Will the US still be the Skunk at the Copenhagen Lawn Party?

Expectations are high that the United States will sign onto a Copenhagen Treaty (“son of Kyoto”) and President Obama will triumphantly bring ‘change we can believe in’ home for approval by two-thirds of the cheering senators ending the long period of “just say no” isolation.

Given the difficulties the Administration is having in getting the Waxman-Markey cap and trade bill passed here at home, the odds of Senate approval of a Copenhagen Treaty are worth about as much as an EU allowance today—that is not much.  But expect pressure to build fiercely for passage of something Obama can take to Copenhagen in December.

Lessons from Chairman Waxman

There are, however, lessons for Copenhagen in the Waxman-Markey debate and vote gathering process.  Those lessons are you must spend like there will truly be no tomorrow to buy the votes necessary to get the bill passed before the estimates of what it will cost the economy in virtually every sector become known and understood on Main Street in the US and likely in every other capital or province or prefect around the world.

Speed is the only path to victory—and don’t give them time to actually read the bill.

The biggest risk for both the US and EU in the Copenhagen Framework, in my judgment, is NOT whether they agree to a new treaty or not.  Politicians, being good at their sport, will produce some kind of agreement that shows progress on the issues and position themselves to live to fight another day for what can not be agreed to in December 2009, just as Copenhagen is, itself, a way to finesse what could not be achieved in Kyoto.  This is diplomacy at its best—making nice and doing no lasting harm that will hit the fan on the signing politicians’ watch.

IP Blood-letting Risk Ahead

No, the biggest risk in Copenhagen is that the US and EU will be bled of intellectual property rights, patents and technology that BRIC countries and others will use NOT to reduce emissions, per se, but to improve their competitive position against the developed countries.[1] Let’s face it, IP is not well respected in many parts of the world and technology transfers have military as well as civilian uses.  The UN cares little about this, but the US should care a lot about it.  If a treaty emerges from Copenhagen without sufficient parallel protections for IP, patents and other similarly enforceable protections it could do more harm than good to advanced technology applications.

We are already seeing this mating dance for intellectual property access playing out today in these consultative meetings.  Costa Rica presented a working paper on the subject to begin the negotiations.[2] It was put quite benignly as follows, “Due to the historical responsibility of developed countries, they must ensure financial support as well as technology development and transfer to support action on mitigation and adaptation in developing countries.”  Translation: You must pay us to play.

India has also suggested that there is need for the developed countries to enable a “buy-in” for India’s participation in Copenhagen.  A ‘what’s in this for us’ argument will be repeated often over this countdown period and is likely to be the quid pro quo for a deal in Copenhagen in December. [3]

But the Copenhagen conference should be closely watched to prevent an agreement that results from the convenient intersection of the self-serving interests of politicians pandering for votes on emissions reduction from being achieved by creating a framework to redistribute intellectual property rights as the price for that short term political gain.


[1] http://www.ip-watch.org/weblog/2009/04/17/speakers-discuss-technology-transfer-for-climate-change-within-academic-settings/

[2] http://unfccc.int/resource/docs/2009/cop15/eng/06.pdf

[3] http://en.cop15.dk/news/view+news?newsid=1507