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21 Dec 2009

Copenhagen: Things Fall Apart and an Uncertain Future Looms

The Copenhagen summit turned out to be little more than a charade, as the major nations refused to make firm commitments or even engage in an honest discussion of the consequences of failing to act.
By bill mckibben

It’s possible that human beings will simply never be able to figure out how to bring global warming under control — that having been warned about the greatest danger we ever faced, we simply won’t take significant action to prevent it. That’s the unavoidable conclusion of the conference that staggered to a close in the early hours of Saturday morning in Copenhagen. It was a train wreck, but a fascinating one, revealing an enormous amount about the structure of the globe.

Let’s concede first just how difficult the problem is to solve — far more difficult than any issue the United Nations has ever faced. Reaching agreement means overcoming the most entrenched and powerful economic interests on Earth — the fossil fuel industry — and changing some of the daily habits of that portion of humanity that uses substantial amounts of oil and coal, or hopes to someday soon. Compared to that, issues like the war in Iraq, or nuclear proliferation, or the Law of the Sea are simple. No one really liked Saddam Hussein, not to mention nuclear war, and the Law of the Sea meant nothing to anyone in their daily lives unless they were a tuna.

Faced with that challenge, the world’s governments could have had a powerful and honest conversation about what should be done. Civil society did its best to help instigate that conversation. In late October, for instance,
The most important nations chose not to go the route of truth-telling.
350.org — the organization of which I am a founder — held what CNN called the “most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history,” with 5,200 demonstrations in 181 countries all focused on an obscure scientific data point: 350 parts per million (ppm) of CO2, which NASA scientists have described as the maximum amount of carbon we can have in the atmosphere if we want a planet “similar to the one on which civilization developed, and to which life on Earth is adapted.”

In fact, that kind of scientific reality informed the negotiations in Copenhagen much more thoroughly than past conclaves — by midweek diplomats from much of the world were sporting neckties with a big 350 logo, and 116 nations had signed on to a resolution making that the dividing line. A radical position? In one sense, yes — it would take the quick transition away from fossil fuels to make it happen. But in another sense? The most conservative of ideas, that you might want to preserve a planet like the one you were born onto.

From the beginning, the most important nations chose not to go the route of truth-telling. The Obama administration decided not long after taking office that they would barely mention “global warming,” instead confining themselves to talking about “green jobs” and “energy security.” Perhaps they had no choice, and it was the only way to reach the U.S. Senate — we’ll never know, because they clung to their strategy tightly. On Oct. 24, when there were world leaders from around the globe joining demonstrations, they refused to send even minor officials to take part. Instead, they continued to insist on something that scientists kept saying was untrue: The safe level of carbon in the atmosphere was 450 ppm, and their plans would keep temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 F) and thus avoid “catastrophic consequences.” (Though since 0.8 degrees C had melted the Arctic, it wasn’t clear how they defined catastrophe).

In any event, even this unambitious claim was a sham. That’s strong language, so here’s what I mean. Thirty-six hours before the conference drew to a close, a leaked document from the UN Secretariat began circulating around the halls. It had my name scrawled across the front, not because I’d leaked it but apparently because it confirmed something I’d been writing for weeks here at Yale Environment 360 and elsewhere: Even if you bought into the idea that all we needed to do was keep warming to 2 degrees C and 450 ppm, the plans the UN was debating didn’t even come close. In fact, said the six-page report, the plans on offer from countries rich and poor, if you added them all up, would produce a world where the temperature rose at least 3 degrees C, and carbon soared to at least 550 ppm. (Hades, technically described). It ended with a classic piece of bureaucratic prose: Raising the temperature three degrees, said the anonymous authors, would “reduce the probability” of hitting the two degree target. You think?

The document helped make already-suspicious vulnerable nations even more suspicious. Remember: The reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have made it clear that a two-degree temperature rise globally might make Africa 3.5 degrees C hotter. Almost everyone
The most vulnerable nations didn’t knuckle under quite as easily as usual.
thinks that even 450 ppm will raise sea level enough to drown small island nations. There wasn’t much solace in the money on offer: $10 billion in “fast start” money for poor nations (about $2.50 a head — I’d like to buy the world a Coke) and an eventual $100 billion in annual financial aid that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised when she arrived on Thursday morning. Even if that money ever materialized (Clinton couldn’t say where it would come from, except “special alternative financial means”) it wouldn’t do much good for countries that weren’t actually going to exist once sea levels rose. They were backed to the wall.

And so, they squawked. They didn’t knuckle under quite as easily as usual, despite the usual round of threats and bribes. (One island nation left a meeting with the U.S. fearing for its International Monetary Fund loans; one African nation left a meeting with the Chinese hoping for two new hospitals if only it would toe the line.)

This annoyed the powerful. When President Obama finally appeared on Friday, his speech to the plenary had none of the grace and sense of history that often mark his words — it was an exasperated and tight-lipped little dressing-down about the need for countries to take “responsibility.” (Which might have gone over better if he’d even acknowledged that the United States had some special historical responsibility for the fix we’re in, but the U.S. negotiation position all along has been that we owe nothing for our past. As always, Americans are eager for a fresh new morning). In any event, it didn’t suffice — other nations were still grumbling, and not just the cartoonish Hugo Chavez.

In fact, the biggest stumbling block to the kind of semi-dignified face-saving agreement most people envisioned was China. According to accounts I’ve heard from a number of sources, Obama met with 25 other world leaders after his press conference for a negotiating session. It was a disaster — China turned down one reasonable idea after another, unwilling to constrain its ability to burn coal in any meaningful way (and not needing to, since power, especially in any non-military negotiation, has swung definitively in its direction).

More from Yale e360

Looking for a Silver Lining
in the Post-Summit Landscape

Much was left undone in Copenhagen, and the many loopholes in the climate accord could lead to rising emissions. But the conference averted disaster by keeping the UN climate negotiations alive, and some expressed hope that the growth of renewable energy technology may ultimately save the day.

The Copenhagen Diagnosis:
Sobering Update on Climate

On the eve of Copenhagen, a group of scientists has issued an update on a 2007 IPCC climate report. Their conclusions? Ice at both poles is melting faster than predicted, the claims of recent global cooling are wrong, and world leaders must act fast if steep temperature rises are to be avoided.
In the end, things were clearly coming apart, so a non-face-saving pact was quickly agreed between China, India, and the U.S., with South Africa added for reasons you can guess at. In any event, this cartel of serious coal-burners laid out the most minimal of frameworks, and then Obama set off for the airport.

Eventually, sometime around dawn, some of the poorest nations signed on to “save a place at the table,” though clearly it will be at the children’s table. (And the Sudan did its best to remind everyone why the UN process can be so trying, comparing the agreement to the Holocaust). The Guardian quickly declared the whole thing a Failure, in large point type, followed by most of the world’s other newspapers, though the American press was a little kinder. Kumi Naidoo, the wonderful head of Greenpeace International, said Copenhagen was a “crime scene.” The leaders of the global youth movement gathered under the Metro station outside the Bella Center to chant: “You’re wrecking our future.”

James Hansen, the great climate scientist who started the global warming era with his 1988 testimony before the U.S. Congress, and whose team provided the crucial 350 number that now defines the planet’s habitability, refused to come to Copenhagen, predicting it would be a charade. He was correct. On Sunday he predicted a greater than 50 percent chance that 2010 would be the warmest year ever recorded. If you want to bet against him, you can. If you want to argue that this non-agreement will help Obama get something through Congress, it’s possible you’re right. If you want to despair, that’s certainly a plausible option.

I’d like to go home and sleep for a while. The new world order is going to take a little while to figure out.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR


Bill McKibben is a scholar in residence at Middebury College and has been writing about the Copenhagen climate conference for Yale Environment 360. His The End of Nature, published in 1989, is regarded as the first book for a general audience on global warming. He is a founder of 350.org, a campaign to spread the goal of reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide to 350 parts per million worldwide. His most recent book is American Earth, an anthology of American environmental writing. In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, he has written about the threat of passing planetary boundaries and how the world will once again be waiting on the U.S. at the Copenhagen climate talks.
MORE BY THIS AUTHOR

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COMMENTS


Bill, I respect your work and I will keep reading your writing. But what I've seen leads me to think 350.org has not shown the strength you repeatedly claim. On October 24 I was at the Greenpeace march over the Brooklyn Bridge, which to me was 200 strangers taking a half hearted stroll and then separating. My sister went to the vigil last week in Harvard Square and reported 50 people and no vitality. I've been in Seattle, in the parts of the city that in the 1960s pulsed daily with antiwar energy. I haven't seen Copenhagen-related leaflets, posters or meeting announcements. Around young people, talk of climate change usually dissolves into an ironic shrug. My old hippie friends shrug but skip the irony.

I respect what 350.org has done. I recount all this only to challenge its self-assessment at a moment when the wheel is again turning.

Posted by L.D. Gussin on 21 Dec 2009


Of course COP15 was a total disaster. When are you going to realize that humans are going to increase their emissions 50% by 2030, not decrease them over 50% by 2050. Legislating and taxation are politically unfeasible to coerce a severe carbon diet.

Instead, I strongly suggest you embrace the following clean and very cheap new energy production technology reported on by CNN and the New York Times. Check out this 2 minute Youtube video of a CNN report, it is incredible: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V1iqa0dSJO0

Furthermore, check out this article: http://www.nytimes.com/external/venturebeat/2008/10/21/21venturebeat-blacklight-power-bolsters-its-impossible-cla-99377.html

The BlackLight Process is a silver bullet energy technology that is independently verified by Rowan University and GEN3. Without this new technology, we won't be able to cut emissions severely enough fast enough to avoid catastrophe.

Posted by Brad Arnold on 22 Dec 2009


I think the problem is in trying to go to the leaders to bring about change. Most governments are reactive, not proactive. It would be much more effective to focus on change at the grass-roots level.

U.S. leaders respond to two kinds of power: money and popularity (the people). Until 350.org contributes to every politician as much as the corporations/industries do, you will not compete in the money side of the equation.

What you can do (and have done) is educate and empower the people. There are already many local efforts around the world that are flourishing, such as people returning to locally produced foods to cities striving for an ever-shrinking carbon footprint. Of course we need change at the government/industry/corporate level, but again, that will only come when the people's demand outweighs money's influence (profits/subsidies/tax-breaks).

As the bumper sticker reads, "If the people lead, then the leaders will follow." We must remember that most politicians would rather remain captain atop a sinking ship than go down into the hold, roll up their sleeves and work on repairing the hole in the vessel.

Posted by EverettRowdy on 22 Dec 2009


Bill,

I respect you very much but I am very disappointed by your remarks in recent days about COP15. I was stunned to read the following remarks you gave to a reporter for Energy & Environment Daily on December 18. Referring to the Copenhagen Accord, you said:

"This is a declaration that small and poor countries don't matter, that international civil society doesn't matter and that serious limits on carbon don't matter," said Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org. "The president has wrecked the U.N., and he's wrecked the possibility of a tough plan to control global warming."

President Obama has not wrecked the United Nations; they have managed to further ruin their reputation all by themselves. You know perfectly well that there have been at least a dozen meetings since the Bali Roadmap was adopted. COP 15 was doomed to fail because none of these prior meetings produced significant results and a viable draft agreement. You can't lay the blame for this failure at the feet of the Obama administration. It has only been in office for 11 months.

President Obama does not have a magic wand. He does not control the votes of members of Congress, let alone the views of leaders in China, Brazil, or elsewhere. Given the intransigence of the United States on this matter since Kyoto, it is remarkable that any climate legislation passed the House and that now legislation is being developed in the Senate. If you don't like the fact that this policy is insufficient work to change it and to remove from office those who obstruct the approach Obama championed during his campaign.

I agree that 350 is the CO2 threshold we must achieve, but that will not happen until there is sufficient political will to demand it. I suggest you and your organization focus on that rather than hurling contemptuous insults at an administration that has done more to address this issue in one year than the Bush administrations did in eight.

Posted by Jim Martin-Schramm on 22 Dec 2009


What was possible in Copenhagen? What was essential?

All year, we knew that a full new agreement was not possible, nor essential. I wholeheartedly applaud 350.org's objective and successes, but the focus at Copenhagen was finding common ground on essential components for the next phase (targets, a developing country mitigation framework, a technology package and financing), not further polarizing Parties.

What we have now falls short, and it must come in line with science and responsibility, but I dare say that many of the essentials are there. To label it a charade assumes that one hundred constructive COP decisions are now lost. I do not believe this is the case.

I hope NGOs and civil society organizations will continue to lobby their leadership AT HOME. Then come support the next negotiating process. Unless we all agree on everything to begin with, the outcome will not look ideal.

Posted by Jennifer on 22 Dec 2009


Dear Bill,

I gave a talk today in a highschool in Regensburg, Germany, talking about the Copenhagen disaster, about what is needed and what we still do not have. And about the role of the youth in getting us old guys activated.

It revitalized me immensely, as a lot of the youth is very concerned and very willing to act. Just, they still need guidance, the need spirit, they need optimism to gather the energy to act.
Let's keep working with them, let's not lose hope, let's think about how to activate millions of youth to help - after you all had some weeks of sleep and rest.

Thanks for all your very amazing work. And don't lose hope! There is not much more left to hold on to than hope, and hope is not yet a sign of naivity, not yet. We just have to focus even more on every one of us, on institutions and businesses. The politicians will follow us when they realize what we want; well, I hope so at least.

Take a good rest, and then let's keep going!

Posted by Maiken on 22 Dec 2009


We need to start thinking in terms of zero emissions. Period. Full stop. That's the standard the ecology demands we adopt, the standard that nature itself uses: waste = food. Impractical and
utopian some might say, but that's the standard DuPont is using and making $$$$ on it too.

Posted by gmoke on 22 Dec 2009


I fear that, until we are able to change human nature itself, we will have to live in the world that our greed, jingoism and short-sightedness makes for us.

Posted by Gary J. Bivin on 23 Dec 2009


Bill,

While I share your disgust at the outcome of COP 15, and applaud your frank description of the significance of that failure, I've yet to see more than hints published as to the sequence of causal events.

After Bali, the starting point of COP 15's real potential yield for me was the G20, where all parties, including China, India, et al, endorsed the global 50% cut off the legal 1990 baseline by 2050.

The start of the erosion of the COP's yield, as far as I saw, was when Obama declared that to attend the COP he would "need to be confident that all parties are negotiating in good faith". With China as the central other player, this was the first of a series of public, pointed, diplomatic insults to Beijing from Washington.

Other events causing evidently bitter offence included -
the chief negotiator for the Chinese delegation being refused entry to the COP for three days which, IF it wasn't just dirty tricks, will most certainly have looked that way in Beijing - (can you imagine the cold fury in Washington if that stunt had been against the US ?)

Then there was Todd Stern not only stonewalling on the derisory 4% while demanding sufficient loopholes to actually raise US emissions by 2020, but also repeatedly demanding MRV for China, to which the US has not (publicly) offered to sign up.

Then there was the issue of Stern's brazen denial of US liability for the genocidal scale of loss and injury its pollution has begun to cause, when Washington knows full well that acknowledging liability is a central tenet of Beijing's thesis for starting mutual co-operation.

Obama's curt speech held a number of insults, some more direct than others. The most blatant was the bizarre and irrational declaration that the US is the second largest polluter - which, like other gems, just ain't true, and crudely tried to shift primary blame onto China.

These public insults were likely backed by others I've not heard of, as well as by others again in closed sessions during the COP. But in terms of provocation, it was the public ones that were by far the most potent, since they simply could not be hidden from the hard right conservatives watching in Beijing.

In the event, the knowledge of his loss of face by being publicly insulted in Obama's speech to the entire COP was enough to cause China's president to withdraw to his hotel, sending only junior staffers to the talks.

If he'd been still clinging to the hope that Obama would start to advance from the 4% stonewalling, allowing at least a basic progressive outcome to the talks, that speech killed it. After it, there was no way he could afford to cede anything at all that the hard right back home could object to.

I wonder if we'd agree that this outcome was not serial incompetence on Washington's part - not least because the EU actively advised a different course ? - No, the prospect of a legally binding treaty, of peaking global outputs before 2020, of cutting Annexe 1 output 40% by 2020, of cutting global outputs by 50% by 2050, was too much by far for Obama, so China was brazenly and intentionally provoked into vetoing the whole deal.

I think it is now very important indeed that China sees that people in the West understand that the outcome was not China's preference, and that as the ppmv rises, so too does the urgency of resuming constructive international negotiations.

The one clear signal that we as civil society can send is to gather, confirm, collate and publicize each and every gratuitous insult that Washington applied to provoking the Chinese veto. You are I think in a far better position than most to commission that report, and to see it applied as the start of a remedy to Obama's folly.

Hoping this proposal may appeal to you,

regards, Lewis

PS : NIL CARBERUNDUM ILLEGITIMAE !
(Don't let the bastards grind you down !)

Posted by Lewis Cleverdon on 23 Dec 2009


Sleep well, Bill, and when you wake up rested in Vermont, you may see what we saw happen in Copenhagen, from here: The world awakening from the stupor of denial. Let's assume that Hansen is right, and failure in Copenhagen is better right now than the "success" of a weak treaty.

Posted by Andree Zaleska/JP Green House on 23 Dec 2009


It's not that I doubt the efficacy of technology fixes for climate-warming emissions, or of countries getting together to make hard-headed restrictions to those emissions. Quite possibly, with more stringent negotiations prior to the Copenhagen climate conference, a better outcome would have resulted. And while Bill Mckibben worked tirelessly to raise awareness of the parts per million of CO2 in the air that the world can live with, something essential is missing. There is more emphasis on the what than on the all-important how.

The model for global agreement is unnecessarily abstract. And I think we would benefit by changing that:

1) Try giving them (future climate-change delegates) something they can feel...or at least that they can SEE!

I would suggest that 350.org partner with Google Earth, NASA and others to bring compelling, understandable, strategic global mapping to everyone with a computer, to every student everywhere in the world. Future climate delegates should DO something, based on the information gleaned from this visual program. The program should look at various nations' and regions' CO2 emissions, climate fitness (see Gaia Vince), wildlife protection, energy resources, conservation strategies, etc.

2) Think outside the box.

Nothing should be simpler to comprehend than that the "surface" of the planet--land, atmosphere and water--forms a seamless whole. When countries get together to resolve the climate crisis, they should be focused less on what happens within their own geopolitical boundaries, and more on relationships between such units of governance and neighboring ones. In other words, political leaders should be required to think outside the box.

3) Always keep the whole in mind.

Climate change cannot be affected without an inclusive, cooperative strategy that is seamless, not only geographically, but also socially and economically. No issue of governance can be excluded, and no geopolitical boundary can be allowed to obscure the seamless flow of issues and ecologies. So can large global planning projects, such as the G8 and G20 summits be brought more in line with climate planning?

4) Focus on the edges.

In order to arrive at a paradigm of seamless-earth thinking, border ecologies should be emphasized. The land must come first. And since people depend upon the health of the land for sustenance, the health of the land is also a human-rights issue. For instance, how does a border fence between the USA and Mexico affect the border ecology between these countries? What are the human rights implications for the state of the Rio Grande as it leaves the US and enters Mexico? How does the war on drugs affect the above?

5) Start with a rough preliminary assessment.

What I think should come first is a very rough assessment of the state of places--geopolitical units--around the world. Google Earth and NASA earth mapping could help provide a baseline of which areas produce what emissions, which countries are suffering the most from warming, etc. Then let's see, in the future, what social, economic and environmental pushes and pulls between places might effect a better outcome.

6) Do charettes.

Future conference delegates should not have to sit and listen to dry speeches. Instead, they should be looking at pictures of places. They should split up into regional groups and do charettes. (A charette is a collaborative session in which a group of designers drafts a solution to a design problem.) If, for instance, a group that included Mexican and US delegates sat down and designed their hoped for outcomes vis a vis the Rio Grande, which both nations share, a dry Rio Grande reaching Mexico would not be acceptable to either party.

7) Bring in the heads of state (preferably, after first getting their buy-in to begin the planning process).

These delegates would arrive at proposals to enable more health to the river (above), and these proposals would be taken to the respective heads of state. Later climate conferences would determine how effectively governments have been implementing similar strategies proposed by their delegates.

8) Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative...

There is a plethora of dysfunctional clutter in the way of doing the right things, however. Since the US Congress is stymied, we should not pin all our hopes on what they can deliver. Let's focus instead on worldwide success stories where appropriate actions are independently being taken. There are many US states and cities that are already legislating lower CO2 emissions and cooperating toward regional sustainability, not to mention the achievements of other countries such as Denmark. Let's highlight these achievements and encourage more. Let us do this within the context of a seamless-earth strategy that is concrete rather than abstract.

9) To the future of 350.org

350.org is a fine organization for coordinating such a program worldwide. It is already doing something similar, but it must continue on a more ambitious scale, acting more as an organizational catalyst. While world governments must be pressured to act responsibly, we should be taking separate action to make irresistible their buy-in to global coordination. We should all be looking at the same picture(s). The big picture. What any country does, climate-wise, within its boundaries is everybody's business. By all visually perusing nations' climate issues, we can arrive at a measure of transparency that helps us to keep governments accountable.

Posted by Trevor Burrowes on 30 Dec 2009


I agree with your analysis of Copenhagen. The editorial below is located at www.ccecon.com by Climate Change Economics LLC.

I agree that the positive aspects of efforts in place need to be stated. We need to illustrate the consequences of a no policy and or weak policy outcome the costs of those decisions could be higher than the solution costs. The question is - What happens now in 2010?
----------------------------
The failure of Copenhagen has not changed the science of climate change. The facts remain.

The reality is unchanged.

The outcome is not only a failure for mankind it is a failure for every living being on the planet.

This stakes are greater than any national, state and or monetary, financial and or political system - for it is life itself that is at stake.

If we wait until Shanghai, New York, Miami, Amsterdam, other cities and nations are flooded it will be too late.

It may be too late as I write this now.

No amount of gold, paper money or economic system is worth destroying a world.

Some might hail Copenhagen as a starting point. It is a defeat based on national interests, because the science shows that climate change is more rapidly advancing than anyone in the policy arena understands or realizes. It is not a question if we wait, our nation is so large we will prevail; prevailing at what cost and what outcome, verification is necessary - as former United States President Ronald Reagan said “ trust but verify”- it is essential -with out metrics there are no guarantees other than idle promises made by political officials that goals and commitments actually are being accomplished. Hollow is as hollow does - the peric victory of the Kahn in the thousand dollar suit is meaningless. Unless nations immediately reconvene and come to a conclusion in 2010 at Mexico, or before, the planet itself will be irrevocably changed by mankind who will become another victim of species extinction.
Barry Piacenza

Posted by Barry Piacenza on 03 Jan 2010


We need to wake up and imagine the realistic future, how the next 30 years unfold. If the MASSIVE investment to get us away from the campfire is not made in short order, our children will see the world thus.

The Arctic will have melted, Greenland glaciers retreated and the Antarctic ice shelves disintegrated. The great rivers of the world no longer supply irrigation and starvation is widespread in Asia and South America. North Africa has become a wasteland and fauna eaten to extinction. The bodies once again float down the Yangtzee. Old and frail, Melinda and Bill gasp!

As island nations submerge and lowlands flood, the dispaced people are afflicted by sickness, hunger and violence. Siberian tundra glows from burning methane.

North America and Europe are fortresses, rationing food and energy. Economies are kept on life support through nationalization of critical industries. We hold back the sea with walls and fail. Hurricanes spin gracefully, the Sierras are charred, cities are regularly swept clean by rivers. Most of us no longer work and some home school children. Armed in our homes we darn socks. Militias patrol neighborhoods.

There are military campaigns to secure access to the remaining coal, oil and gas. These campaigns do not lack recruits.

Indeed, as I think back on our history, how impressive our accomplishments have been in science, technology, space, medicine, art, philosophy, feeding of billions, philantropy... All this made possible by the heat of a campfire, by the buring of wood. Amazing. Come on, really, how else could this end.

Posted by Got mercury? on 06 Jan 2010



 

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