State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Copenhagen: The False “Victory”

This is the thirty-sixth of a continuing series of essays and interviews from Earth Institute scientists on the prospects for a global climate-change treaty. Check with us daily for news and perspectives, and to make comments, as events unfold throughout the Copenhagen meetings.

jeffsachsTwo years of climate change negotiations have now ended in a farce in Copenhagen. Rather than grappling with complex issues, President Barack Obama decided instead to declare victory with a vague statement of principles agreed with four other countries. The remaining 187 were handed a fait accompli , which some accepted and others denounced. After the fact, the United Nations has argued that the document was generally accepted, though for most on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.

Responsibility for this disaster reaches far and wide. Let us start with George W. Bush, who ignored climate change for the eight years of his presidency, wasting the world’s precious time. Then comes the UN, for managing the negotiating process so miserably during a two-year period. Then comes the European Union for pushing relentlessly for a single-minded vision of a global emissions-trading system, even when such a system would not fit the rest of the world.

Then comes the United States Senate, which has ignored climate change for 15 consecutive years since ratifying the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Finally, there is Obama, who effectively abandoned a systematic course of action under the UN framework, because it was proving nettlesome to U.S. power and domestic politics.

Obama’s decision to declare a phony negotiating victory undermines the UN process by signaling that rich countries will do what they want and must no longer listen to the “pesky” concerns of many smaller and poorer countries. Some will view this as pragmatic, reflecting the difficulty of getting agreement with 192 UN member states. But it is worse than that. International law, as complicated as it is, has been replaced by the insincere, inconsistent and unconvincing word of a few powers, notably the United States. America has insisted that others sign on to its terms –leaving the UN process hanging by a thread – but it has never shown good will to the rest of the world on this issue, nor the ability or interest needed to take the lead on it.

From the standpoint of actual reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions, this agreement is unlikely to accomplish anything real. It is non-binding and will probably strengthen the forces of opposition to emissions reductions. Who will take seriously the extra costs of emissions reduction if they see how lax others’ promises are?

The reality is that the world will now wait to see if the United States accomplishes any serious emissions reduction. Grave doubts are in order on that score. Obama does not have the votes in the Senate, has not displayed any willingness to expend political capital to reach a Senate agreement, and may not even see a Senate vote on the issue in 2010 unless he pushes much harder than he has so far.

The Copenhagen summit also fell short on financial help from rich countries to poor countries. Plenty of numbers were thrown around, but most of these were, as usual, empty promises. Aside from announcements of modest outlays for the next few years, which might – just might – add up to a real few billion dollars, the big news was a commitment of $100 billion per year for the developing countries by 2020. Yet this figure was unaccompanied by any details about how it would be achieved.

Experience with financial aid for development teaches us that announcements about money a decade from now are mostly empty words. They do not bind the rich countries at all. There is no political will behind them. Indeed, Obama has never once discussed with the American people their responsibility under the UN Framework Convention to help poor countries adapt to the impact of climate change. As soon as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton mentioned the $100 billion “goal,” many Congressmen and the conservative media denounced it.

One of the most notable features of the U.S.-led document is that it doesn’t mention any intention to continue negotiations in 2010. This is almost surely deliberate. Obama has cut the legs out from under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, in effect declaring that the United States will do what it will do, but that it will not become further entangled in messy UN climate processes in 2010.

That stance might well reflect the upcoming 2010 mid-term Congressional elections in the United States. Obama does not want to be trapped in the middle of unpopular international negotiations when election season arrives. He may also feel that such negotiations would not achieve much. Right or wrong on that point, the intention seems to be to kill the negotiations. If the United States does not participate in further negotiations, Obama will prove to have been even more damaging to the international system of environmental law than George Bush was.

For me, the image that remains of Copenhagen is that of Obama appearing at a press conference to announce an agreement that only five countries had yet seen, and then rushing off to the airport to fly back to Washington to avoid a snowstorm back home. He has taken on a grave responsibility in history. If his action proves unworthy, if the voluntary commitments of the United States and others prove insufficient, and if future negotiations are derailed, it will have been Obama who single-handedly traded in international law for big-power politics on climate change.

Perhaps the UN will rally itself to get better organized. Perhaps Obama’s gambit will work, the U.S. Senate will pass legislation, and other countries will do their part as well. Or perhaps we have just witnessed a serious step towards global ruin through our failure to cooperate on a complex and difficult challenge that requires patience, expertise, goodwill and respect for international law – all of which were in short supply in Copenhagen.

Jeffrey D. Sachs is director of The Earth Institute, Columbia University.

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Richard Gross
Richard Gross
14 years ago

With great interest I read Dr Sachs’ recent article in Scientific American re. “The Need for Open Process”. Will you please pass on the following comment to him, and if possible respond back.

Dr. Sachs made the comment that “only one third of the U.S. public believes that man-made climate change is even real”. Why is it that the important step of “selling it to the public” been overlooked? The numbers, tables and graphs are important but the public still does not get the basic concepts. This is no wonder considering the amount of slick advertising and disinformation put out by the opposition, i.e. “global warming” has been “swift-boated”.

Can not the major players promoting action on this issue combine their resources and “sell” the reality of this problem? Consider the success of the anti-smoking campaign over the tobacco industry.

Come on let’s get together on this!

14 years ago

If people want a green world.
then stop buying Chinese products.

China frustrated the COP top,
now people of the world decide themselves.

No more “made by china” unless approved by a green label.
We make china transparent! That should be done anyway.
Digital democracy of the third millennium: how can you expect your
government to take responsibility if you do not even bother about a green
label ?

You don’t have to wait till the next top, start yourselves, start today, start small! If governments want to join, they should implement green labels. Imagine a green label, next to “made by china”

14 years ago

Jeff Sachs,

Quite dramatic! But, even more productive drama would be accomplished by turning New York City into a true showcase for Urban Ecological Amplification

New York City does this already by greatly amplifying the primary natural gift of human intelligence. As you know, Columbia University does this quite well.

NYC also accomplishes this by greatly amplifying the value of natural human mobility using self-propulsion. Cities solve the transportation problem by bringing everything close together and people walk much more in this town than mostly anywhere else in U.S. (except for maybe Disney Land). Rapid development of small vehicle transit would amplify this benefit to high levels of practicality in an extremely short time to produce an easily replicable model for global distribution as low-hanging fruit seriously addressing the climate crisis and other important issues.

And, mentioned elsewhere on this site 3.3 million New Yorkers planting 1 tree per day would plant 1 billion trees in less than a year where many would be on the space wasted on automobiles liberated by the broad deployment of small vehicle transit; and, perhaps a key incentive to jumpstart extensive urban farming.

With the Columbia Earth Institute as advisor to the city on climate change mitigation and adaptation it is extremely important that the city move with military speed to responsibly address the climate change crisis as showcase to the globe from this vibrant iconic center of the world’s third largest economy.

Advocacy for this type of action is quite broad and if you haven’t already please do a quick read of Lester R. Brown’s excellent and very accessible “Plan B 4.0 Mobilizing to Save Civilization” downloadable free from

Or, you can buy it for less than $9 from The Strand Bookstore downtown on Broadway and 12th Street.

14 years ago

[…] Sachs, fearless leader of the Earth Institute, adamantly opposed such victory proclamation from the President, for his disrespect to the international negotiation process, in exchange for a […]

Henri Suyderhoud
Henri Suyderhoud
14 years ago

Dear Dr. Sachs,
I have followed several of your 1-page essays in the Scientific American regarding global warming. Your last essay made an interesting suggestion, i.e., to engage in a debate on the subject of global warming. I for one, would love to hear such a debate, and my suggestion to you is to invite scientists like Dr Patrick Michaels of UVA, Dr Robert Balling of Arizona State, the Honorable Lord Monkton of the UK, Christopher Horner, author of a book on the subject, Dr Richard Lindzen, well known MIT Climatologist, just to name a few. You must have heard about them, I assume. Then obviously, invite others who staunchly believe in global warming’s immminent dangers of causing great harm to planet Earth. But in any event, keep the politicians out of the debate, if I may be so bold as to suggest. Then perhaps, we will all get a better understanding of what is really happening with this extremely difficult and little understood and utterly complex phenomenon, we call global warming. Thank you, sincerely.

Dan Plesner Henriksen
14 years ago

Hi all,

Im Danish, and so sorry for the outcome of the COP15 summit. It went wery wrong, now we all have to hope the very best for the next summit in Mexico COP16