Beware snap judgments on U.N. climate conferences’ successes or failures – it is more complicated than most people think

Blog, Disruption, Tom Harris

The most realistic assessment of the successes of the Doha Climate Change Conference were provided by Connie Hedegaard, European commissioner for climate action in the European Commission. Her summary (see here) should be viewed as a serious warning to anyone who thinks the climate scare has run off the rails.

Like nearly everything in the climate debate, it is exceptionally difficult for someone not intimately familiar with the machinations of large international climate gatherings to determine if they are a success or a failure, or, more likely, something in between. Nearly everyone reporting on the issue has a vested interest in one point of view or another and many simply do not understand the intricacies of the meetings well enough to properly assess them.

  • The United Nations and national governments want to boost their images as savers of the world in the eyes of the public and the press. They may act desperate when speaking with reporters during the conference so as to keep up the pressure on delegates to agree to a deal. But, when the event is over, UN and government officials usually inflate the final results so that even minor progress is presented as major triumphs. After all, they must demonstrate to ratepayers that they are getting their money’s worth so that they can keep their jobs and continue to meet in exotic, and hugely expensive, locals.
  • Mass Media want to be the first on the block to say something exciting to generate headlines and so media sales and consequent advertising revenue, their real bread and butter. They are in intense competition with other media outlets and so often rush to publish before checking the facts, or, at times, even letting the facts unfold. We see this often when conferences are pronounced a failure or a success before they are even over.
  • Industrialists usually want to portray climate conferences in which they participate as hugely successful. This is to boost their green credentials as facilitators of environmental progress but also in the hopes of reducing the pressure to do even more. Companies that sell alternative energy will usually describe climate conferences as successful so as to boost their stock.
  • Environmental Nongovernmental Organizations (ENGOs) always want more—more money, more environmental protection, more damage to developed nations—no matter how successful the meetings are. So, one must expect long faces from ENGOs even when significant progress is made. Months later, they will boast to funders about how it was their pressure that made the meetings a success, but, in public at least, ENGOs are never satisfied so they nearly always portray meetings as falling way short of expectations.
  • Opponents to ENGOs, “climate realists” or “skeptics” as they are referred to in the press, must be careful in deciding how to portray the outcome of meetings. Because skeptics want climate activists to “give up and go home” and also must show progress to their own supporters if they are to continue to be funded, there is a temptation to announce that conferences “collapsed in total failure”. But they need to recognize that funding for skeptics will also dry up if donors become convinced that the climate scare is mostly over. The best approach for climate realists is to be realistic about the outcome.

In that vein, what is a realistic conclusion about the impact of the Doha Climate Change Conference?

The claims by the World Wildlife Fund that Doha was a “failure” (see here) was predictable of course, but wrong. There was no chance of Doha accomplishing any grand deal to “stop climate change.” Similarly, the reports of utter collapse by media and climate skeptics were a mistake as well.

The underlying assumption at all such U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) events is that a man-made climate crisis is looming and nothing less than a revolution in the way we generate energy is urgently needed to “save the planet.” No matter what direction science and technology is actually headed, no UN delegate dare oppose this, the UNFCCC creed.

If UNFCCC Conference of the Parties national representatives has said they didn’t support the UN climate creed and left the meeting early in anger with nothing decided, then one could one legitimately claim that the conference collapsed. But nothing of the sort happened and, as I explained in my FCPP blog OpEd here, many significant “advances” towards a global climate treaty were secured.

The most realistic assessment to appear in main stream media was that published about a week after the conference ended, written by Connie Hedegaard, European commissioner for climate action in the European Commission. She told climate campaigners:

“Yes progress was slow and frustrating, but the main goal was to prepare the ground for the big 2015 talks. Job done.”

Hedegaard continued:

“The Doha climate conference was not a spectacular conference deciding on the 2015 global climate deal, which seems to have come as a surprise to some commentators and environmental groups.

“But nobody should be surprised. All countries agreed last year in Durban that the climate conferences between then and 2015 would set the stage for the big deal in 2015.”

Hedegaard goes on to list the most realistic objectives of the conference and how they were accomplished. It is a list well worth studying – see “Why the Doha climate conference was a success” in the December 14, 2012 version of the U.K.’s Guardian.

We must pressure our elected representatives to put a halt to Canada’s involvement in the slowly spreading cancer of an international climate agreement that everyone, including Environment Minister Peter Kent, says we want to achieve by 2015.


Tom Harris is Executive Director of the International Climate Science Coalition, and a Research Fellow to the Frontier Centre for Public Policy in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.