This is no way to run a planet

William Watson
National Post
December 18, 2009

The leaders in Copenhagen will reach some agreement. Politically, they have to…

As world leaders arrive in Copenhagen, luggage filled with deficit-financed public funds to facilitate the do-or-the-planet-dies climate deal that is the object of this weekend’s last-minute, round-the-clock deliberations, the question arises: Is this any way to run a planet? “Deliberation” is not the right word, by the way. Nothing done by 200 negotiators at three o’clock in the morning on an artificial deadline will be deliberate. Yet deliberate is exactly what’s needed when contemplating large-scale changes in how the world — the world, the whole world — does business.

Even if your level of warming skepticism doesn’t reach as high as the average on this page, you’ve got to wonder whether last-minute all-nighters are the best way to do anything serious. Remember how we got the Meech Lake Accord: Brian Mulroney locked the premiers up and wouldn’t give them access to a bathroom until they’d made a deal. Or think of how the U.S. is reforming health care. It’s a political bazaar involving one president and 535 sole-proprietor politicians in Congress. Their handiwork is now at 2,000 pages and counting and only someone taking heavy doses of imagination-enhancing drugs could believe the new system they’re designing will work right.

Now multiply that by 200 countries (albeit some of them with not many more than 535 people), let many of the countries (such as ours) send over a full range of domestic political actors so that all their usual domestic peccadilloes are played out before the whole world, add in several hundred NGOs, almost as many big corporations, unknown numbers of guerilla-comedy groups, thousands of increasingly agitated protestors (many probably funded, at least indirectly, by the governments they despise), and thousands more reporters all looking for stories that are novel, dramatic and, the one absolute requirement, photogenic, and tie it all up with last-minute fly-ins by 120 heads of government and the chance of anything reasonable being decided is about as great as the chance of  Al Gore and Bjorn Lomborg or David Suzuki and Larry Solomon agreeing on global warming.

Deep inside any good economist there’s a little bit of anarchist: we don’t mind disorder, we favour letting people go their own ways. But what’s going on in Copenhagen seems just crazy. The lead news story Tuesday — the very first story among all the things that had happened in the whole world that day — was how a comedy group, the Yes Men (not even the Yes People), had scammed the Canadian government by putting out a press release written on official-looking Government of Canada stationery and posted on an official-looking Government of Canada website that announced a big new shift in Canadian climate policy toward Africa. How droll! How clever!

It seems all reporters have now had courses in post-modernism, so instead of this being a bit of an outrage, and certainly a joke on the media people who initially fell for it, it turned into significant commentary — which is what reporters aren’t actually supposed to do — on the Canadian government’s supposedly inadequate climate policies. I say “supposedly” on the off chance you haven’t yet bought into the revealed media truth that our policies are in fact extremely inadequate. All the NGOs say they are, so they must be. Or at least that’s what the average reporter on the Copenhagen beat seems to think.

The average reporter had better wake up and understand that for a certain demographic out here, when this-or-that environmental group gives the Government of Canada its daily satiric award for inadequate greenhouse-gas policies, that actually persuades us that the Government’s refreshing refusal to play the hypocritical promise-anything-deliver-nothing game is really what the world needs more of.

The Government of Canada we can have some respect for. Not unconditional respect, as readers will know, but some. It was elected by several million Canadian voters. In devising its policies it probably heeds the opinions of several hundred thousand more who didn’t vote for it last time but whose minds it hopes to change next time round. But no Canadian voted for the Yes Men. Despite years of trying, the Canadian political party the Yes Men most likely favour (the Greens) hasn’t won a single seat in parliament, out of more than 300 available, this despite its leader’s dramatic overexposure in the media. Why does the Yes Men’s opinion — on anything, let alone a public policy question of considerable importance — merit our attention?

Likewise, although Silvio Berlusconi was elected by several million Italians, because his politics are not modishly Left and because he has a Tiger-ish attitude toward women, when some deranged activist breaks his nose and knocks out a couple of his teeth by hurling a souvenir at him, that is occasion, not for outrage or for universal condemnation of violence displacing democratic politics, but for something very close to amusement.

I suppose the 120 leaders will come up with a document to sign in Copenhagen. The political and media stakes are too high for them not to. We can only hope what they do sign will have been worked out weeks ago, behind closed doors, before their visit to the Copenhagen Zoo.

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