Copenhagen Diary: “Martial Law Is The Only Answer”

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Oh, to be China for a Day.
Oh, to be China for a Day.

When I picked up my newspaper this morning, I was met by a startling front page headline: “Permanent political martial law is the only viable answer to the climate catastrophe”.

The headline belonged to the Danish newspaper Information which today released a mock issue from the year 2059. Combining humor and horror, the issue was written as if the upcoming Copenhagen Climate Conference (COP15) had been a failure 50 years earlier.

The Problem with Democracy

The funny (or tragic) thing is that the headline is not all that farfetched. If you remove the word ‘permanent’, it runs close to Thomas Friedman’s dream of being “China for a day”. The idea is that at least totalitarian politicians can get painful legislation passed. Democratic politicians often fail due to political self-preservation. We have seen that failure for many years in the climate debate, most notoriously with the U.S. Congress’ rebuke of the Kyoto agreement in 1997.

A strong climate bill can be painful in the short-term, especially in some areas. If you come out in favor of green energy as a congressman of say, Wyoming, don’t count on getting re-elected. So instead, you look out for your own: “The Maldives might sink, but damn if I’m gonna lose my re-election. Let’s burn some coal!”

This is a fundamental problem with protectionist democracies; they are based on the failed notion that the common good is equal to the shared sum of everyone’s self-interest.

State of Denial

In effect, we primarily care about that which tangibly affects our own lives. Fuel prices are tangible. Global warming isn’t. That is – it won’t be until prices skyrocket on third world products and displacement of resources fuels another 9/11 — too bad we have to learn the hard way.

Health care and the regulatory reform are more tangible. “I want to go to the hospital. I want our nation’s banking system to work so I can get a mortgage.” The reforms will keep politicians busy until after COP15 in December. In other words: no climate bill.

When Copenhagen Fails

As a result, Todd Stern, the US Special Envoy for Climate Change will arrive in Copenhagen with no congressional mandate – just like Clinton did. Without US backing, COP15 will at best kick the can down the road. At worst, it will stifle the climate debate by passing an inadequate agreement. Either way, COP15 will fail.

At some point, congressional politicians need to put long-term goals ahead of short-term politics. They must pass the painful legislation, even if it goes against the will of their constituents and infringes on our personal freedoms. In other words, they must act a little more like China.

Of course it would be political suicide. But martial law may be the only answer to avoid a climate catastrophe.

Niolai is MYD’s foreign correspondent. He’s conveniently located in Copenhagen and will be reporting on the lead-up to COP15 and give us an on-the-ground perspective to what’s going on at the world’s most important climate change negotiations since Kyoto.

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