Biography photo of Interviewee.

Q&A With Michael Levi on the Copenhagen Conference

Michael Levi

  • Country: The United States
  • Title: Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations
  • Education: Queen's University, Princeton University, University of London
  • Books: On Nuclear Terrorism (2007), The Future of Arms Control (2005)

Dan: In your articles leading up to the Copenhagen conference, there is a fair amount of criticism of other countries, especially China. There does not, however, seem to be an equally critical view of the United States, both for its status as the world's largest historical polluter and the lukewarm attitude of the U.S. government and people in addressing this problem. Many people around the world have concluded that the United States is trying to evade its responsibilities. Do you think the United States can continue to dictate the behavior of others while not doing anything substantial itself?

A: The United States needs to step up its own efforts if it is to be effective internationally. Recent moves to tighten automobile fuel-economy standards, bolster clean technology through the stimulus package, and threaten Environmental Protection Agency regulation are steps in that direction, but the United States will need comprehensive climate and energy legislation if it wants to be a genuine leader. This will be necessary not only to cut its own emissions but also to deliver on promises of money to help with mitigation and adaptation that it has recently made to others.

Daniel Gyurta: Copenhagen revealed huge gaps between stakeholders when it comes to the scale of the climate crisis and what individual countries must do about it. Does that mean that the United States should give up the idea of international agreements and instead pursue bilateral talks that could form the basis of international norms one day?

A: The United States should not give up on the idea of international agreements, but it needs to pursue its international climate policy through a wide variety of forums. The UN process is severely limited, as I argued in an essay earlier this week. But bilateral talks are not the only substitute. The United States should also work through multilateral institutions such as the G-20 and the Major Economies Forum, as well as through global operating institutions such as the World Bank and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

Nicholas Seeley: Much of the media has declared the Copenhagen conference to be an absolute, dismal failure -- and according to most estimates of what the conference was supposed to accomplish, this seems accurate. Remarks made by Lumumba Di-Aping, the Sudanese diplomat who was the lead negotiator for the G-77 and China, suggest that Copenhagen was a disaster for the developing world. Do these loud declarations of failure and impotence risk derailing public support for the negotiating process? After Copenhagen, will the public give up on climate talks?

A: Di-Aping's comments, which likened Copenhagen to the Holocaust, are reprehensible. The declarations of complete "failure" are unfair -- they are more a reflection of unreasonable expectations than of the actual outcome. (See my original article in Foreign Affairs, for example, for a set of reasonable expectations and goals that have been roughly borne out.) The public may give up on the UN track of climate negotiations; alternatively, it may turn up the volume on its demands. Only time will tell.

Michael Rohfls: Was there any breakthrough at Copenhagen in designating black carbon -- a widespread form of particulate air pollution -- as an emission with "global warming potential," a move that could lead to the establishment of a value for black carbon in emissions-trading systems?

A: No. Progress on black carbon is far more likely to come from the bottom up. Watch for national aid institutions as well as bodies like the UNDP and the United Nations Environment Program to tackle this problem.

Oliver Stolpe: What, if any, progress was made in Copenhagen concerning Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (REDD), the UN program that offers countries incentives to not cut down their forests? Also, were the potential risks of abuse and corruption in REDD payments discussed, along with ways to ensure that these funds contribute to the development of local communities?

A: Copenhagen took three steps forward on REDD before taking one step back. Parties largely agreed to a meaningful legal text on REDD, but it was shelved because no legal outcomes were adopted by the conference; the substance underlying that text, however, survives. Perhaps more important, countries promised that they would aim to raise $100 billion annually by 2020 to deal with mitigation and adaptation in the developing world. I would expect a large part of the U.S. contribution to go toward helping to avoid deforestation. The formal negotiations did not confront the important issues you raise in your second question; those will need to be dealt with as programs are implemented.

Graham Dumas: Many human rights scholars and activists, as well as several indigenous groups and even some countries such as the Maldives, have begun pressing for a human-rights-based approach to climate change, arguing that existing treaties, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and customary international law place binding commitments on states to reduce their carbon emissions. Does this posture help or hinder the movement for a new convention on climate change?

A: I doubt that this will have any impact one way or the other. The bottom line is that polluting countries must see it as being in their interests to reduce emissions. Asserting other legal obligations has not forced them to reduce their emissions thus far; it is not clear how bringing in another claimed obligation from another sphere would change that.

Klaus Kondrup: Given China's role in the negotiations and its reluctance to allow verification of its initiatives to lower emissions, what is the solution to the problem of transparency in the various commitments to come out of Copenhagen?

A: Copenhagen takes a step in the right direction on transparency, but it is one that must be carefully fleshed out if it is to be worthwhile. Countries agreed to "consultation and analysis" on their emissions-cutting efforts. U.S. President Barack Obama compared the agreement on transparency to that under the World Trade Organization's Trade Policy Review Mechanism. If it can be elaborated properly, and if shortcomings of the TPRM can be addressed, such an agreement would deliver a solid outcome. (I made the case for using the TPRM as a partial model for review in a recent paper.)

Simon Bennett: Your article "Copenhagen's Inconvenient Truth" suggested that a comprehensive agreement was too ambitious a goal in Copenhagen but that a more limited agreement on measurement, reporting, and verification (MRV) could potentially be reached. Did negotiators make any headway toward such an agreement, or were any components of an MRV agreement approved?
A: The Copenhagen Accord made important progress on this front; I described some of it in the answer to the previous question. Much, however, remains to be done. States will now need to work out detailed MRV arrangements for actions that receive external support and for "consultation and analysis" procedures for actions that are unilateral.
Lawrence Wheeler: How important is the pending climate-change bill on Capitol Hill? Will a weak piece of legislation in the United States hamper global efforts to move forward, or is significant progress possible regardless of the bill that emerges from Congress next year?
A: The pending bill is extremely important, both for U.S. credibility and for actual emissions reductions. I do not believe that the bills currently being considered are weak. But a substantially weaker bill signaling the United States' inability to deliver on its mitigation or financing promises would hurt U.S. leverage in global efforts going forward.
Bernie Solomon: Did Copenhagen give any indication of how countries that are emerging powers but still relatively poor in per-capita terms, such as China and India, might be able to fast-forward their economic and social development? Many political leaders in the West seem to be urging leaders of such countries to embrace emissions restrictions and other "green" measures as their economies are developing and modernizing, not after. The fear, of course, is that such agreements may end up slowing growth in the developing world. But without them, can China and India truly become regional and global powers? Are there any clues coming out of Copenhagen for how this tension will resolve itself?

A: This is a great question. China and India are becoming true regional and global powers (if they have not already) regardless of what they do about their emissions. What needs to happen is to figure out how to increase their confidence that they can take a different course of modernization. I doubt that this will come simply from the United States and other developed countries setting "an example" -- after all, the developed world is at a very different economic stage, which makes example setting hard. The biggest clue out of Copenhagen on this front points to efforts outside the UN process to confront this problem. Each country's concerns and challenges are different; each one's will need to be addressed separately, something that can't happen with a simple universal deal.


Recent Interviews

Browse All Interviews