The Crisis of Justice Inside the Emissions Emergency (Part I)

Experienced campaigner reflects on 20 years of effort

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By Tom Athanasiou, Earth Island Journal

First, a confession: This is not another enumeration of confident judgments. I will not tell you that Copenhagen was an unmitigated failure. Or that this failure was Obama’s fault. Or that, as is the new fashion, China was the ugliest of them all. I will not say that the South’s negotiators made impossible demands. Or argue that the United Nations’ process is unwieldy and obsolete. I will not claim that only domestic U.S. action really matters. Nor will I talk of a "North-South impasse" or a "US-China polluters pact," two popular formulations that misleadingly imply an equal division of blame.

I will say this: Almost two decades after I started working on climate change, I was happily astounded to witness the crystallization, on the streets of Copenhagen, of a grassroots movement that was both energetic and sophisticated, and to see global civil society groups working in solidarity with the leaders of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable nations to press a collective agenda. And I can tell you something else: Our chances of preventing climate catastrophe rests in large part on the ability of this new alliance to communicate to the world’s richest and most powerful peoples that the emissions emergency is, above all things, a crisis of justice.

As everyone knows, the Copenhagen talks failed to catapult us into the ambitious global mobilization we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But this was never going to happen anyway. What did happen, as the veteran Bangladeshi policy activist Saleemul Huq put it, was "a shaking of the traditional pieces of the global geopolitical puzzle and their landing in a new and unfamiliar configuration."

In this sense, the question of success and failure is moot. The real question is whether the new configuration offers us fresh ways forward.

A Pivot in World History

This question cannot be answered by the usual logic of environmental campaigning. Now is a time for reflection – not for pushing forward one more meeting, one more demonstration, one more demand. Of course we need action, and we need it fast. But we also need strategy, because Huq’s "unfamiliar configurations" are going to settle in the midst of another big year that will culminate with another major December climate showdown, this time in Mexico City. If 2010 is major, 2011 and 2012 promise (or threaten) to be just as important, as do the other years in the brief time ahead – the post-Copenhagen era in which we must begin to act.

The Copenhagen summit marked a pivot in world history, a defining moment – if not a decisive one. The climate negotiations saw the debut of a new geopolitics. In it, China looms large, the United States appears weakened (though still with the ability to do great harm or good), Brazil and India are rising, the European Union looks progressive but ineffectual, and a chorus of smaller states have been emboldened to defend their interests in the face of an existential
crisis. As for that "second superpower" – world public opinion – it is, frankly, divided against itself.

Seen in this way, the end of 2009 may well mark the real beginning of the twenty-first century, in the sense that 1914 and the start of World War I are commonly taken to mark the real beginning of the twentieth. The hope must be that our new century won’’ be as hot and brutal as the last one was cold and bloody.

Smartness and Savvy

Copenhagen was about far more than the climate talks. To make sense of it, look at it as a milestone in a process that’s still unfolding. The negotiations did not just occur in the official meeting halls of the Bella Center. They took the form of countless debates that happened in the NGO "Convergence Center" on Copenhagen’s Nørrebro, on countless Internet comment boards, in civic spaces around the world. The critical debates of Copenhagen spanned the entire globe and a huge swath of opinion. Justice and science, realism and necessity, capitalism and democracy, the cost of affluence and the rights of the poor – it was all in play, encoded in the chants and banners of the estimated 100,000 people who clogged Tivoli Square on December 12 demanding meaningful action. And – most importantly – these debates were a key background to the blow-by-blow negotiations occurring among nation-states.

This surely is one of the core achievements of Copenhagen. Were it not for the "street heat," even the provisional possibilities of the new situation would not be ours. The massive demonstrations outside the summit halls, the activist flash mobs within the conference, the demonstrations, and constant in-your-face pressure – this and much more had an effect not just on the tone of the negotiations, but on the substance as well. Even after civil society groups were ejected from the Bella Center, their demands echoed in the formal negotiating rooms. The green movement showed itself to be far clearer on the logic of climate justice than it was even a year ago. The ubiquitous placards calling for an accord that would be "fair, ambitious, and binding" were the right ones. The demonstrators showed smartness and savvy wrapped in a sense of urgency.

The point is that, as a focus for public education and movement building, Copenhagen was an incalculable success. Everyone – from Barack Obama to Lumumba Di-Aping, the Sudanese chair of the South’s G77 negotiating bloc, to you and me – knows a hell of a lot more about climate change and its politics than we did a year ago.

Not that we didn’t already know that we face a planetary emergency. This has been obvious for years. The difference now is that – thanks to the global campaign, and Mohamed Nasheed, the President of the Maldives, and a whole lot of terrified scientists – we know that we know it. And we know it in an altogether appalling manner. We know, at least in outline, what will happen in Africa, though we may wish we didn’t. And Tibet. And the Australian grain belt, and Florida, and the southern oceans, and of course Greenland. We’ve talked about the bogs, the permafrost, and the risks to forests. We’ve heard, finally, about the threats to people: We know how they will suffer, how they will die.

Unheralded Successes

Copenhagen did not deliver the stringent targets and commitments needed to support the fair and ambitious climate accord the protest banners demanded. But this, fortunately, isn’t the end of the story. We can also ask if Copenhagen was a failure when compared not to what is necessary, but rather to what was possible. We can explore whether (this is a key twist) it opened new possibilities, or at least prevented new possibilities from being foreclosed.

Clearly there were successes in Copenhagen. The emergence of a semi-organized bloc of "Most Vulnerable Countries" (the acronym is MVCs) is news that will stay news, and not just because of the tension between the MVCs and "emerging economies" like China and India. The larger issue is that the MVCs have come to know themselves as frontline states, and in so doing have irrevocably transformed the global politics of climate crisis. It goes without saying that, in the coming battles, the most vulnerable will reserve much of their ire for the wealthy countries of the North.

Witness the open letter that South African Archbishop and Nobel Prize Winner Desmond Tutu sent on December 15, after a walkout by the unified African bloc led to a sudden halt in the official negotiations. The Africans aimed to pressure the wealthy countries into honoring their obligations to accept stringent new reduction targets, and Tutu
wished to make the stakes quite clear. His letter was blunt: “If temperatures are not kept down then Africa faces a range of devastating threats such as crop yield reductions in places of as much as 50 percent in some countries by 2020 … A global goal of about two degrees Celsius is to condemn Africa to incineration and no modern development.:

350 Campaign

On that same note, the effectiveness of the 350 campaign is another Copenhagen achievement. By the end of the two-week melee-cum-jamboree, 112 countries had endorsed the demand to stabilize carbon dioxide levels at 350 parts per million (it’s now at 387, and rising.) The 350 ppm target, which once seemed so obscure, had by the end of the talks become an expression of plain speech. And, at least among the activists, it had almost entirely supplanted the 2°C temperature target as the measure of climate stabilization. This happened thanks to the determined efforts of thousands of citizen-activists across the globe who had made the number the cornerstone of their campaigns.

As a goal, 350 ppm is hard to explain without recourse to charts and other technical idioms. Suffice it to say that in Copenhagen 350 emerged as the alternative to reduction targets that would condemn low-lying and island states and other "most vulnerable" areas to near-certain apocalypse. The "official" target, as agreed by the G8 and many others, is commonly expressed in terms of a global emissions reduction to 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, a target that is often said, especially by politicians, to be “"2°C compliant." But that’s stretching the arithmetic. More precisely, the G8 supports a slack and politically expedient emissions pathway that the vulnerable countries and their allies are determined to cast aside. The vulnerable nations didn’t settle for a "more honest" 2°C target, but instead counterattacked with the slogan "1.5 to Survive." This was a call for a 350 ppm target, which has perhaps a 50-50 chance of holding the warming below 1.5°C, and something like an 85 percent chance of keeping it below 2°C.

The Copenhagen Accord, of course, did not open the road to 350. What it does is provide a process by which governments can step forward to publish reduction pledges. This will be a very big deal, but evaluating these pledges will be complicated. What, after all, should a national emissions pledge be compared to? A projection of business-as-usual emissions? If so, which one? A measure of per-capita "emissions rights?" If so, what to do about the fact that the "atmospheric space" is already exhausted? Should historical responsibility come into play? If so, starting when? How should the obligations of rich countries be compared to those of poor? And what about the rich people within poor countries? Or for that matter the poor people within rich ones?

Tough Questions

These questions are not easy. They are further confused by the matter of domestic vs. international obligation. Should the United States – which tops the charts in measures of capacity, responsibility, and per-capita emissions – be able to do its fair share within its own borders? Or does it have obligations to more vulnerable countries around the world?

Then there’s the problem of loopholes. These are critical, because the United States and other wealthy countries have built plenty of them into their emissions reductions projections. The critical loopholes are surplus allowed emissions (so-called "hot air" from the collapse of the Soviet economy in 1990), forestry and agricultural credits (calculated
from bogus baselines), and of course "non-additional offsets" (which represent reductions that would have happened anyway). If they’re allowed to stand, then the wealthy countries will have to do almost nothing at all.

The bottom line is that the fundamental impasse over North-South "burden sharing" – who does what, when, and where, and, most importantly, who pays – is still unresolved. The crux of the problem is that we in the wealthy world are simply not carrying our own weight. Consider just a simple comparison between the United States and China. Since 1850, the United States has emitted some 350 gigatons of CO2, according to the US Department of Energy; during that same time, China has emitted about 125 gigatons. Now take the two countries’ pledged emissions reductions by 2020. China is promising to cut 2.5 gigatons of CO2, , or a 40 percent improvement in energy intensity; the United States, for its part, has committed to cutting only 1.25 gigatons. In short, our historical responsibility for climate change is greater, yet the Chinese are the ones undertaking the larger obligation.


(Republished with permission of Earth Island Journal

Tom Athanasiou directs EcoEquity (, an Earth Island Institute-sponsored project, and is a member of the Greenhouse Development Rights authors’ group.