Can Twitter save civilization?
We're about to find out.
As the clock winds down on the big climate negotiation in Copenhagen this December (formally known as the 15th Conference of the Parties, or COP-15), the future of the planet and its inhabitants may be in the hands of tweeters, especially teens and twenty-somethings.
That's because our diplomats and political leaders appear to be defaulting on their responsibility to act against global climate change. Rather than busting barriers and forcing breakthroughs on the most complicated and critical challenge of all time, key government leaders are retreating into the rhetoric of low expectations.
Majority Leader Harry Reid hints the Senate is too busy to take up a climate bill this year – a delay that Jim Rogers of Duke Energy predicts could mean that no climate bill will clear Congress until 2011, after next year's congressional election. The rest of the world, which has been waiting for U.S. leadership, is witnessing an impotent democracy.
In New York last week, where world leaders gathered at the United Nations for another round of speeches on climate change, expectations ran high that President Obama and China's President Hu Jintao might offer commitments that would break the international impasse on a global deal.
That didn't happen. President Obama called for action by all nations, but offered nothing that will inspire the Senate to expedite a climate bill. President Jintao broke modest new ground by pledging that China would reduce its carbon intensity by 2020, but he gave no concrete targets for emission reductions by the world's biggest carbon polluter. If he had, he might have ended the impasse in which politicians in the U.S. are reluctant to sign a deal that does not include hard carbon-cutting targets from the big emerging economies.
Meantime, Yvo De Boer, the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), delivered the disappointing news that it's already too late to craft an international climate treaty by December. De Boer now hopes COP-15 will achieve a "basic political understanding" on essential issues. Since the framework convention was created 17 years ago, it would seem nations have already had ample time to reach "basic political understandings" on the issue.
From the NGO community, Elliott Diringer, the resident climate expert at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, agrees that a treaty is unlikely in Copenhagen.
"With the days quickly ticking away," Diringer wrote last week, "it is becoming clearer to all that the time is too short, and the odds of a final, ratifiable deal by the time the clock hits zero appear virtually nil."
The best we can hope for now, he wrote, is that delegates will agree on a provisional framework for an international treaty – not a final deal or even the specifics of a final deal, but an agreement on the broad terms of a final deal.
So COP-15 is shaping up as a cop-out that will produce little more than procrastination we cannot afford. As Achim Steiner, the executive director of the UN's Environment Programme, told the Washington Post:
"With every day that passes, the underlying trends that science has provided (are) of such a dramatic nature that shying away from a major agreement in Copenhagen will probably be unforgivable if you look back in history at this moment."
Some of us, however, are not ready to concede defeat.
That brings us back to Twitter, FaceBook, MySpace, You Tube, Flickr, text messaging and the potential power of the PDA Nation. Several groups are attempting to mobilize a worldwide mandate for action in Copenhagen, calling for boots to hit streets and thumbs to hit keyboards.
One of my favorites (in part because I've been a sometime advisor on it) is a campaign called Hopenhagen, launched last week during "climate week" in New York City. At the request of the United Nations, the International Advertising Association is applying its creative powers to a viral effort in which young people will petition for a "definitive, equitable and effective" climate agreement at COP-15.
Led by the global communications powerhouse Ogilvy & Mather, the campaign urges young people to become citizens of a Hopenhagen community, complete with a virtual passport. With help from corporate giants Coca Cola, Siemens and SAP, and with support from a growing list of "Friends of Hopenhagen," who range from Reader's Digest and the Wall Street Journal to Mother Jones magazine, Ogilvy will deploy media and billboards in major cities to promote the power of the grassroots.
Rather than complaining about an infringement on its name, the City of Copenhagen has agreed enthusiastically to rename itself "Hopenhagen" in December, replacing C's with H's where the city's name appears at the airport and on highway signs leading to COP-15.
Hopenhagen is one of several current opportunities for youth to help shape the future they will inherit, and for old-timers like me to improve the future we will pass along. Here are some of the others:
Organized by the Global Campaign for Climate Action, Tck Tck Tck is an alliance of civil society organizations, trade unions, faith groups and individuals using social media and the internet to demand a "fair, ambitious and binding" climate treaty. Partners include the World Wildlife Fund, Oxfam and Amnesty International, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the World Council of Churches and the Global Campaign Against Poverty, among others.
350.org is a coalition of more than 200 organizations encouraging local people to hold thousands of events around the world on Oct. 24 to "show our world and its decision-makers just how big, beautiful and unified the climate movement really is". The group's web site offers a tool kit to help local activists organize their events.
So far, 1,578 events are scheduled in 125 countries. The goal is to push for a global agreement that reduces atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases to a maximum of 350 parts per million – the ambitious emissions reduction target advocated by Dr. James Hansen, the outspoken chief climate scientist at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies.
Back in the United States, the meta-group 1Sky is mobilizing people to shower Senators with telephone calls in call for action on a climate bill this year. 1Sky has set up a system that makes it easy to let your fingers to do the marching straight into the offices of your Senators.
Danish government, YouTube and Google have created a web site for people to post their own videos and "raise their voices" about global climate change. The best of the videos will be featured Dec. 15 during a CNN/YouTube "debate" at Copenhagen and on an Earth Globe at the conference.
FTN has created a network to help climate activists communicate about their plans and to join groups working on climate campaigns this fall. FTN also helps local groups organize Clean Energy Forums.
The Apollo Alliance is working with Ceres, the Clean Economy Network and others to help businesses lobby the Senate Oct. 6-7 for clean energy and climate legislation. (To point out that businesses have a stake in climate action is a vast understatement. Converting the world to clean energy technologies is likely to be the biggest market opportunity in the history of commerce.)
A project of the Energy Action Coalition, Power Shift has organized tens of thousands of young people to march in Washington, D.C. in the past. This fall, it is organizing regional summits – 11 so far – to "exercise the political power of young voters and ask President Obama and Congress to pass a clean energy jobs plan by December to rebuild our economy, end our dependence on dirty energy, and bring America lasting security."
To veterans of the Vietnam era like me, social networking seems less impressive than taking to the streets. For my generation, social commitment meant braving enlistment in a war, or a concussion and jail time to protest the war. Some old-fashioned protest still is underway today in acts of civil disobedience, lately against coal mining and coal power plants. Ask Jim Hansen, who is one of several people facing jail time for a protest against mountain top removal in Appalachia.
When I asked a friend of mine – a young mother with pre-teen children – why more of today's youth aren't marching in the old way, she replied: "Kids today don't march. They network." Clearly, we need both.
To us wonks and wags emerged in climate policy, a campaign like Hopenhagen may seem light on substance. I think we'll be surprised. Boiling global warming's esoterica into a simple but true choice between "hope" and "cope" might be the key to engaging the masses.
So, if you want to make a difference by forcing leaders to lead, here's what you can do:
* Sign up for one of the mobilizations above. Better yet, sign up for all of them;
* In a response to this post, alert us to other mobilization opportunities;
* Help these efforts go viral by alerting your social networks;
* Follow emerging developments as we approach COP-15, including more opportunities to raise your voice. One source of information is the COP-15 web site .
With our leaders back-peddling and opponents of action arguing for a status quo that cannot be sustained, it apparently will take a planetary village to deal with climate change.