Who won in Copenhagen? Americans like to keep score and the question is inevitable as the world digests the inconclusive and disappointing outcome of the UN's climate change summit. The answer depends on what you read.
The Washington Post says China is the big winner. The newspaper's analysis argues that one outcome of the summit is China's emergence as the other world superpower, representing the interests of the emerging industrial countries like South Africa, India, and Brazil. This alters the mental map of the world that pundits have touted since the end of the Cold War. "The world's only superpower" became the adjective - and the slogan - for a new American mindset.
The idea that the U.S. dominated the world both militarily and economically after the collapse of the Soviet Union drove a lot of political decisions, including George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq. As long as we were No.1, in fact, the only one, no one could stop us or tell us we were wrong. Those who dared, like the French, who warned us about the danger of implanting foreign troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, were vilified as wimps.
Now, we are down from the G8 and the G20 to the G2: the U.S. and China. The Times quotes Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Fund as saying: "Coming into this conference, it was about 193 countries, and coming out of it, it clearly came down to a conversation between the leaders of those two superpowers."
U.S. President Barack Obama kicked a field goal when he couldn't score a touchdown, according to the New York Times. Both on climate change and his health bill, says the newspaper, the president has settled for what he can get, not what he originally articulated. "After weeks of frustrating delays and falling poll numbers, Mr. Obama decided to take what he could get, declare victory and claim momentum on some of the administration's biggest priorities, even if the details did not always match the lofty vision that underlined them," wrote Peter Baker in the paper's analysis.
As far as Copenhagen went, Baker goes on, the President "will not end climate change in his presidency, and may not get the market-based emission caps he wants, but he may move the country, and the world, toward meaningful action." The analysis concludes that the Obama administration is seeking validation for its first year in office, while liberals complain that the President won't stand on principle and conservatives fret that he is encroaching on personal liberties and moving toward bigger government.
The Los Angeles Times took a more optimistic view of the event, calling it "a gentlemen's agreement among the world's largest economies to take steps to curb greenhouse gas emissions, but no formal consensus on the part of the 193 nations present — and no prescription for what comes next in the global negotiating process that is nearly 20 years old."
The paper's reporter speculated that "that any success in humankind's efforts to avert the worst effects of climate change may be less an outcome of formal bargaining than of domestic politics, scientific innovation and, above all, the power of the emerging global market in low-emitting sources of energy."
The Sunday Times of London saw the conference outcome as an outright failure. Under the headline: "Barack Obama's climate deal unravels at last moment," the paper focused on the lack of specifics in an agreement to limit the global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius, the vagueness of a promise to reduce emissions and the failure to provide details on where the $100 billion a year would come from to help poor countries convert to less polluting technologies.
South Africa's media reflected the growing consensus in the developing world that the big powers have rammed through a toothless agreement. In an editorial, South Africa's Mail & Guardian called the meeting in Copenhagen a "Conference of villains."
"The United States, deeply in conflict with its own conscience, has, despite the convictions of President Barack Obama, failed to realize that with great power comes great responsibility. It may eventually emerge as a hero, but right now it is failing as a global leader," the editorial said. The paper didn't let Canada and Australia off the hook, either, pointing to their role in blocking any deal that might hurt their carbon-intensive industries.
The South African newspaper called Europeans "smugly superior, as usual, but their insistence on extending the Kyoto protocol into a deal of any kind has been destructive." It closed with a comment from the much-reviled President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, noting that "he couldn't understand why Western nations were so concerned about human rights and so blithe about climate change." For many in the developing world, the outcome of Copenhagen ended up in the loss column.
Joel Dreyfuss is managing editor of The Root.