What Leaders Can Learn from Copenhagen and Davos

The back-to-back failure of two world forums-Copenhagen and Davos–should give every leader pause to consider the difficulty of making change in today's political world.

The Copenhagen Climate Conference and the Davos World Economic Forum failed to come to meaningful closure largely for similar reasons:

1. The politics of nation states trumped global concerns.

Elected officials remain in power only if they advance the interests of their nation first. If those interests are in alignment with the interests of others then – and only then–can some progress be made.

Even Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, is worried: "It has taken 12 years to build Basel (regulations) but we don't have 12 years to build financial reform today. We need to speed up."

It will take enlightened leadership however to “speed up.” Enlightened leadership is only possible through enlightened followers. As our economic and environmental problems escalate, we will see a rapid decline in public support for the politics of self-interest. We need to support our leaders to take into account both short-term domestic issues and long term global issues.

2. There is no mechanism for legally binding agreements.

Change is easier said than done. Conferences like Davos and Copenhagen have certain structural weaknesses. They are relatively short in duration and have limitations of what can actually be accomplished.

President Obama confirmed that change is difficult at a news conference following the failure at Copenhagen. "This is hard within countries," he said. "This is going to be even harder between countries." Ditto for global economic reform.

It may seem more efficient to bargain behind closed doors, like at the G20, than in public. But public forums bring far broader representation to the table, voices that must be heard for real system-wide solutions to arise.

Government, NGO's, businesses and institutions, artists and citizens all have important contributions to make in designing a preferred future that can bridge short-term economic realities and long-term sustainability requirements.

Events like Davos and Copenhagen have an important part to play in designing this preferred future, but ‘event mentality’ alone is insufficient. Commitments must be made by leaders in politics, business, science and the arts to the long march to change through a process that supports continuous progress.

3. The relationship between governments and corporations block change. 

 Governments and corporations are largely suspicious and resentful of each other- like cats and dogs. Corporations see governments as either instruments or barriers to profitability.Governments see corporations as either instruments or barriers to power.

The recent financial crisis escalated the mistrust between these institutions. Real dialogue and effective collaboration is impaired when suspicion and defensiveness obstruct the development of a shared vision for positive change.

Dialogue between business and government is critical if we are to find our way to creative solutions for sustainability — economically and environmentally. Everyone has too much to lose to allow suspicion and reactivity to set the agenda.

The real barrier to progress is not the greed of some bankers, which is bad, but easier to address. The greater difficulty lies in finding a means to protect the shorter-term financial viability of businesses that must change to meet the new global realities.

Greater trust between governments and corporations will support the collaboration necessary to effectively navigate this difficult geography.

4. The interests of the most powerful impede progress.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown blamed the failure of Copenhagen on the two biggest players at the table, the United States and China. The London Telegraph quoted Mr. Brown at length:

“Never again should we face the deadlock that threatened to pull down those talks; never again should we let a global deal to move towards a greener future be held to ransom by only a handful of countries.

“One of the frustrations for me was the lack of a global body with the sole responsibility for environmental stewardship. I believe that in 2010 we will need to look at reforming our international institutions to meet the common challenges we face as a global community."

Citing a lack of ambition by the larger countries, Mr. Brown hit the nail on the head when he suggested that resistance by major powers stalls the process. On top of that, there is currently no mechanism to hold them accountable for their failure to lead rather than lag behind.

Of course, consumerism is as powerful a force as any to deliver messages of non-confidence. Nations that block progress could pay a price and public opinion is forming against the products and services that come from those countries. Consumer boycotts have happened in the past for political reasons; they may again play a part in influencing countries and industries to align with enlightened ecological or financial governance objectives.

5. Who is responsible?

Of course the answer here is obvious: “not us.” One of the biggest weaknesses of the current process to make change is identified very clearly by Gordon Brown. There is no governance model that has enough jurisdiction or muscle to make change happen quickly. Daniel Gross writes in Slate Magazine that finger pointing keeps the dynamic going and does nothing to build greater accountability:

“Just as financial markets in the United States privatize profits and socialize losses, Davos and other conferences like this privatize success (by chalking it up to individuals) and socialize failure (by blaming it on large systemic problems).”

This is like nailing jelly to a wall and undermines the commitment of serious participants in the search for change. Like stalling, finger pointing is effective to a point. It takes attention away from solution making and turns it to the search for the guilty, all of who deny responsibility.

What on earth is the answer?

If no one is responsible, clearly everyone is responsible. Those that seek to block progress, or who wish to debate what constitutes progress ad infinitum, need to realize that they do so at their peril. The cynical believe that the populace is largely passive or preoccupied with financial difficulties. That vision will prove shortsighted. Eventually, they will be voted from office, fired from their leadership posts, or left behind to compost in the furrows of history.

Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

Posted on February 1, 2010 .