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.

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.

The most important nations chose not to go the route of truth-telling.

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 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 most vulnerable nations didn’t knuckle under quite as easily as usual.

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 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).

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.