Copenhagen: Industrial Revolution on trial

The poor nations want carbon reparations. The rich demand that everyone sacrifice. Is there some history here?

By Andrew Leonard
December 15, 2009 2:25AM (UTC)
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Even if the fate of the world did not hang on the outcome of climate change negotiations between 192 nations in Copenhagen, Denmark, the spectacle would be fascinating solely from the vantage point of history. The Industrial Revolution isn't just responsible for pumping vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere; the countries in which technological progress, fueled by cheap energy, originally took off ending up using their new powers to dominate the entire globe over the last 200 years.

The processes that caused climate change are therefore inextricable from a history of imperialism and colonialism and uneven economic development. When developing nations ask for cash and technology to help them adapt to a clean energy future, they aren't just trying to guilt-trip the rich countries for all the tons of greenhouse gases they have alread emitted -- the so-called "carbon debt." In a very real way they're also asking for reparations to compensate for the creation of the rift that has divided the world into "developed" and "developing" nations.


Because that's what it has come down to -- how much cash will the rich nations pony up to get the poor nations to sign up for a deal? The big news on Monday was that the group of 77 developing nations (which includes big greenhouse gas emitters like China, India, and Brazil) briefly walked out of the negotiations. The reason was summed up by a Nigerian delegation official who said the European offer of about $10 billion dollars over the next three or four years was "pathetic."

"There will be no commitments from the G77 until we get better assurances about financial and technology transfers," the official said.

The developed nations want $100 billion a year. It strains credulity to think that they will get anything close to it. Energy analyst Geoffrey Styles is on the mark when he observes that it would be "political suicide" for any American president "to explain to the electorate -- particularly with so many of them already exercised over growing deficits and the current tax burden -- why they must pay higher taxes to send carbon-debt payments to some of the same countries that are competing for our jobs and industries, on the basis that previous generations of Americans put more CO2 into the atmosphere than past generations of Chinese, Indians and Brazilians."

As noted by Mark Hertsgaard in The Nation, the U.S. chief negotiator Todd Stern utterly dismissed the notion of reparations for carbon debt.


Stern acknowledged that the emissions of rich nations over the past two hundred years of industrialization had caused global warming, telling a press conference, "We absolutely recognize our historic role in putting emissions in the atmosphere." But, Stern added, "the sense of guilt or culpability or reparations -- I just categorically reject that."

On the other hand, the U.S. and Europe are just as unlikely to get the kind of commitments by developing nations to reduce emissions that they want either. I'm in the camp that thinks everybody needs to reduce their emissions, and that talk about a supposed "betrayal" of the Kyoto Protocol, which lets developing nations completely off the hook, is over-wrought. But the historical record that encourages poorer nations to feel the rich nations have a responsibility to help them navigate towards a clean energy future explains exactly why they will refuse to sacrifice their own chances for economic growth.

How much of all the the rhetoric is bluster and positioning, while the real haggling gets done behind closed doors? I have no idea. I could just as easily see the entire thing collapse in a chaos of discord as I can a real deal getting hammered out in time for the world leaders to sign at the end of this week.

Herding 192 cats to a compromise that involves issues as weighty as economic growth, a warming planet, and the history of domination of the whole world by a handful of countries in Europe and the United States might be one of the hardest things to accomplish that humans have ever set out to do. The problem certainly won't be solved this week. But the sheer volume of rhetoric emerging from Copenhagen seems to be one indicator of just how high the stakes are, and how bad everyone would look if no deal gets done.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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