Putting a Price on the Environment

When world leaders converged on Copenhagen in 2009 to replace the Kyoto Protocol, optimism soared. The Protocol, adopted in 1997 and initially set to expire in 2012, committed almost 200 countries to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Yet the planet continued to face a calamitous, inequitable future: The people who contributed the least to climate change were being wrecked by its disasters while possessing the fewest resources to respond. Meanwhile, the global temperature continued to rise.

Though heads of state typically had not participated in these meetings, many showed up in Copenhagen, including newly elected President Barack Obama. But expectations that a solution would be realized soon plummeted.

For Marilyn Power’s yearlong seminar, “The Economics of the Environment,” students became familiar with several relevant schools of economic thought and read divergent opinions on specific case studies. The class examined ongoing policy debates about air pollution and global warming, the decimation of the world’s fish population, automobiles and the reliance on petrochemicals, the feasibility of sustainable development, and other concerns.

In the following discussion, students ask questions related to the Copenhagen Accord and analyze answers from the perspective of political economists, who look at issues in the context of competing interest groups and systems: Why did low-income, low-emitting countries consent to climate change frameworks that don’t benefit them? How did power play a role? Who were the major actors in the process of negotiation? What role did the global recession play? And, perhaps most important: Can we even know what happened and why it happened?

Power: The US was seen as having a history of pushing other countries around, especially poorer countries. … But now … from the world’s point of view, here’s an American president who has ties to the rest of the world, who may have more intuitive understanding of the rest of the world, a more respectful relationship. ... There were all sorts of reasons initially for optimism. What started happening in Copenhagen?

Rose Walsh ’18: There was massive political division, and people were trying to fight against the US and other major powers dominating environmental decisions, when they were the largest emitters of CO2 in the world versus the people who were being affected. … So they started holding discussions without major powers like the US.

Power: … Right. So you begin to get these alliances for better and worse … because, in fact, on this issue of climate change, different countries have different interests. … What had been expected to be a consensus, a great triumph, fell apart into bitterness and wrangling. …

President Obama had been trying with no success to get meetings with China all day. Learning that BASIC (the alliance between Brazil, South Africa, India, and China) was meeting, he and Secretary Clinton entered the meeting uninvited, and the group collectively created the Copenhagen Accord, without the participation of the rest of the nations at the conference. What was this Copenhagen Accord?

Lily Ginsburg ’19: Using Gramscian theory, the accord needed to give the appearance of conceding some things to the G77 (a loose coalition of developing nations), the least developed countries, the Pacific Island countries, while still protecting [BASIC and US] interests. … One of the biggest concessions they gave was that they would provide aid for these countries to combat climate change and its biggest effects, and compensation for industry loss. …

Power: … So this becomes a shift from mitigation to adaptation. We’re going to help you adapt to the damage, and we’re going to make voluntary pledges to reduce carbon. … In 2009, when I sent my students away for winter break, I said, “When you come back, bring me an essay on what happened in Copenhagen.” They varied from “Obama sold out, he betrayed the developing world” to “Obama saved the conference from complete debacle.” You get this whole contradictory range of accounts. …

Ginsburg: For me it matters less what happened in that moment, but it’s what the US did from then on to get [the accord] signed that I really have a problem with.

Power: … That’s where we’re headed now, into Chapter 4, “Manufacturing Consent.” What does that mean?

Ahad Ali Syed ’20: Forced agreement.

Chloe Briggs ’17: It’s interesting that you would use the word “forced,” because to me “manufactured” doesn’t make me think “forced.” It’s not natural consent. If you say “consent,” you think, “Oh, I just kind of fell into this feeling,” while manufacturing feels more deliberate and more covert at the same time.

Power: Strategic. That’s [the authors’] word. And it’s true—you can’t force consent, actually. You can put people in positions where, of all the options available, consent seems like the best option. But you must engage them. … It’s a Gramscian three-part process of negotiating consent. … What are the three parts? …

Elena Tinschert ’18: Financial benefits.

Ginsburg: [Compensate poorer, low-resource countries for] lost industry. …

Ariana Datta ’19: [Compensate for] environmental damages.

Tinschert: [Compensate for] the cost of adapting [to new sources of energy].

Power: … What’s the second part?

Nathan Kim ’16: Norm alignment, through methods like bribery. Gramsci calls it a hegemonic position, because it’s aligning of general consensus.

Power: Aligning of values. But notice that for values to align, it isn’t just that the dominated country must change its position to match the dominator.

Kim: The promise of financial reimbursement was what the developed countries were offering, but still it wasn’t enough to completely please the countries most affected by [climate] change.

Power: … If you go back and read President Obama’s speech on the last day of the Copenhagen meetings, he acknowledges the vulnerability of the poorer countries and the responsibility of the richer countries to compensate them. … This is an accepting of responsibility, acknowledging the existence of damage—rhetorically. … So norm alignment is tricky because there can be this disconnect between what you say and what you do. … And the third part?

Tess Cronin ’19: Taking into account how the US or other countries have traded with these developing countries, or been an imperial influence.

“[The least developed countries] started thinking that bad rules are better than no rules.”

Power: So you’re a developing country and trying to decide whether you should sign on to this accord, and the developed country you have historic ties to and trade with and depend upon says, “I really hope you’re going to sign this accord.” … You’re much more likely to sign the accord. …

Ginsburg: We went so far … that when [countries] didn’t sign on, we cut their aid. That was amazing to me, that then this threat was carried through.

Power: Yes. And you have to do that very visually to make things like that work. … So there are all these structural processes of manufacturing consent. …

Kim: … [The least developed countries] started thinking that bad rules are better than no rules.