Monday, March 29, 2010

Failure at Copenhagen?

The recently concluded climate change meeting in Copenhagen is portrayed by many, if not most, as a great failure at many scales, and one that interests me is the scale of public international law.

Some wonder why the global community was able to agree to ban the use of chemical and biological weapons in war and yet fail to agree on reductions to the emission of green house gases. Assuming for the moment that the science of man’s central contribution to the problem is solid – recall that humans were believed to be the center of the universe at other times in history and Galileo was tried and convicted of heresy for suggesting the truth was something else – the reference to the Geneva Convention is apt, but not for the reasons usually stated.

The problem is, I submit, that lay persons and maybe some experts expect too much of international agreements like the ones sought at Copenhagen. The New York Times reported that the agreement finally patched together in Copenhagen by President Obama and leaders from China, India, Brazil, South Africa set a commitment to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 Fahrenheit. Am I the only one to believe that such arrogance rivals that of Galileo’s accusers?

The best example, I think, of the apparent futility of such agreements is the treaty signed in 1928 by which the states that exercised sovereign power over essentially the entire planet renounced war and pledged to resolve all future disputes peacefully. The full text of Articles I and II is set forth here:

. The High Contracting Parties solemnly declare in the names of their respective peoples that they condemn recourse to war for the solution of international controversies, and renounce it, as an instrument of national policy in their relations with one another.

The High Contracting Parties agree that the settlement or solution of all disputes or conflicts of whatever nature or of whatever origin they may be, which may arise among them, shall never be sought except by pacific means.

Its promises were simply and unambiguously stated; it was ratified by the US Senate by a vote of 85-1, and I believe it is still the law today.

As it would happen, we know that the states of the world began to ignore its promises almost before the treaty’s ink was dry.

So, it seems to me that Copenhagen should not be seen as a failure but rather as proof that public international law is best created, not by top down agreements from world leaders who promise too much, but rather by the accretion of consistent state practice and an acknowledged sense of obligation. Those things must happen on a local scale before they can acquire global significance.