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The End of “The Road to Copenhagen”


– SURGE Vice President

And so we come to the end of the long Road to Copenhagen.

I’ll be honest: it’s a pretty depressing scene over here – hopefully I’ll look at it more brightly in the morning. But the reality is, there is no climate deal. After hearing Obama’s depressing departing speech, I headed to the gates of the Bella Conference Center to join several hundred people in a candle-lit protest of the failure of the world’s leaders to act:

The scrap of paper that was released tonight and is still under work was created in complete violation of the UN negotiation process, in a closed-door negotiation with only a few countries. Essentially, it says nothing more that countries are free to go about reducing their emissions if they feel like it, someone might give money to developing nations to help with what’s known as adaptation (read: helping people not die from climate-amplified drought, floods, extreme weather, disease, etc.), and at some point in the future countries might think about getting back together to work on a deal. There is no fair, ambitious, binding deal that sets the world on a track to get CO2 levels in the atmosphere back down to the 350 parts per million that we need for a healthy and sustainable future. There is no deal that will even get us to 450 ppm, which would give us a 50/50 chance of not experiencing devastating climate change. Despite Hillary Clinton’s seemingly hopeful public relations ploy of agreeing to $100 billion a year for adaptation funding, that offer was contingent upon a global deal and commitments by all nations – no such luck. The text released has nothing legally binding; it has no mandated carbon cuts (it even states the U.S.’s intended goal as 14-17% below 2005 levels by 2020, equivalent to 2-3% below 1990 levels, which is how the rest of the world talks about the issue — this is even lower than the 17% target that’s in the House-passed Waxman-Markey bill); it doesn’t address REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation); it doesn’t provide for financing commitments; it doesn’t obligate the nations of the world to seal a deal – even a political one – by or in Mexico City at COP16 next year; it doesn’t give us climate justice. Even the elements of REDD which seemed to be very hopeful as the one good thing (or at least decent thing) likely to come out of Copenhagen are not in it. All it does do is affirm the continuation of the UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol – at least superficially – provide a small amount of funding for the next three years only ($10B/year) for adaptation, and state that we need to keep warming below 2 degrees C. Stating that climate change is a serious issue and mentioning 2 degrees C is good – but it’s just a piece of paper. Without mechanisms to make that statement reality, it’s not much good. Here’s a summary of what the short document purports to do, from the UNFCCC COP15 website:

“The so-called Copenhagen Accord confirms the continuation of the Kyoto Protocol and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. It sets a maximum of two degrees Celsius average global temperature rise, and states that a review by 2016 should consider if it will be necessary to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

On financing, the Copenhagen Accord says developed countries commit collectively to providing 30 billion US dollars in new, additional funding for developing countries for the 2010-2012 period. It also says developed countries support “a goal of mobilizing jointly 100 billion dollars a year” by 2020 from a variety of forces. Developed countries commit to at least 80 percent emissions reductions by 2050 in the accord. Commitments on shorter terms have to be settled later.

Supported national mitigation actions will be subject to international measurement, reporting and verification, the accord states. Mitigations actions taken by developed countries will be monitored nationally and reported every second year by guidelines adopted later by the parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).”

And, that document so far is only agreed upon by the U.S., EU, China, India, and Brazil – not the other 150+ nations who are present in Copenhagen. It may be dead on arrival – the spokesperson for the G77 has said that they will not support a suicide pact, and they’re right to do it in my opinion.

Obama has failed us, and the leaders of the world have failed us, and the two-year process of negotiations following the Bali conference in 2007 (which created the Bali Road Map with a goal of creating a strong, legally binding treaty in Copenhagen) have failed. When I say us – that’s especially us youth, and those who will come after us. Obama arrived saying “this is the time for action, not words” – but there was no action. To quote from the cover letter that I wrote with other youth yesterday (which will be delivered to him along with letters and drawings from youth in his grandmother’s hometown in Kenya and from American youth – I’ll post this later): “We canvassed our neighborhoods in all weather for you, we voted for you and brought our parents to the polls, we watched on solar-powered TVs as you were elected, and we celebrated from Washington to Nairobi with all our hearts when you were inaugurated.” But in a moment where he could have provided true leadership, he failed to use any of his power. Despite being constrained to a relatively small amount of wiggle room by Congress, he had avenues open to him – but took none of them. It’s beyond shameful.

So sorry for the depressing nature of this post – but things are pretty bad.

Let me change gears with a few thoughts on the future. We now head back to the U.S., where we need to pass strong domestic climate legislation. There’s no alternative – so we’ll do it, and we’ll do it before the summer. In many ways, I think that Copenhagen went nowhere because the U.S. hadn’t passed domestic legislation – it hamstringed the entire process. That’s not the only reason – huge resistance from China to external verification (demanded by the U.S. in order to sign onto any meaningful treaty, and for good reason – otherwise who’s to say that proclaimed reductions are real?), and a general unwillingness of developed nations to commit to big emissions cuts and necessary financing. But it’s a big part. If we can pass domestic legislation, then, we’ll enter COP16 in Mexico City in much better form. With midterm elections coming up and a congress almost sure to shift, we have to pass and get that bill signed by the summer – in time for a summer COP16. Domestic legislation is crucial for businesses to have certainty, and to create new green jobs in weatherization, other forms of efficiency, and clean energy. I heard that message loud and clear from the Blue Green Alliance the other day (it’s an alliance of industry unions and environmental groups). Doing so will take all our hard work, it will take our time, and it will take our commitment – and I believe if we put our shoulders to the wheel together, we can do it.

That’s one thing.

The other piece is that I think it’s time to start thinking differently about dealing with this issue. During this week in Copenhagen, I’ve seen a lot of very hard work by civil society groups and by negotiators – and I’ve learned that most of the real deals happen in the back room, without the voices of the people who should be part of the process. The UN simply can’t handle this process, at least this time around – it couldn’t even handle an expected overflow of participants – and it looks like the most likely outcome for the next few years is a patchwork of unverified unilateral actions or bilateral actions by national governments – and that simply won’t get us to where our planet demands we be. Nature does not negotiate.

So thinking outside of the failed UN framework, what has been effective to date? State and regional efforts to tackle climate change. And the promotion and replication of those efforts in the U.S. and internationally provides us with a way to get moving even before our governments have gotten their act together. That’s a concept worth thinking about – how can we deal with climate change in a supra-national framework? I’d love to hear thoughts anyone has.

Dealing with climate change requires not only governments working together; it also requires individuals and communities educating each other and applying our collective genius to the problem. We can do it – but it requires you as much as me and anyone else.

My friend Juan Carlos Soriano from the College of the Atlantic, at COP15 with SustainUS, spoke in representation of the international youth movement earlier tonight, and I think his powerful remarks (created by a whole team of youth here) describe our situation best. I encourage you to read them here.

I walk the knife-edge between optimism and despair – that line is hope. And though the logic seems reversed, the farther down we are, the more room there is for us to raise ourselves up; to reshape our entire world. I’ll conclude with a long but very worthwhile quote that inspires and gives me strength in dark times such as these, from Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark. Please forgive the block quote.

“On January 18, 1915, six months into the First World War, as all Europe was convulsed by killing and dying, Virginia Woolf wrote in her journal, “The future is dark, which is on the whole the best thing the future can be, I think.” Dark, she seems to say, as in inscrutable, not as in terrible. We often mistake the one for the other. Or we transform the future’s unknowability into something certain, the fulfillment of all our dread, the place beyond which there is no way forward. But again and again, far stranger things happen than the end of the world.

“There are times when it seems as though not only the future but the present is dark: few recognise what a radically transformed world we live in, one that has been transformed not only by such nightmares as global warming or global capital, but by dreams of freedom, of justice, and transformed by things we could not have dreamed of. What accretion of incremental, imperceptible changes made the possible, and how did they come about?

“And so we need to hope for the realisation of our own dreams, but also to recognise a world that will remain wilder than our imaginations. Cause and effect assumes history marches forward, but history is not an army. It is a crab scuttling sideways, a drip of soft water wearing away stone, an earthquake breaking centuries of tension. Sometimes one person inspires a movement, or her words do decades later; sometimes a few passionate people change the world; sometimes they start a mass movement and millions do; sometimes those millions are stirred by the same outrage or the same ideal, and change comes upon us like a change of weather. All that these transformations have in common is that they begin in the imagination, in hope.

“To hope is to gamble. It’s to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty is better than gloom and safety. To hope is dangerous, and yet it is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk. I say all this because hope is not like a lottery ticket you can sit on a sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. I say it because hope is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency; because hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal. Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope. Anything could happen, and whether we act or not has everything to do with it. Though there is no lottery ticket for the lazy and the detached, for the engaged there is a tremendous gamble for the highest stakes right now. I say this to you not because I haven’t noticed that the US has strayed close to destroying itself and its purported values in pursuit of empire in the world and the eradication of democracy at home, that our civilisation is close to destroying the very nature on which we depend – the oceans, the atmosphere, the uncounted species of plant and insect and bird. I say it because I have noticed that wars will break out, the planet will heat up, species will die out, but how many, how hot and what survives depends on whether we act. The future is dark, with a darkness as much of the womb as the grave.

“Stories trap us, stories free us, we live and die by stories, but hearing people talk of [the certainty of despair] is hearing them tell themselves a story they believe is being told to them. What other stories can be told? How do people recognise that they have the power to be storytellers, not just listeners? Hope is the story of uncertainty, of coming to terms with the risk involved in not knowing what comes next, which is more demanding than despair and, in a way, more frightening. And immeasurably more exciting.”

What will be your story – and what will be ours?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Eileen Growald permalink
    12/19/2009 5:51 pm
  2. 01/09/2010 9:35 am

    I admire the valuable information you offer in your articles.Great post, You make valid points in a concise and pertinent fashion, I will read more of your stuff, many thanks to the author


  1. Happy Holidays and Copenhagen Wrap Up from SURGE and The Princeton Climate Dispatch « The Princeton Climate Dispatch
  2. Reflections on Copenhagen, the Movement, and the Future « The Princeton Climate Dispatch

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