After two weeks observing the climate negotiations in Copenhagen, I’ve taken my time reacting to the outcome. There has been a great deal to digest. But as the dust begins to settle, it’s clear Copenhagen has spawned two principal conversations around the world.
The first is a postmortem on what happened, or didn’t happen, at COP15, the long-anticipated United Nations 15th Conference of the Parties.
The second conversation is asking, “What now?”
The postmortem is producing widely varied opinions. President Obama, who brokered a non-binding, three-page Copenhagen Accord among a handful of countries, called the deal “meaningful and unprecedented”.
The Center for American Progress, a progressive Washington think-tank close to the Obama Administration, said Copenhagen produced “numerous notable achievements and meaningful insights into how the United States can gain from leading the world toward a new international clean-energy agreement.”
Others reacted with anger and disappointment that a far more concrete and binding commitment had not resulted from the years of international negotiations that were supposed to culminate with a treaty at Copenhagen. President Obama and a few other world leaders tried to lower expectations earlier this year, but they didn’t lower them enough.
Bill McKibben, the prolific environmental writer who founded 350.org and organized the largest worldwide climate demonstration in history last fall, assessed COP15 this way:
"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."
One exhausted State Department official who worked tirelessly for months in negotiations leading up to COP15 explained that Obama did not show up in Copenhagen to end the deadlock there with a Hail Mary pass. Instead, this insider said, Obama rushed up the middle for some tough yards and got a first down.
But today, the end-zone seems farther away than ever. Signs are that COP15 drove nations apart rather than bringing them closer together on solutions to climate change. For example, Europe is blaming China and the United States for the lack of progress; China says the EU is trying to drive a wedge between nations; numerous accounts claim that China was the main obstructionist; and the president of Brazil is blaming Obama for not committing to more aggressive U.S. emission cuts.
After Obama took the podium to deliver his short speech to delegates in the final hours of COP-15, my first reaction was extreme disappointment, even anger, at the inadequacy of his message.
He and the United States are capable of much more than he offered. The speech could have been Obama’s moment, an historic point at which he turned the world away from its destructive path and toward a safer, more secure and prosperous century.
With the soul-stirring words of which he is capable, with unhesitating recognition of the United States’ responsibility to help poor nations, with strong commitments equal to the climate challenge and America’s moral obligation to address it, and by declaring an international race to the top of a new 21st Century economy, Obama could have transformed the emotional, polarized and calcified dynamic that had developed at COP-15 during the two weeks before he arrived.
Instead, as McKibben noted,
"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.’"
Obama offered no bold new ideas, no surprises that might have changed the outcome of the conference. For many, the postmortem will conclude that the president has not yet lived up to his earlier promises that the United States will lead the world on climate action, and he undermined the international respect for America he so carefully rebuilt during his first year in office.
By the time I landed back in Denver, my reaction mellowed somewhat as I read reports about Obama’s efforts in the conference’s final hours — how he broke into a meeting some nations were holding behind his back, how he brokered the five-nation agreement that, while not legally binding or remotely adequate, contained some new content, and how he left Copenhagen red-eyed and exhausted after long hours of arm-twisting behind the scenes.
In retrospect, the key question may be not what happened at Copenhagen, but what happened in the years of negotiations that should have set the stage for COP15 to “seal the deal”. Or the key question may be McKibben’s: Are we humans capable of solving this problem?
Where Do We Go From Here?
The second conversation — where we go from here — is more important than the postmortem.
In the years of international climate talks, all roads led to Copenhagen. Yet the intense political pressure to reach a deal there did not produce one. Neither did the growing evidence that climate change is advancing much faster than anyone predicted. Neither did compassion for the people who will suffer the most, including the small island nations that already are losing their lands and cultures to rising seas.
If global expectations, sobering science and basic human compassion did not work at Copenhagen, what will? What hope is there for a better outcome next year, or anytime soon?
In the U.S. Senate, Obama’s own party failed to give him a strong negotiating position for COP15 — i.e., a clear signal that Congress would pass a meaningful climate bill or that the Senate will be inclined to ratify an international treaty. If that obligation didn’t move the Senate, what will?
Al Gore, who seemed omnipresent at COP15, suggested that the climate-action community push for a Senate bill by Earth Day and for a new UN climate conference to finalize a global deal next July. But at the moment, there seems to be no political price for members of Congress if they don’t act on climate change, and heavy flack from conservatives and tea baggers if they do. There will be a serious progeny penalty — a price that will become more apparent and severe as time passes — but most members of Congress are more worried about November 2010, the next mid-term election.
Further, given the Senate’s 60-vote rule — a debilitating procedural barrier that subverts the will of the electorate and the Constitution’s intention of majority rule — what hope is there that Congress is capable of passing an effective, equitable and transparent climate bill next year, or ever? The taxpayer-supported bribes needed to secure 60 votes on health care reform are minor compared to the payoffs Congress is considering for the oil, coal and nuclear industries in a climate bill.
If there is a silver lining in the storm clouds that gathered over Copenhagen, it may be the full realization that government will not solve the climate problem — that we in business, in civil society, in communities and states, and in our roles as consumers and investors — must take responsibility at the grass roots.
That’s not to say we should give up on a good climate bill in the United States and a good treaty internationally. Government policies ranging from carbon pricing to the de-subsidization of fossil energy are critical to unleashing the impatient capital waiting for a signal that the market for green technologies is real.
But it’s also time for a renewed push on states and cities that have not yet implemented their own aggressive climate action plans, to push for carbon reporting by corporations, to push for progressive local policies, including feed-in tariffs, rate structures that allow utilities to earn reasonable profits from energy efficiency programs, renewable energy goals that exceed any that emerge from Congress and legislation that forbids utilities from burning coal produced by mountaintop removal in Appalachia.
Climate change isn’t waiting for us, and we can’t wait for Congress or another COP.