that did not allow for reaching certain minimal expectations.

‘Agreement’ at Any Cost

It is this rift that has prompted the British outburst, and that groups Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia and Nicaragua with China in Miliband’s mind, despite their vast differences in approach. Quite simply, the current British stance is driven by its fundamental negotiating position, which was expressed in no uncertain terms by Miliband on the UK’s Channel 4 News, when he said, “there are two issues here. The level of ambition in any treaty and whether we get a treaty.” Adopting a view that incrementalism is the most desirable approach to take when presented with a difficult negotiating situation, the British delegation was desperate to get something – anything – on paper, rather than have to hold out for substantial progress if that might mean emerging with no agreement at all. Indeed, given the ultimate adoption (albeit reluctant) of the so-called Copenhagen Accord by the vast majority of nations present, it seems that it is this precise view which was successfully pressed on most delegations, and which has stuck, at least for the time being.

It is understandable, of course, that small nations in immediate danger from climate change should jump at any possibility for minor progress in the short term if that is the only possibility. The willingness of countries like the Maldives, Ethiopia and Grenada to come on board allowed Miliband to assert that, “to have rejected this accord would have been, frankly, a betrayal of many of the African states, and the small island states, who said ‘we need that money to flow.'” However, if the world continues to accept the incremental approach as it enters into the post-Copenhagen phase, these countries will soon find change occurring at a woefully inadequate pace, and will suffer in a way that they might have avoided with a realistically ambitious attitude on the part of conference delegates.

The attitude of many countries, and indeed the final outcome of the Copenhagen conference itself, has been likened in various quarters to international trade talks, which have been characterized by years of discussions and the incremental reduction of tariffs, along with frequent breakdowns in negotiations. Indeed, the validity of this comparison is hard to escape, given current talk of meeting again in Mexico in a year’s time, and of Copenhagen only being “a first step,” coupled with the spirit of the final article, number 12, of the Accord, which reads in full:

We call for an assessment of the implementation of this Accord to be completed by 2015, including in light of the Convention’s ultimate objective. This would include consideration of strengthening the long-term goal referencing various matters presented by the science, including in relation to temperature rises of 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The problem with applying such an approach to climate change talks was probably expressed best by George Monbiot in the Guardian on December 21, who said simply, “We can live without a new trade agreement; we can’t live without a new climate agreement.” The charity Oxfam, as the Daily Telegraph reported on Monday, predicts that around 150,000 people will have died and a million been displaced by the effects of climate change by the time the next global meeting takes place in a year’s time. Should, as many people fear may happen, nations use the above text to delay further action for five years, until the quoted date of 2015, the malign impact is difficult to imagine.

Criticism Undeserved

It is in this context, then, that ALBA members, as some of the few nations who held up negotiations, stood intentionally in the way of a deal, and then failed to support the final conference text, have been particularly lambasted by the British. And it is for these very reasons that those nations may have been correct to do all they could to block the Copenhagen Accord from successfully emerging. Both Chávez and Morales have recently exhibited some well-rehearsed rhetorical lines attacking the U.S. president over climate change, with the Venezuelan repeating the barb with which he famously attacked George Bush at the UN in New York in 2006. “It smells of sulfur here. It keeps smelling of sulfur in this world,” Chávez said, in reference to his assertion three years ago that, “the devil came here yesterday … it still smells of sulfur today.” Similarly, a report in Monday’s edition of the Spanish daily El Mundo quoted the Bolivian President as labeling Obama “the best student of George Bush.” Bruno Rodriquez, the Cuban foreign minister, followed suit, calling Obama “imperial and arrogant,” after President Raul Castro declared the talks a failure last week, according to the Associated Press.

The complaints that these countries want to drive home, and their subsequent actions aimed at undermining the Accord – including preventing the formal approval of the Obama-led plan and forcing the UN plenary session to merely ‘take note’ of the text – easily have been dismissed. Perhaps this is in part due to the fact that Chávez is (according to some of his most harsh critics) very much the boy who cried wolf, and that their protests were couched in staunchly irreverent anti-capitalist language. The underlying positions held by the ALBA leaders however, on this occasion may deserve to be admired, rather than lambasted. A Time article last Sunday, although perhaps misguidedly, praised Obama as the conference’s savior, and outlined ALBA’s – and Sudan’s – concerns briskly, boiling them down to three key points. First was the lack of specific targets and general vagueness; second, the inadequate level of funding for developing countries to fight climate change; and finally, the fact that “the deal was struck behind closed doors by a handful of powerful nations, and then presented to the rest as a fait accompli.”

Morales called for delegates to agree to limit the global rise in temperatures to under one degree celsius, half the figure mentioned in the final Accord. Anything more, he told Democracy Now, would demonstrate “a lack of commitment to humanity.” This target represents a far more realistic assessment of the available science that demonstrates the true danger faced by many vulnerable countries than the one being peddled by the key negotiators at Copenhagen. Morales also called for the redirection of funds from military spending to combating climate change, while Chávez lambasted the “irresponsibility and lack of political will” on the part of Western leaders, according to El Universal, before saying, “We want it to be clear that all countries are equal…and we’re all on the same level, there aren’t presidents of first and second class here, there aren’t peoples of first and second class.” The Venezuelan representative at Copenhagen, Claudia Salerno Caldera, added that the Accord “doesn’t contain any points that could respond to the problems experienced by developing countries,” reported venezuelanalysis.com. These leaders have been pilloried for standing in the way of reaching an agreement, but faced with a woefully inadequate document which they had no hand in drafting, a document which they claim fails to live up to at least Morales’ admirably ambitious targets for climate change action, they did the only responsible thing and took the sole remaining recourse available to them – refusing to recognize it.

Stop the Spin

Tellingly, Lula also has turned his fire northward in the wake of the conference, using his weekly radio show in Brazil on Monday to criticize the United States’ performance at Copenhagen, and in doing so, joined the Latin American chorus against Washington’s meager concessions on climate change. He undoubtedly spared himself from any great discredit that might have emanated from his participation in the Accord’s drafting, by being able to rise above the subsequent spin operation and recognize the gamut of problems endemic to the negotiations, rather than adopt the narrow “China is to blame” perspective. As for Miliband, Gordon Brown and their fellow incrementalists, their bluster suggests a last ditch bid to salvage themselves from a public relations disaster by simply passing the buck. “This deal is a triumph of spin over substance,” Reuters reported Jeremy Hobbs, Oxfam International’s executive director, as saying on Monday. It is to these Latin American leaders’ immense credit that they have spoken out against this living travesty and sought to do something about it. Brown and Miliband ought to look closer to home, at their own allies, before they begin apportioning blame in the future. Perhaps now it is time for Lula to consistently flex his ever-increasing diplomatic muscle before he leaves office next year, in an effort to achieve the comprehensive agreement the developing world so desperately needs, and free the world from the rodomontade of stop-gap accords which comprise today’s prevailing, dangerous, and painfully shameful incremental approach to what amounts to a life-and-death diplomacy that must be put to work.