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European leaders say they favour a tax on international transactions as a way of supporting poor countries and achieving a climate change agreement. Courtesy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark

Copenhagen Days Six and Seven

Thinking the unthinkable

By David MacDonald

While marches and ecumenical services were the order of the day this past weekend, behind-the-scenes hints began to surface at how dramatic an occasion this conference might prove to be. Weekend newspapers reported that there might be real progress on the critical issue of the tens of billions of dollars that need to flow to poor countries as part of any new agreement.

It is helpful to compare what is happening here to what did not happen at the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. While Rio did produce agreements on sustainable development as well as biodiversity and climate change, it did not come up with the financing needed to make things happen. Indeed, the fundamental failure of Rio was the reluctance of wealthy nations to finance a global bargain.

This time, an idea which has been around for many years is getting serious consideration. It’s the so-called Tobin Tax. It was first proposed by Nobel economist James Tobin in the early 1970s as a small tax be levied on all international financial transactions. The money would be used to finance development in poor countries. It’s a simple concept, but until recently it has been viewed as utopian and unlikely ever to happen. Now, in the wake of the recent global financial crisis, European leaders such as Gordon Brown of Great Britain and Nicholas Sarkozy of France are suggesting this might be the way to achieve a climate change agreement most could support.

The major public events last weekend were in marked contrast to the informal meetings that have been taking place behind closed doors. Saturday saw a big march and — predictably — lots of arrests. Public presentations in a church square followed on Sunday. Archbishop Desmond Tutu urged everyone to seize the moment and give the world hope. Later, the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke to a packed cathedral.

One of the most moving moments came as prayers were offered for the planet’s recovery. A South Pacific Islander held up a piece of bleached coral. A Zambian displayed some dried maize and a Greenlander a rock uncovered from a melting glacier.

All of these were reminders of the full impact of global climate change. Now the final days have begun and there is much anxiety and anticipation. By Tuesday, we will be into the most serious and difficult negotiations. No one can predict the outcome.

There is only one human family here, but it has yet to find common ground.

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