The Copenhagen talks may have failed to produce a deal — when the Mail & Guardian went to press that certainly looked likely — but they have succeeded too: climate change now cannot be viewed outside the register of geopolitical morality.
Amid all the equivocation and all the complexity of these talks one thing is certain: carbon emissions must be capped and atmospheric concentrations of CO2 returned below 350 parts per million — the level that poses the least risk to the global climate.
The world needs an ambitious and legally binding agreement which places most of the burden on the developed world, while requiring of poorer countries a credible commitment to cleaner growth.
That now looks unlikely.
The villains of this moral fable are easily identified.
The United States, deeply in conflict with its own conscience, has, despite the convictions of President Barack Obama, failed to realise that with great power comes great responsibility. It may eventually emerge as a hero, but right now it is failing as a global leader.
Canada and Australia are closer to the dark side, battling at every turn to block a deal that might threaten the structure of their carbon-intensive economies and blaming the developing world for insisting on the special responsibility of the rich.
In the meantime China’s new status as a superpower has never been more evident than it is in Copenhagen. Threats on Thursday by the world’s biggest carbon emitter to pull out could either save the conference or ruin it.
As for the Europeans, they have been smugly superior, as usual, but their insistence on extending the Kyoto protocol into a deal of any kind has been destructive.
Amid these great power squabbles are the clear victims — the small island states that will sink beneath the waves if sea levels rise as they are expected to. They stand to lose everything, and speeches by the presidents of the Maldives and Nauru have been heart-wrenching.
The Africa group, too, is brutally exposed to the impact of climate change and ill-equipped to cope. African leaders too have been on the side of a tough deal.
South Africa, as ever, was trying to play the mediator.
Robert Mugabe said at the conference that he couldn’t understand why Western nations were so concerned about human rights and so blithe about climate change.
He was right to ask — and that should deeply shame the opponents of a deal. Let’s hope they don’t let his question stand as the epitaph to Copenhagen.