So who or what is to blame for the failure of the Copenhagen gathering to achieve what most people hoped for? Polly Toynbee says that the nature of politics is to blame. Personally I blame U2’s Bono. I don’t blame him for the failure of world leaders to agree a legally-binding agreement, of course. But I do blame him for the unrealistic expectations that were raised in the run-up to the meeting.
Issue-based campaigning, of which the climate change movement is the latest example, came into its own with the debt-relief campaign of Jubilee 2000, which the Irish singer spearheaded. Since then, every global issue has been approached in much the same way as Jubilee 2000: through a mass-based, awareness-raising campaign which culminates in one meeting, be it the G8 meeting in Gleneagles or Copenhagen this year, where key politicians are meant to meet, succumb to the pressure and agree a new policy. As Bono put it to George W Bush, he went to see the US president "with 3.8 billion people in our back pockets" – the Live8 audience.
But there is a problem with this. Though million-person, awareness-raising campaigns can bring pressure on politicians, and may help NGOs obtain funding and a public profile, the approach does not lend itself to every issue. Indeed, Bono-style campaigns do not lend themselves to the issue of climate change for at least three reasons.
The first problem is that it’s simply too difficult to understand the science behind climate change, and many people, like myself, simply struggle to make any real sense out of the different arguments. So when it comes to getting fired-up, only the most committed get involved – but, by definition, they look slightly mad to the rest of us. Even though, on balance, I believe that climate change is happening and man has played a role in this, I would not want to be associated with the anti-democratic, anti-capitalist lunatics who tried to storm the Bella Center.
But even if more people understood the issues involved, or became more concerned about them, would it matter? Probably not. Because the greatest “culprits” – the US and Chinese governments – are not subject to the same kind of pressure European governments are. In the US, the majority of the population does not believe that climate change is man-made and, in China, unsanctioned protests are illegal. So the pressure on either government is limited. In Europe, there is plenty of well-organised pressure on governments, but the EU is not the biggest “culprit” and was not the obstacle in Copenhagen. So here too there is a limit to using awareness-raising campaigns.
Finally, if governments hope to change Co2 emissions – while avoiding entrepreneur-destroying policies – it will require change for a lot of individuals and cost a lot of money. Herein lie the differences between the Jubilee 2000 campaign or anti-AIDS efforts. The policies will cost a lot of money at a time when a lot of people are feeling poor. No wonder that even those who understand the science, and are worried, remain reluctant to pressure for change.
There is still room for the kind of campaigning pioneered by Bono. But it did not work in the run-up to the Copenhagen, and probably never will in the case of climate change. What it did, however, was create a lot of unrealistic expectations in the West – and create a big political headache for those, like Gordon Brown, who staked a lot on reaching a deal.