I went out for a celebratory (if that’s the word) drink this week with a heroic band of Seattle Survivors. Ten years ago we were besuited NGO delegates at the notorious WTO ministerial, which collapsed in a welter of tear gas and turtles (or at least people dressed in turtle suits protesting at WTO rulings on the environment). It’s been fascinating watching the ‘battle in Seattle’ become mythologised as some kind of mass uprising against globalization – at the height of the chaos, I did a rough count of the number of activists blocking off access to the conference centre and it came to a couple of thousand at most, and the violence involved no more than a few dozen black-clad, but journo-photogenic anarchists. In the end, the ministerial
collapsed because the Seattle police in their Robocop outfits over-reacted to a ridiculous extent, making up for their lack of plans or equipment for crowd control (they had no crash barriers) by lobbing random volleys of teargas and pepper spray at non-violent protestors (and the odd government minister). Bill Clinton didn’t help when he alienated the developing countries by arguing for a labour clause on the eve of the conference.
It’s hard to imagine anything similar happening in Copenhagen next week, but it is worth comparing the current climate talks with the travails of the Doha round of trade talks that began at the next WTO meeting after Seattle (and staggered on in Geneva this week at yet another ministerial, largely ignored by the press). Like trade talks, climate negotiations have huge implications for domestic lobbies such as industry and finance, so will be much more heavily fought over than agreements on aid or debt that don’t have the same immediate impact. Like trade, the climate change talks involve shifting constellations of developing countries, trying to reconcile the need for unity with the huge objective differences (in terms of emissions and immediate vulnerability) between countries such as China and Bangladesh. Their opponents will try and exploit these differences, playing divide and rule to weaken any agreement.
But there are two big, and scary, differences. In the WTO, blocking bad agreements is not too bad a result – stopping unnecessarily expensive burdens being placed on poor countries, or forced liberalization or encroachment on their ‘policy space’. And for weaker players, it is often easier to stop bad things happening than to get agreement on good things. In the climate talks, only winning a good agreement will be enough – a far harder challenge. And while delay in trade talks is not too much of a problem, in climate change, delay is expensive, if not catastrophic. The IEA argues that every year of delay in moving towards the required trajectory of emission reductions adds an extra $500bn of costs.
A Kal cartoon in the Economist summarizes what happens if Copenhagen goes the way of Doha – if someone’s going to make a ‘Battle in Seattle’ style film, can they call it ‘Doha’d with a vengeance’, with Bruce Willis as Yvo de Boer?