The Copenhagen Disaccord | The Nation


The Copenhagen Disaccord

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Mark Hertsgaard
Mark Hertsgaard, The Nation’s environment correspondent, is an independent journalist and the author of six books...

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The leaders of Britain’s three main parties have committed to it. We can do the same.

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.

But there is no getting around the central role the governments of China and the United States, the two climate superpowers, play in the drama. Differences between the two appear to be the main reason for the outcome in Copenhagen, though again it is crucial to remember how far both nations moved in the lead-up to the summit. At their November Beijing meeting, Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao broke decisively from the past by pledging for the first time that each nation would limit its future greenhouse gas emissions. Although the emissions cuts announced a few days later fell well short of what science says is necessary, the shift in direction was profound. Now the task is to get the superpowers to extend and honor their promises of better climate behavior.

In this regard, one of the most fascinating post-Copenhagen commentaries came from Mark Lynas, a British writer and activist who has written one of the essential books on climate change, Six Degrees. Lynas serves as an unpaid science adviser to the Maldives, the Indian Ocean island nation that led the fight in Copenhagen to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million. Writing in the Guardian, Lynas charged that it was above all China that wrecked the summit. Lynas was in the room during the final hours of negotiations between Obama, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and other world leaders--talks that, he argued, could have produced an agreement that would have had environmentalists "popping champagne corks." But China repeatedly blocked progress, according to Lynas, including by demanding the removal of all specific targets for emissions reductions, even the 80 percent reductions by 2050 that the United States and other rich industrial nations were proposing for themselves.

Such accusations are "totally unjust and irresponsible," responded Yunliang Zhou, chief of the political and press office at the Chinese consulate in San Francisco. Referring to China's pledge before Copenhagen to reduce its economy's carbon intensity by 40 to 45 percent by 2020, Zhou added, "Our voluntary target has no conditions attached, nor [is] it linked to any other country's goals. Given the performance of some countries at the conference and their long failed commitments, they have no right or qualification to blame China and other developing countries." Zhou declined to address China's alleged veto of the 80 percent emissions cuts by 2050 by developed countries.

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