‘I fear we will see radicalisation’ if Paris climate talks flop, says chair of 2009 Copenhagen summit

Connie Hedegaard says political leaders could stop coming to climate summits unless Paris delivers significant progress. Christopher Wright, Author provided

At the world’s last “blockbuster” climate summit, in Copenhagen in 2009, the person in the president’s chair was former EU climate commissioner and Danish environment minister Connie Hedegaard. As someone who has led many important international efforts to reduce the risks of climate change but who also presided over what many felt was a frustrating result in Copenhagen, she has a unique perspective on the hype and hopes for December’s crunch climate summit in Paris.

The Sydney Democracy Network invited her to a discussion where she engaged with participants including the new chief executive of the Investor Group on Climate Change, Emma Herd, Clean Energy Finance Corporation chair Jillian Broadbent and Climate Council chair Tim Flannery.

The result was some key insights into what to expect when world leaders converge on Paris. You can read the full transcript of the discussion here.

A global deal is not in the bag yet

The dynamics ahead of the Paris meeting are auspicious – but nothing is certain. Bear in mind that the dynamics before Copenhagen seemed just right too: Al Gore had raised public awareness; heads of state were engaged; reducing emissions was seen as more than a purely environmental problem; and the world had witnessed the effects of Hurricane Katrina, the Australian drought and the 2003 European heatwave. Yet what emerged from Copenhagen was well short of an international treaty or an agreed set of rules committed to by all nations.

If there is one crucial positive difference this time around, it is the new assertive role of the world’s two largest economies, as Hedegaard explained:

I think that there are better chances, and there are also many lessons learned … we have China and the United States now playing ball. It means a lot … though we should not underestimate what will happen if developing countries and low-lying island states really start to question how sure they can be, for instance, that the United States under a new administration will actually deliver on its pledges.

As a veteran of these meetings, Hedegaard understands just how difficult reaching multilateral agreements can be:

… we should not underestimate that there are still many unresolved issues at the table. We saw at Copenhagen that you can have a lot of people who have an understanding among themselves, but then the summit opens and all sorts of parties suddenly have all sorts of claims. So let’s just say we aren’t home safe yet with Paris.

Rowley and Hedegaard. Christopher Wright, Author provided

The outcome needs to be clearly communicated

Hedegaard stressed that the implications of any new climate agreement need to be rapidly and effectively communicated to the public, including details of the economic and employment benefits.

One thing that is different to the position before Copenhagen is how many people, including US President Barack Obama, are now framing the arguments for effective climate policy around the health and security benefits. Hedegaard said:

I understand in the United States, when they really started to calculate the health costs, that changed things.

There is a real challenge in calibrating public expectations. In retrospect, in 2009 they were so high and momentum apparently so strong that when the Copenhagen meeting achieved less than expected, the overwhelming sense was one of failure. Hedegaard clearly empathises with her French counterparts:

The French are absolutely fearful of having expectations set too high. The only problem is that it doesn’t work the other way round: if expectations are low then you are guaranteed limited success.

There is a danger that even if Paris achieves significant progress, a lazy media will focus solely on whether the outcome will keep global warming within the vital two-degree threshold, with the result that the summit will be reported as either outright success or unmitigated failure.

Here the lessons from 2009 are fresh in Hedegaard’s mind. Back then, when forced to respond to the “Climategate” accusations, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change did not even employ a communications team. This time around, it should be different.

Criticism of Australia will be limited

Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s public statements on coal and wind turbines, and his government’s efforts to undo policies designed to encourage low-emissions technologies, have led to predictions that Australia will be a pariah at the talks. But Hedegaard says Australia’s climate ambition is still difficult to assess.

It will be difficult for diplomats to know what to make of Australia’s commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2030, when the policies and political will to deliver these reductions look questionable. But Hedegaard thought Australia would most likely get the benefit of the doubt:

I think the French inclination would be to say ‘thank you, Australia for finally doing something’. Because they know that without all developed countries delivering at least something, then there is less a chance of developing countries coming forward with anything.

The stakes are higher than ever

There is an enormous amount at stake; another failure wouldn’t simply be a case of going back to the drawing board. If it delivers another underwhelming result, questions will be asked about whether the UN negotiating progress can continue in the same way it has for the past 21 years.

Hedegaard says Paris doesn’t have to deliver some final, ultimate treaty, but:

…it does have to deliver tangible progress. If there is not tangible progress, there will still be lots of climate summits in the future but ministers will stop coming, the top people will not attend, the air will go out of it.

If Paris flopped, then you would see a very different kind of debate globally and in Europe … The risks are real and it’s not the case that if Paris fails then things will just continue with “business as usual” – our response could go backwards.

Hedegaard warned that perceived failure could lead to climate politics becoming deeply polarised:

I think Paris will probably deliver, but if it doesn’t, I fear that we will see a radicalisation. I see some citizens, young people, are getting impatient. Unless the world community comes up in Paris with a credible narrative about how we are changing track now, also with our economy and our finances, you will see sort of the old debate from the 1970s: anti-growth, anti-capitalism.

What some of us have being trying to do is to say, no, we should work with business, we should work with our societies as they are and try to get this transition done. Because if we don’t we will have an anti-growth dichotomy and then people will stand there screaming in each of their corners and not much will happen. So there is really a lot at stake in Paris.