COPENHAGEN -- The U.N. global warming summit became a myth long before it happened. By the time it closed with a compromise to acknowledge a U.S.-brokered accord, the two weeks of intrigue, chaos and divisiveness had shattered for many the idealized notion of a global consensus to tackle climate change.
The week started with a maneuver by the tiny island nation of Tuvalu to block work until it could be assured the 1997 Kyoto Protocol would be preserved as leaders tried to craft a new climate pact. It ended with Venezuela and Sudan leading resistance against a compromise, forcing an all-night fight.
At the tortured end of the process, all countries but five agreed to "take note" of the nonbinding Copenhagen Accord molded by the United States, China, Brazil, South Africa and India. In the accord, the major emitters promise to cut emissions, note the pledges in a global registry and submit to international verification.
"It was a zoo," Natsource Managing Director Dirk Forrister said, emerging from the plenary after country leaders waging the 10-hour battle finally agreed to lay down their microphones and fly home.
The U.N. process, which works by consensus, and in which one dissenting nation has the power to hit the pause button on a global summit, "didn't seem to work well this time. Nobody felt good about it," Forrister said. "This was a really pivotal moment in climate diplomacy where a small band of opponents could oppose something everyone else wanted."
He's hardly the only one raising questions in the wake of Copenhagen climate talks about the United Nations' role.
"This process is not particularly well-suited for the problem it's supposed to confront," said Michael Levi, climate and energy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. He called the complexity of engineering 193 countries to discuss not just reducing emissions, but also leveraging financing, technology and a range of other issues, "forbidding."
Possibility of alternate forums
Even Andrew Light, climate policy coordinator at the liberal Center for American Progress, is openly questioning the United Nations now, telling Reuters over the weekend that "we need to start investigating other options, or at a minimum start using some alternative forums."
The alternatives being pitched: the Major Economies Forum, which brought together the world's leading greenhouse gas emitters, including China, India, Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia and major industrialized countries and blocs like the United States, the European Union, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Korea, Mexico, the United Kingdom and Russia. It might also involve bilateral agreements, the Group of 20 or regional groups, Levi said.
"The idea that one institution can do all the work flies in the face of not just the last two weeks, but a basic analysis of the problem," he said. Levi and others argued that while the United Nations may be a key forum to address a range of climate issues, the main work of coordinating emission reductions may fall into the hands of the biggest global warming polluters.
That comes close to the take Republicans have had for some time, and in fact, former President Bush launched the Major Economies Forum (then known as the Major Emitters Forum) as a possible coalition to work outside the U.N. process. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) questioned while he was there Copenhagen's underlying premise that the world needs a U.N. climate pact.
"I don't think the world needs an international agreement," Barton told E&E. "I think it would be much more practical to do things bilaterally."
U.N. officials, meanwhile, strongly defended the body's role as the only one in which every country has an equal voice. Robert Orr, U.N. assistant secretary-general for policy, noted that African nations, the least-developed country bloc, and the small island states ultimately agreed to the Copenhagen Accord.
"This is a very diverse group," he said. "This is not the kind of process that one would see if this was just the major economies." Orr said that some of the world's largest countries "were influenced very directly by many of the small players."
"Because this was a U.N. process, everyone could have a foot in the door and make their points and could carry their points," he said.
Environmental activists who work closely with the U.N. process appeared divided in the roller-coaster hours before a final decision.
Alden Meyer, climate policy director for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the United Nations "clearly has its flaws," namely "the ability of certain players to bring the whole process to a halt." Meyer said he and others were asking themselves, as they watched the fights play out, "what are the ramifications of what happened here for the broader multilateral process?"
Doubts about the U.N. process by an insider
Even Michael Zammit Cutajar of Malta, who chairs a key U.N. climate panel, said he suffers doubts about the process.
"It's tough to keep the belief in it," Cutajar told E&E. But, he said, "I don't see any other [process] that can bring the world together. This has to be done with everybody in it."
Elliot Diringer, vice president of international strategies for the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, said it's inconsistent for lawmakers to call for working outside the U.N. process while insisting that America can't act before India, China or other countries.
Meanwhile, a legally binding emissions agreement just among the Major Economies Forum members might deliver the action the atmosphere needs but fail to address equity issues for vulnerable countries.
"We have this established forum, and countries attach great importance to it," Diringer said. The MEF, he said, "suffers legitimacy problems because it excludes the victims ... who have a genuine stake and want a seat at the table."
Small countries feel 'railroaded'
Saleem Huq, a leading advocate of developing countries in the climate talks, faulted rich countries for going outside the U.N. process. While about 30 leaders met, many representing blocs of nations like the African group or small island states, none were given time to go back and sell the Copenhagen Accord to their constituents before it was presented to the entire body as a fait accompli. In actuality, all 193 countries were going to be asked to vote to adopt it.
Indeed, even countries that ultimately backed the plan fumed for hours. Sitting at a table outside the plenary session near midnight Friday, a group of leaders from Bangladesh said they were furious that leaders -- and news reports -- were discussing the Copenhagen Accord as if it were already a done deal.
Large countries, Huq said, "totally disregarded the legitimacy of the process and railroaded the smaller countries." They blocked movement for hours with parliamentary moves, he said, "using the only weapon left of the poor and vulnerable."
Huq acknowledged that the U.N. process is inefficient. But, he argued, "it is legitimate, and efficiency doesn't override legitimacy."
That could be the battle of the coming year. Levi said small countries might have to decide if they want a voice at the table, or a solution to atmospheric warming.
"It's important for countries to have a voice, but it is not critical for countries to have a voice on every issue," he said.