Was Copenhagen Really a Failure?

December 23, 2009

At the risk of being considered a Pollyanna, I don't think that Copenhagen was the huge failure the critics are rushing to proclaim. The Copenhagen process delivered two significant outcomes.

First, the science is now accepted. Despite some remaining uncertainties, the powerful and influential people who gathered in Copenhagen recognize that now is the time to act. The core debate is now on 1°C or 2°C of warming and safe carbon dioxide levels of 350 or 450 parts per million (PPM). The scales are tipping toward 1°C and/or 350 PPM. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Chair Rajendra Pachauri endorsed the 350 PPM level, not on behalf of his position, but as “a human being.” Lord Stern, the world’s top climate economist, also endorsed the 350 PPM level. Surely, this debate will continue—as there will always be uncertainty in science—but at least now the core scientific debate on the state of climate change has moved to the far fringes.

The second significant outcome is the immense frustration with the lack of action, especially now that there is widespread understanding of the science and what is at stake. Tens of thousands of climate activists gathered on what CNN referred to as the “the most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history” in Copenhagen and simultaneously at demonstrations worldwide to support the goal of 350 PPM. This wasn’t Bono or Madonna—these were everyday people from 181 countries (and all 50 U.S. states) rallying around a scientific data point.

Even the world’s religious leaders joined the masses in support of the 350 PPM target. Church bells chimed 350 times from Europe to Australia to Greenland and beyond. Rabbis in New York blew the shofar 350 times in support. Religious leaders representing about 85 percent of the world's population have pledged to urge action on climate change.

However, frustration can easily turn to bitterness and apathy. Community activists, corporate leaders, policymakers, and scientists have put so much effort into action on climate change, for little results in Copenhagen. But their frustration—our frustration—will not turn to apathy. Why? Because we are too clued up, too informed, and too motivated to allow it. When this level of frustration, intelligence, entrepreneurship, and global connectivity all meet up, change will happen.

Business leaders are also frustrated. Companies now face heightened risk of discontinuous change. The lack of regulatory results in Copenhagen, combined with the political and civil acceptance of the need for even stronger action than before, creates a huge gulf between present reality and the inevitable future. That gap will close, but how and when? For companies determining their business strategies, this poses both risks and opportunities.

Of course it would have been easier for business if clear targets, trading systems, or tax policies were set in place. But they were not. In this chaotic time, how can individual companies harness the strong signals citizens—a synonym for consumers—have sent to the deaf ears of politicians? Strong entrepreneurs will respond by creating new business models to capture the value and flourish in this current state of policy ambiguity.

Can the free market solve our climate change problems alone? Of course not. Agreeing with Lord Stern, climate change is the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen. But until we have a global governance system that works for the 21st century, we are left with economic Darwinism, and economic Darwinism can’t be stone deaf to the signals of an immensely frustrated populace. I never thought Darwinism would leave me feeling so optimistic.

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