How leadership went AWOL at Poznan

The Poznan climate change meeting needed national governments to stand up to be counted. They didn’t. [16 December 2008 | Peter Boyer]

Over the past fortnight the nations of the world gathered in a small, picturesque city in western Poland for their annual climate talkfest. It’s arguable that, given all the taxpayer-funded flying and eating involved, it would have been better for the climate had they stayed at home.

I don’t subscribe to that argument because I think dialogue is always better than retiring behind walls, but it’s hard to support international climate meetings when domestic brownie points seem more important than the unprecedented planetary crisis the meetings are meant to address.

If our governments can find billions to protect banking systems, what’s the price to stop global ecological systems disintegrating, help the world’s poor to survive and give our children a future?

The Poznan conference was always going to be a tough one, with governments scrambling to contain world financial turmoil, Europe divided on mitigation measures, and China, India, Brazil and Indonesia coming to terms with a dubious new status as high carbon polluters.

And then there was the big one, the United States, stuck in no-man’s land, between a president who never saw a climate problem and a new one who does, but who has yet to take the reins.

Climate meetings these days always carry a high level of hope, but in this year’s fraught economic circumstances that was about as far as it got. Officially, the only task expected to be completed at Poznan was a review of progress toward implementing the Kyoto Protocol. Long-term strategies and post-Kyoto commitments were to be left to next year’s meeting in Copenhagen.

This was not a good start, and as the conference proceeded things didn’t get a lot better. There were some highlights – the strength and energy and vision of the non-government organisations were, for instance, very much in evidence – but national delegations and groups seemed to be holding back.

It’s not as if there was nothing to talk about. We urgently need agreement on global plans to help vulnerable peoples adapt to drought, flooding and sea level rises, to reduce deforestation, and to finance development and transfer of low carbon technologies everywhere.

And finally, there’s the Gap – the yawning chasm that lies between the level of emissions that national plans (like Australia’s) are envisaging and what scientists are saying we need. Even the ambitious European interim target of at least a 25 per cent reduction by 2020 is about half what the science is saying will be necessary to contain temperatures below dangerous levels.

Politicians don’t exactly say the science is wrong, so it not a difference of opinion so much as parallel universes, with scientific findings quarantined from political discourse and matters of state.

The Poznan conference demonstrated the persistence – and the delusion – of the political leaders’ view that they’re “realists” while scientists and environmentalists are somewhere out on the fringes. If I have to choose between “political reality” and “physical reality”, I’ll go for the latter any day.

For its part, Australia was far from the world leader Kevin Rudd foreshadowed last year in Bali. Its official delegates did a lot of behind-the-scenes talking and cajoling, but in the public forums – nothing. Being a leader means being out in the open, and on that score failure is widespread.

Domestic politics being what they are everywhere, it takes a lot of gumption for a political leader to stand up and speak up for climate action. We’ll see how the White Paper and emissions trading pan out in Australia, but right now the signs aren’t good.

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