PETER O. ZIERLEIN
We have entered the post-Copenhagen era of climate politics–but just what that means is still very much undecided. The summit was widely regarded as humanity’s last good chance to prevent catastrophic climate change. It plainly fell short of that goal, but giving up is not an option, not for anyone who cares about preserving a livable planet for our children. Instead, we need the most unfettered, open-minded discussion possible of the terrain confronting us post-Copenhagen and how best to traverse it. Which actions and strategies make sense now? What should governments be pressed to do, and what role should activists, media and civil society play?
Unfortunate as Copenhagen’s outcome was, all is not lost. Bear in mind, the goal was to reach an agreement to take effect in 2012, when key provisions of the Kyoto Protocol expire; that timetable might still be met if governments make sufficient progress at meetings this June in Germany and this December in Mexico.
One clear sign of hope was the emergence of a mass movement on behalf of climate action. Of course, this movement did not achieve all it wanted at the summit–mass movements rarely succeed right away–but its massive presence signaled to power brokers that civil society was watching and would not be satisfied with a weak agreement. Indeed, one important achievement of civil society, including the news media, at Copenhagen was that it prevented governments from spinning the summit’s outcome as a success. Witness, for example, the about-face by President Obama. On the summit’s closing night, he labeled the side deal he brokered with China and other large greenhouse gas emitters an “unprecedented breakthrough.” A few days later, after activists and journalists had made clear the so-called Copenhagen Accord’s sharp limitations, the president acknowledged in a PBS interview that people “are justified in being disappointed” about Copenhagen.
As civil society decides what to do next, it’s important to recognize how much it has already accomplished. US activists have brought about a de facto moratorium on building new coal-fired power plants, notes Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute. Brown argues that such grassroots pressure, both here and around the world, may prove more important to halting climate change than international negotiations like Copenhagen, with their glacial pace and lowest-common-denominator results. Hundreds of local and regional governments have also implemented ambitious green energy programs ahead of federal policy. A pioneer of this effort, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger announced in Copenhagen the formation of the R-20 Group–twenty regions around the world that will “set high standards for cutting carbon and creating green economies, then invite others to join them,” in the words of Terry Tamminen, the governor’s former environment adviser. Tamminen argues that the work of the R-20, along with improvements in national government policies, will end up putting a price on carbon by 2012. That would be transformational, leading corporations, governments and citizens to shift their economic behavior in climate-friendly ways.