30 Nov 2009: Opinion

As the World Waits on the U.S.,
a Sense of Déjà Vu in Denmark?

Twelve years ago in Kyoto, the world was poised to act on a climate treaty but looked for a clear signal from the United States. Now, with the Copenhagen talks set to begin, the outcome once again hinges on what the U.S. is prepared to do.

by bill mckibben

President Obama took much of the drama out of the Copenhagen talks earlier this month when he and other world leaders announced that there’d be no treaty at the end — in essence, they said, we’ll wait for the U.S. Senate. Still, you can’t call off the party entirely, and so the planet’s climate scientists, bureaucrats, activists, skeptics and journalists will still descend on the Danish capital in a few days for a fortnight of meeting, marching, propounding, denying, and most of all spinning.

Almost all of what happens will be murky (and not just because Copenhagen in December averages 45 minutes of sunlight daily). Without the focus provided by the need to draw up a real document, much of the tension may go out of the proceedings — minus a deadline it’s hard to push to resolution on anything. And yet it’s the fate of the world being discussed: as British negotiator Ed Miliband put it, “Bretton Woods plus Yalta multiplied by Reykjavik.” We’ll see some kind of paper signed, but it won’t commit anyone to much of anything — the talks will lurch forward into next year. Most of what occurs in Denmark will be shadow boxing, feeling each other out.

And so here are a few of the places that bear watching, to see if some kind of consensus develops over the course of the proceedings:

Against this backdrop, there’s a lot of important and less flashy stuff that has to move forward if we’re ever going to reach an agreement. Nations with large swaths of forest, for instance, seem willing to make a deal to stop their destruction. It’s cheap compared with the other steps we’ll need to take, so it will probably happen — though the devil is deeply in the details. The same with credits for farmers for keeping carbon in the soil — it could be a big help, or a loophole large enough to drive an endless fleet of combines through.

And then there are the plumbing questions. How do you monitor and then enforce any agreement? How do you draw something up that doesn’t require treaty approval by the U.S. Senate (no one thinks there are 67 votes for a real climate policy)? How do you give credit for actions already taken? How do you keep carbon trading from turning into one more Wall Street boondoggle?

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One thing will surely be tested: whether civil society is capable of really pushing the process. Activists will be descending from all directions, but the deck is stacked against them: The conference center, where the media will be mostly cooped up, is miles from town. And the environmentalists themselves are deeply split. There are groups that, for all intents and purposes, are part of the negotiations — whose experts have spent careers working on one part of the treaty or another, and are deeply invested in its success. There are less formal groups — many of them veterans of the anti-globalization movement — determined to shut down the whole process. They won’t succeed, but it’s completely conceivable that tear gas will drift across the Radhuspladsen before the month is out. And there are thousands of young people, about to be disillusioned by their first exposure to big time power politics.

Having been to Kyoto (which at least took place in the daylight) there’s a sense of overwhelming déjà vu as I head toward Denmark. There, too, most of the world was lined up to do something, but waiting on a signal from the U.S., whose negotiators had been doing its best to weaken the treaty in hopes it might pass Senate muster. There was the same will-he-come anxiety, then centered on Al Gore, who flew in at the last minute to offer some small concessions and let the conference proceed. In those days China hadn’t yet emerged as a huge carbon source. In those days the Arctic hadn’t yet melted. But in those days, as in this one, everyone was waiting on the U.S.

POSTED ON 30 Nov 2009 IN Climate Energy Forests Policy & Politics Policy & Politics Pollution & Health Water North America 


"After the rapid melt of Arctic sea ice in the summer of 2007, researchers recalibrated"

Should they perhaps recalibrate again, after the unprecedented re-growth of Arctic sea ice in 2008 and 2009?

The 2009 September average Arctic sea ice extent was more than 1 million sq km greater than 2007. That's more than 950,000 times bigger than Yale's central campus, by the way, or approximately 69 times the size of Connecticut.

If you think that 2009 was anomalous, have a look at the raw satellite data and see for yourself whether it was 2007 or 2009 that was anomalous.


Posted by Sean on 30 Nov 2009

Your comparison between the ambiance of Kyoto and Copenhagen is interesting. We hadn't the web in the first period. and for instance the departure of the USA in 2001 wasn't echoed by the web. May it and the mondial opinion make a difference for the agreement of the second phase?

It seems that the people wants more than an comsumption ethic.

Posted by meleze on 30 Nov 2009


the data you came up with are very different from those of the National snow and ice data center. Their data show that «...October 2009 had the second-lowest ice extent for the month over the 1979 to 2009 period...»


Also, from the NASA official site:

«The six lowest maximum events since satellite monitoring began in 1979 have all occurred in the past six years (2004-2009).» and «New evidence from satellite observations also shows that the ice cap is thinning as well.»


Posted by William J on 01 Dec 2009

In addition to William's Js chronological context, it's important to note whether one is discussing land ice or sea ice.

Land ice is melting and it seems very likely due to AGW. The sea ice story is more complex.


NB. The IJIS graph is for sea ice.

Posted by Steven Sullivan on 02 Dec 2009

Bill is exactly right that the wild card here -- if there is one -- is citizen action that is strong enough to back up the political demands of the most vulnerable countries.

That's why on Dec 11 and 12, 350.org is coordinating thousands of candle light vigils as part of a global weekend of action called "The World Wants a Real Deal."

You can join or register your own event here:


The vigils are a way to show solemn solidarity with the many nations and people that are already experiencing the impacts of climate change. They're also a good way to put pressure on the US: many events will take place at embassies or US congressional offices.

Copenhagen is about getting a treaty. It's also about building a movement. Please join or spread the word.

Posted by Jamie on 03 Dec 2009

Although our dumbed-down culture hates to be exposed to actual numbers, it is worth noting that CO2 at the time of Kyoto was 364 ppm and reached a value ~390 ppm earlier this year at Mauna Loa.

The concentration growth rate is accelerating, and emissions appear to be outstripping even the most aggressive IPCC scenarios. 350 ppm is fading in the rear view mirror and 450 ppm is around the corner.

Posted by Michael on 03 Dec 2009

It is not just the area, but the volume and quality of the ice, too, and the news is not good.

Focusing on the Arctic. The University of Colorado's NSIDC reports that arctic ice area is still at the third lowest level in 30 years. That is in no way a recovery. Also the refreezing this fall has been slower than usual so that the area as we approach winter is close to the 2007 extent.

Furthermore, it is not just that the area is low, submarine (University of Cambridge - Professor Wadham submarine measurement analysis), satellite (NASA GRACE) and expedition (Canadian - Barber) reports all show a drastic drop in ice thickness and volume. The proportion of thicker multiyear (> 1 year) ice is down from 50% to 25% and older (>2 year) ice is down from 35% to 10% over the past 30 years.

Greenland and the Antarctic are also melting, and as they have ice on land, will result in sea level rise.

Given the risk of these continuing processes and the hazards they present, it is very important that we start taking significant steps to mitigate CO2 emissions now.

Posted by Simon on 04 Dec 2009

The Bill McKibben article Re: "As the World waits on the U.S...", is the most important, painfully truthful, and invaluable script we'll ever come across wrt, as McKibben articulates, "the fate of the world being discussed".

Bill reiterates that only "shadow boxing" will come of Copenhagen. Unfortunately not everyone knows just how baffed we've become "shadow boxing" through the entire Kyoto debacle. During that time, well oiled Denial machinery manipulated world scientists and governments into giving us some real proof that this "Global Warming" guff has anything to do with people. So, years ago since then, data and video starts pouring in like a plague (no pun intended) from highly qualified sources from every corner of the Earth. The United Nations set up so many committees for this stuff, you need science 101 just to count them, and 2 more committees to keep track of them.

To begin working toward the solution of this predicament is really quite simple. It must become mandatory and quantifiable that every nation pump out less and less CO2 year over year. This way we can truly begin the descent toward 350ppm which is the recognized upper limit for a viable global playing field. Some nations have been able to stabilize and even slightly decrease their GHG output but those efforts become next to meaningless as they're pounded into the ground by the herd.

Posted by Dan Kabe on 04 Dec 2009

India and China have doubled their emissions in the last decade. China builds a new dirty coal power station every 4 days. Even with no science at all the dumbest individual can see that this is disastrous. Carbon cap and trade and other fiddling is just that, fiddling while Rome burns. We need capitalism to die the natural death it was about to embrace in September 2008.

Posted by charlie lennox on 08 Dec 2009

Comments have been closed on this feature.
bill mckibbenABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bill McKibben is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College. 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 the climate challenges facing President Obama.



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