December 17, 2009

Copenhagen Climate Crunch and Danish Democratic Style

After the American Century posting #202

It appears that the Danish attempt to formulate a text for the Climate Conference has been rejected. What is going on?

If you have been trying to follow the Copenhagen Climate talks, the proceedings may seem puzzling. Literally for days the delegates waited for a text to discuss. It was being prepared by the Danish hosts, they were told. Yet, in fact, the delegates had themselves prepared documents for discussion, which the Danish leaders wanted to ignore. Stalemate. Inaction. Secret discussions behind closed doors. Frustration among the delegates, who felt that the Danish leadership was ignoring them, with feelings running especially high among the African and Third World nations.

Unfortunately for the rest of the world, the Danes do not understoand or practice democracy in the same way as most other countries. In the Anglo-Saxon world and its former colonies, for example, the person who chairs a meeting should attempt to remain neutral, give all parties an equal chance to speak, and attempt to steer the meeting toward a vote, where there will be winners and losers, but where there will also be a majority decision.

In contrast, Danish leaders who chair a meeting attempt to impose their will on the group, even if it appears to be an open discussion. They want to steer the meeting not merely toward a vote but to a consensus where the outcome of the vote is obvious to all before it is taken. For those steeped in the English or American parliamentary traditions, or something like them, the Danish way of chairing a meeting seems undemocratic, secretive, irritating, high-handed, and counter-productive. To put this another way, most meetings in the Anglo-Saxon world abide by Roberts Rules of Order. Danish meetings, in my 25 years of experience, absolutely do not abide by any such rules.

In the Danish Parliament (Folketing) the coalition in power seeks to impose its decisions on the nation, often with surprisingly little public discussion. The real discussion goes on in private, in party caucuses and in coalition partner meetings. All members of a party are expected to vote the same way. When they emerge from behind their closed doors, they have all their votes lined up and they proceed to ram through the desired law with what I call "symbolic discussion." The result is already known beforehand.

I am not a delegate at the world climate talks, but from the outside it certainly looks as though the Danish leadership, steeped in its own ways of doing business, is trying to make the rest of the world play by Danish rules. And the rest of the world is not buying it. China in particular made it clear they were not going to dance to a Danish imposed tune.

To put this another way, the Danish leadership arrogated to itself too many roles. It wanted to be the host, the chair of the meeting, and also the chief negotiator. They wanted to wear too many hats, and acted according to a democratic model that others are not accustomed to. One could see this last night. The Danish Prime Minister had invited hundreds of wold leaders to a gala evening, to see the Royal Ballet and take some expensive refreshments. But the Prime Minister could not play his role there as host, because he was at the conference all evening, in his roles as chair and negotiator.

The talks are now in their final two days. One hopes that the very real Danish talent for finding compromises (albeit usually behind closed doors) saves the summit meeting from failure. If China and the United States are willing to act together (a very big If), then a historic compromise may emerge. But one thing seems certain. The Danes cannot expect to impose their text on the rest of the world.

Will we get a binding agreement? Will its standards be at least as high as those agreed upon in Kyoto? In other words, will it really make a difference in slowing down global warming? At this moment, it is hard to tell.

One thing we do know for certain: these world leaders came separately in their private jets.