Two years of climate-change negotiations have now ended in a farce in Copenhagen. Rather than grappling with complex issues, President Barack Obama decided to declare victory with a vague statement of principles agreed to with four other countries. The rest 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, although 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 U.S. Senate, which has ignored climate change for more than 15 years since ratifying the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Finally, there is Mr. 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.
Mr. Obama's decision to declare a phony negotiating victory undermines the UN process by signalling 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 reaching 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 International law, as complicated as it is, has been replaced by the insincere, inconsistent and unconvincing word of a few powers, notably the United States. Washington has insisted that others sign on to its terms - leaving the UN process hanging by a thread - but it has never shown goodwill 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 whether the United States accomplishes any serious emissions reduction. Grave doubts are in order on that score. Mr. 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 (U.S.) a year for developing countries by 2020. Yet this figure was not accompanied by 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, Mr. 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 members of 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 talks in 2010. This is almost surely deliberate. Mr. 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 next year's midterm congressional elections. Mr. 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, Mr. Obama will prove to have been even more damaging to the international system of environmental law than Mr. Bush was.
For me, the image that remains of Copenhagen is of Mr. Obama appearing at a press conference to announce an agreement that only five countries had seen, then rushing off to the airport to fly home and 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Obama's gambit will work, the U.S. Senate will pass legislation and other countries will do their part. Or perhaps we have just witnessed a serious step toward global ruin through our failure to co-operate 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 Sachs is professor of economics and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University.