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Reflections on Copenhagen, the Movement, and the Future


by D Grow, SURGE Vice Chair

photo courtesy of

In the days since the end of COP15, I’ve done a lot of thinking about my experience there, and a few conclusions are worth sharing. Different summaries of the conference leadup and outcomes and implications are all over the web (and I encourage you to read them, from the NYTimes to the great and continuing coverage at Grist to the blog itsgettinghotinhere), so I want to focus on the key issues for me – whether or not the conference and Obama failed, and where things go from here. (Many authors online are talking about the failure of the UN framework and where things go from here, and I mentioned that in my earlier post, so I’ll leave that piece alone.)

My first perspective a few days out is a more nuanced take on the results of the conference and on Obama’s actions. Immediately following his speech on Friday night, before he got on the plane, I was depressed and angry at his seeming lack of action. There are at least two ways to look at both the outcome of the conference and Obama’s role in it, however, and each is worth reflecting on.

The first context is the global scale of the issue. Here’s the skinny: The more carbon we put into the atmosphere, the hotter the world gets, and the more people die from extreme weather like droughts and floods and their bedfellows of starvation, disease, and war. To preserve the world as we know it, we need our best shot at keeping global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), by bringing CO2 levels down from their current 390 parts per million (ppm) in the atmosphere back to a concentration of 350 ppm. That’s what science says is level 1: Minimal additional sea level rise, less extreme weather, and less catastrophe to human society – the world stays cool, happy, and better able to deal with existing problems of underdevelopment, disease, and environmental destruction. Ramp it up a notch in the language of negotiators, and you hit 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) and 45o ppm: also known as enough sea level rise to obliterate low-lying islands and coastal areas, and seriously mess with weather and human society. This temperature target made it into the final Copenhagen Accord, albeit without an associated carbon level and without a clear way to get there (more on that below). But even if we were to stop CO2 levels from rising above 45o ppm, it would only give us a 50/50 chance of keeping global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). That means only a coin-flip chance of not obliterating low-lying islands and coastal areas. No more Survivor: Vanuatu.

Tuvalu is one of the many island nations that would be underwater in a 2 degree temperature rise scenario. Photo courtesy of

So where does the outcome of the conference leave us? With no binding targets for emissions reductions, the document that the parties to the conference “took note of” (they couldn’t even forge consensus) essentially allows countries to cut their own emissions as they like. Summing up the proposals laid on the table, that gets us to a serious level 3 and above: more than 3 degrees Celsius of warming, 550+ ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere, and true catastrophe. To borrow from a post on itsgettinghotinhere, 3 degrees C and 55o ppm is a bureaucratic way of saying Hades.

In this context of the scientific reality of the problem of climate change, the Copenhagen Accord is diddly-squat. It mandates no legally binding emissions reductions, and the tenuously supported $30 billion over 3 years for adaptation (a.k.a. helping vulnerable countries not die) and the funds for reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD) are miniscule. To quote a panelist in Copenhagen, “If you give peanuts, all you get is monkeys.” It’s less per year than what the U.S. dog and cat food industry brings in. Looking at it in terms of what a happy and prosperous present and future world needed from Copenhagen, COP15 and the Accord was a failure – and in terms of Obama, he failed deeply by not putting anything new on the table (even proposing weakening existing targets in the U.S. Congress from 17% reductions to a range of 14-17% reductions below 2005 levels by 2020). I’d say get depressed if I didn’t believe in depression as an acceptable response. (So be hopeful – more on this below).

An ad from Greenpeace and the tcktcktck campaign calling on Obama to take action in Copenhagen. © Greenpeace / Christian Åslund

The other context in which to look at the Conference and Obama’s role in it is that of international and U.S. politics. First, the biggest thing that the Accord achieved is that the UNFCCC process for working towards international action on climate change didn’t die. Although COP15 showed everyone that the UN process failed to adequately handle the issue – it’s simply not capable – at the moment it’s the mechanism in use. So point #1: Non-total-and-utter-complete-absolute-failure, which is significant because the Accord allows the process to continue. It’s nothing new, it’s a restatement of mostly established ideas, and it’s almost blissfully free of anything that could be construed as specific, concrete, or (heaven forbid!) binding, but it does establish a framework, if in the most general of terms. To run sequentially through the paragraphs, a few things it does are worth interpreting and noting:

  • it recognizes that climate change is real, mentions a 2 degree Celsius target as a fashionable idea, decides it’s worth continuing to work on the problem, and hopes that someone will find a way to give adaptation funding to the most vulnerable nations
  • it agrees that the IPCC was serious when it said that high emissions mean a scary future, mentions 2 degrees again, and notes that social and economic development and poverty eradication are the #1 priority for developing countries, and that developed countries should provide adequate support to help them deal with climate change
  • Annex I parties to the Kyoto Protocol (that is, developed countries with responsibilities to help developing countries reduce their emissions) commit (without any specifics) to reducing emissions to some degree by 2020, subject to monitoring, reporting, and verification (MRV).
  • non-Annex I countries (developing countries) will reduce their emissions in ways they choose, and will report their progress (based on internal MRV only) every two years. Vulnerable least developed countries and small island states will do so voluntarily, to the degree they receive external money to do so. If developing countries reduce emissions on their own, they will only be required to report their results themselves – no external bodies will be able to infringe upon their national sovereignty; but if they receive external funding to aid emissions reductions, they will then be subject to international monitoring, reporting, and verification. These two pieces are key; first, because even if they are poorly designed, countries must at least try to effectuate MRV internally, and second, because China in particular has strongly resisted the idea of external verification of their emissions reductions – and the U.S. Congress has refused to act without being able to verify that China is acting as well. What this tells me is that China plans to reduce its emissions without external support, and thus avoid the need for external MRV…however, the fact that a provision for international MRV (under the set conditions) is in there at all is a significant step forward, and will help Democratic lawmakers to sell a U.S. climate bill.
  • it recognizes the importance of reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD) – the source of 20% of global emissions – and agrees on the need for a mechanism to for developed countries to finance REDD-plus in developing countries. Significant in this piece is the use of the term REDD-plus instead of just REDD: the “plus” signifies inclusion of secondary issues such as respecting the right of indigenous peoples, promoting biodiversity, and making sure that “protected” forests remain forests and not monoculture tree plantations (for biofuels or other purposes). Although before and during the conference it seemed that funding and a mechanism for REDD-plus would be the one substantive thing to come out of the conference, this didn’t occur – but the negotiating done will likely carry over into the next conference, and the fact that the “plus” has been officially added is good.

Destruction of the Amazon Rainforest. REDD would cut a major source of emissions, while also saving amazing rainforest ecosystems worldwide. © Greenpeace / Daniel Béltra

  • it’s explicitly noted that markets will be used (among other options) to ease the costs of mitigation
  • new, additional, predictable, and adequate funding will be provided by developed countries to help developing countries mitigate climate change (reduce emissions), including through REDD. In a rare move for the document, developed countries “commit” to provide a concrete amount of short-term funding “approaching” $30 billion USD for the 2010-2012 period to help developing countries, splitting the cash between mitigation and adaptation and sending some towards REDD in particular. Especially vulnerable countries like low-lying islands are given priority to the copious funds available, so they can at least buy little yellow raft thingies to lash to the tops of coconut trees and float around on when they are submerged under huge ocean waves. The funding package might even be enough to cover a pair of arm floaties for “particularly vulnerable citizens” such as those few islanders who need solid ground to live on. A hopeful goal of $100 billion/year by 2020 is set, but it’s supposed to come from a wide variety of poorly defined sources, public and private, including “alternative sources of finance,” and will flow in part through a newly created “Copenhagen Green Climate Fund.” (That said, the $100 billion number is a significant step forward, even if shaky, and the real cash of ~$30 billion is a much-needed concrete commitment).
  • more bureaucracy is created to study sources of revenue, implement the Green Climate Fund, and to enhance technology development and transfer to aid mitigation in developing countries.
  • implementation of anything implementable and assessable in the document will be assessed by 2015, including consideration of strengthening the long-term goal to be 1.5 C, not 2 degrees C. The official mention of 1.5 degrees C as under consideration is new to an agreed-upon text, and that’s significant.

So the Accord touches on all the key issues, which is good; but it’s vague and non-committal for almost all of them. And, since the delegates of the 193 countries present could not reach consensus and only “took note” of the Accord, these mechanisms and funds cannot actually be put into action until the next round of renegotiation at COP16 in 2010 at the earliest. But it lets the process continue. In the context of the number of deeply conflicting positions of the countries represented, the fact that they were able to come out with anything at all (even if they didn’t reach consensus) is a weak success. It was divided as hell until the last 48 hours or less, when finally even AOSIS (the Association of Small Island States, the first to sink) signed on for the sake of some hope of progress. As a dramatic episode recorded on the NYTimes dotearth blog shows, total failure was literally a second away at more than one point in the process. Some is better than none in this case.

Change we can believe in or disastrous climate change? Photo courtesy of

But what of Obama? There’s no question that he could have done more, and should have done more. Both the U.S. and EU were prepared to put notable concrete targets on the table, but didn’t – perhaps as a result of China’s seemingly intentional obstructionist actions (see this very frightening piece in The Guardian). [Sidenote on China: If that article is true, it supports a disturbing theory I’ve been seeing some support for: An international deal on climate would curb China’s use of coal, give foreign businesses certainty, and spur clean energy technology development abroad; and thus China benefits from obstructing a treaty while it forges ahead with rapid dirty development and rapid growth of its own clean energy industry, in the process furthering its competitive advantage and positioning itself to be the world’s next economic and political superpower. Realpolitik…but possible.] Obama didn’t boldly step forward and set an example by committing to concrete targets. He didn’t argue for a legally binding deal. He didn’t give details on the funding the U.S. offered. There are a lot of He Didn’ts. In the context of U.S. politics, however, he could have done some of those, but a lot of them he couldn’t do without jeopardizing the chances of Congress passing a climate bill – too-bold action in Copenhagen might have given fuel to conservatives and led him into commitments he couldn’t keep.

So taking a cold analysis of the politics the way I think Obama did, the best thing for him to do -the best thing for the sake of the climate bill in the Senate – was perhaps to make Copenhagen as much of a success as possible without committing the U.S. to anything significant, and keeping the headlines low. I ran into Deputy Special Envoy for Climate Change Jonathan Pershing (the second-in-command U.S. negotiator) heading onto my plane from Copenhagen to London, and voiced the view of the youth movement that we want results, not just effort. He’s the guy who can out-argue anyone and he’s a mouth of the Administration, but his response was, “What more could Obama reasonably do on any planet of political reality?” I’m not enough of a politico to argue well, but I think that he could have at least offered emissions cuts in line with the 17% in Congress. [Sidenote on Pershing: discussing how NGO attendance had been deeply restricted during the second week, Pershing acknowledged that it was unfortunate for the loss of the secondary actions of networking etc. that go on, but said something along the lines of ‘But it wasn’t important for the negotiations themselves that civil society organizations were limited – since the negotiations are done by ministers and negotiators.’ I found this disturbing, as it indicates that the Administration doesn’t see civil society as deserving or having a voice or a role in the actual decisions that are made…]

More than anything, what the Accord did in fact accomplish was the bringing together of the U.S., China, India, Brazil and South Africa to the same table for the first time. That alone is highly significant – it sends a much-needed message to Congress and the world that agreement on something is possible, and that – despite concerns about China’s intentions – those countries are all willing to take some action to address the climate problem. If those five countries and Europe can get their act together and achieve real emissions cuts, we’ll be going somewhere and there will be reason for celebration. It also shows that the old divisions of the developed and developing countries are breaking down in significance, and that new ones of the high- and low-emitters are taking their place – though it’s unfortunate to see that high emissions mean political power in this game.

Whether he did or did not offer enough from the U.S., Obama did play a key role in saving the conference from failure, and bringing key countries to the table. According to someone I spoke to who saw it happen, at 7am on Saturday morning there was no deal, and the conference was dead. Then Obama walked into a closed-door session of China, India, Brazil, and others, and “in the most amazing piece of diplomacy I’ve ever seen” he pulled together agreement among the group over the next three hours. I respect him for that. He didn’t show the level of leadership that we wanted, needed, and elected him for, but he salvaged something from the conference, acted to advance U.S. climate legislation, and brought key players to bat, so that’s worth thanking him for – in the explicitly political context.

So where do we go from here?

On Friday night and Saturday as I watched the two-year Bali Roadmap process and the two weeks of COP15 head towards what at the time seemed like total (instead of just near) failure, I struggled to make sense not only of what was happening there but what it meant for how to go forward. And three things came to mind – one, that the UN process simply is not capable of handling a global climate deal; two, that passing good [i.e. allowing the EPA to strengthen it over time] U.S. legislation is absolutely critical to global action on climate.

Number Three is the big one in my mind: It’s time to make the climate movement into a movement like civil rights and Indian independence. Gandhi and MLK didn’t just set out attacking the problems (once their movements got started) – they very carefully researched, considered, and designed their movements, planning strategically and framing their issues in clear, accessible, and inarguable moral terms. It’s time for our movement to do the same – and if there’s anything that my experience in Copenhagen gave me, it’s an understanding of why that’s needed and why it’s possible.

What would Gandhi do?

In my view the climate movement – both domestically in the U.S., and globally – is poised to rise to a new level. It’s time to consider and strategically plan this movement in the way that the Indian independence and civil rights and anti-apartheid movements were by Gandhi, MLK, and Mandela. Their greatest power came not from picking just one element to shift and going after it (e.g. targeting the outcome of COP15 or a U.S. climate bill), but rather from very carefully researching, considering, and designing their movements, planning strategically and framing their issues in clear, accessible, and inarguable moral terms.

While many of the existing campaigns, networks, and coalitions on climate are strategic in their actions, my sense is that nobody I’ve seen has yet attempted to envision and plan for an entire, integrative movement in the way that we need, at least in the U.S.  I may well be wrong, but I haven’t yet seen this happening in the way it needs to. And that’s what gives me hope right now – the fact that two or three years ago, there were no U.S., Australian, or Indian youth climate networks, and now they have thousands of active members. I met many of the youth leaders of those networks and other groups while in Copenhagen – and to say it’s an inspiring, passionate, and heartening group is an understatement. There’s the fact that civil society organizations overwhelmed COP15, more than tripling expected attendance. The fact that thousands of youth from around the world cared enough to go to Copenhagen and make their voices heard, and thousands more in their home countries were ready to go to work with them. In the U.S., we have the coalitions, we have the networks, and we have enough people to kick this thing off the ground. But it will take a new approach to designing a movement with integration, cooperation, and strategy above all to make this what it needs to be. Let’s make it fly.

Climate change requires the exercise of our humanity. It requires moving beyond the animal instinct of our psychology that responds only to visible short-term threats, requires responding to a danger that is far off, abstract, and will affect the lives of others more harshly and sooner than you’ll realize it’s affecting you. If we fail to act soon, the reality is that people will die. Not in front of you, probably not in your town or your state, but on coasts and small islands and in war-torn deserts both near and far around the world. In your own life, your wallet and your community will suffer, your ski mountain will melt, your fall leaves go brown. But the converse is that if we do act soon, and act in the right way, we have the opportunity to reshape our society and our world – to create a future that is truly just, sustainable, profitable, and happier than the one in which we live. Is that not ever a moral issue? Is that choice between bad and good, death and life, not a test of our true humanity? If it’s not, I don’t know what is. If it is – let’s be human in the good way, and get to work.

If you have any thoughts about this movement-shaping concept, have ideas to contribute, think it’s already being done, or anything else, please leave a comment and I’ll get in touch with you.

And, if you’ve made it through this whole thing, I’m very impressed – and happy holidays and new year!

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Priscilla '81 permalink
    12/26/2009 8:04 am

    Very informative and helpful piece, especially in terms of getting insider’s view/analysis of what went wrong in Copenhagen. Perhaps more important, however, is this concept of a Ghandi-esque movement. When an individual takes responsibility, from a personal, moral, ethical standpoint, for his/her own actions in he world, for his/her own immediate and longterm effect on the environment not only around them but the environment as a whole, there is movement, however small. Multiply this on a grass roots level and we stand a chance. Question is, how? Years and years after being at Princeon, I still remember hearing and seeing, every morning, a handful of students protesting, exhorting the University to divest its interests in South Africa. They were such a minority, but they were dogged. How about your organization creating a Ghandi toolkit to help the rest of us organize/effect change in our home communities?

  2. 12/27/2009 3:44 pm

    Personally, I suspect much of Gandhi’s success had to do with the fact that he was a great spiritual leader with views that transcended the specific movement of independence from Britain. Gandhi was not just an activist, but a great moral philosopher, as MLK jr. was a great preacher. As far as I know, there’s no one in the environmental movement who currently resembles either of them, except perhaps Majora Carter and Van Jones, or maybe even Bill Mckibben or James Hansen. (if you can think of someone, let me know)Of course, the real question then is if we need a single figure like Gandhi or King, or whether we can just try to incorporate their ideas into our entire movement. I came across a NY Times article last year ( about a spiritual retreat center that is trying to apply Gandhi’s ideas to fighting climate change; some of them are also on the board of the 1Sky campaign.

    What we need in the long run is cultural as well as political change, which is why I think a book like Bill McKibben’s “Deep Economy” is as important as Van Jones’ “The Green Collar Economy.” If the predominant culture is one that values individual consumption above all else, then we will never be able to win on that culture’s terms. I think a great manifesto we can draw from is Gary Snyder’s “Four Changes,” (, still as relevant now as when it was written in 1969. The bottom line is, if we’re going to transform the way our leaders think, we need to transform our society and its values from the bottom up.

  3. 01/05/2010 12:43 pm

    Hey Danny, very comprehensive and impressive post. I want to take a more optimistic view on a couple of the issues you raise that I’m a little closer to. It’s hard to tell what exactly China is thinking at any given moment, but I think your realpolitik assessment may be (thankfully) a little too pessimistic. China is quite concerned about reducing energy use and expanding the fraction of non-coal energy sources in their fuel mix. China’s biggest climate actions to date have been efforts to improve energy efficiency largely by reducing power use in large enterprises, shutting down inefficient factories, and closing small coal-fired plants – policies that, most broadly, have the intended effect of reducing demand for coal electricity. A lot of these policies run counter to the obvious economic incentives to develop industry powered by cheap dirty coal at all costs. Now, they’ve obviously got a long ways to go – they’re not pricing/taxing coal in a way to discourage its widespread use, or anything like that. But I think its unlikely that when it comes to climate policy, China prioritizes further developing a competitive advantage in low-on-the-value-chain industries powered by cheap coal over avoiding the worst effects of catastrophic climate change. They may not be doing everything in their power to shut down industry and move away from coal (and we wouldn’t expect them to, given the economic incentives not to), but they probably also aren’t actively sabotaging the negotiations in an realpolitik bid to continue down this particular development path of low value-chain industries and ultra cheap coal.

    Why? Well, at the highest levels of government, Chinese leaders tend to concerned with reigning in these forces – overdevelopment of in inefficient industries, powered by dirty coal – at least compared with their local counterparts. In China’s “nomenklatura system” of personel promotion & advancement, local officials are now being judged on whether they met the energy conservation goals set for their jurisdiction. From what we hear, this is actually an official promotion/punishment criterion.

    So what explains China’s behavior at the meeting? Well for one interpretation, check out Ken Lieberthal’s piece : He argues that China’s somewhat erratic behavior, evidenced by tensions within the negotiating team and strange diplomatic snubs, is a consequence of China’s discomfort with its new place in the global negotiating spotlight. Another epistemic (I guess that’s the right word? I took Moravcsik’s IR class freshman year, that feels like a long time ago) explanation is that China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the chief negoiators, tend to be more conservative on climate as their chief interest is to protect China’s political sovereignty and economic interests.

    Anyway, I was going to comment on Pershing too. I work at the World Resources Institute, where he used to sit in my current boss’s office before leaving for State. I never met the guy, but I would guess that he cares deeply about the role of the environmental NGO community, having come from that world. Or maybe after working here, he was thoroughly disillusioned with it. Unlikely though. 🙂

    Hope all is well. Great blog. You know I hadn’t really thought about the consequences of climate change before, but no more “Survivor: Vanautu?” Oh man!

    • 01/07/2010 12:30 pm

      Hi Rob,
      Thanks for the response. I’m in the middle of final exams so this will be quick, but essentially want to say I’ve done a lot more reading on the topic since I wrote the post and I’m also more optimistic. I also feel like I have a (marginally) better understanding of China’s role and interests. One, their obstruction of the target of 80% developed country reductions and 50% global reductions by 2050 is due to a gap that exists up to the 50% global, which must be filled (under those proportions) by 20% cuts by developing countries. Science says we need that, but I can understand China not wanting to. I think you’re right that it’s more complicated than just China obstructing things (as convenient as it is for Western gov’ts to portray it as all China’s fault). When it comes down to it, the fact remains: the majority of the emissions up there are b/c of the developed countries, not the developing ones… I’d write more but am trying not to fail my classes!

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