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Reality Bites | The Nation

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Reality Bites

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There is scientific reality, and then there is political reality. As the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference proved, the two do not always square. Long before the first delegates showed up, political reality dampened the hope in "Hopenhagen." Only 36 percent of Americans believe that climate change is man-made, fossil fuel lobbies all but own members of Congress and the Senate has yet to vote on a cap-and-trade bill so weak some scientists worry that its effects would be environmentally negligible. Hence, thanks in part to his own failure to advance a bold climate agenda, President Obama arrived in Denmark without the domestic mandate to negotiate a treaty. Meanwhile, the reality that sets the Chinese government's unspoken social contract with its citizens says that in exchange for political stability, the state will guarantee steady economic growth through mass industrialization, and therefore, a reliance on burning more fossil fuels (see Christopher Hayes on page 11). Hence, Premier Wen Jiabao was not about to agree to binding limits on carbon emissions that could critically impede China's development.

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The political realities that govern the United States and China--which together emit 41 percent of the world's carbon dioxide--combined to force a third political reality onto the rest of the world. That reality now has a name: the Copenhagen Accord. Although Obama has hailed it as an "unprecedented breakthrough"--praise echoed by his Chinese counterpart--the agreement is in fact a nonbinding side deal between those two countries (with Brazil, India and South Africa) that is so inadequate to the scale of the crisis that remaining nations merely agreed to "take note" of it.

In the jargon of the document, world governments now recognize "the scientific view" that anything above a 2 degree Celsius rise in global temperature would be "dangerous" and "agree that deep cuts in global emissions are required according to science." The only tangible advance in the deal was the creation of a UN Climate Fund that could grow to $100 billion a year by 2020, although where that money will come from and how it will be spent is still unclear. The EU and Japan have both pledged at least $10 billion; the United States, a mere $3.6 billion.

Beyond that, the accord doesn't promise much else. It does not create binding limits on carbon emissions because it does not even mention such targets. China--a developing nation exempt from emissions reductions in the Kyoto Protocols--vetoed an agreement that would have stipulated a 50 percent overall reduction in carbon emissions and an 80 percent reduction from developed nations by 2050. The United States--which never ratified Kyoto--would offer only 7 percent emissions cuts by 2020. Compared with the 20 percent reduction pledged by EU countries, the offer was paltry and rightly raised skepticism about the US commitment to meeting the 2050 goal. Under the Copenhagen Accord, reducing carbon emissions is purely voluntary, and there is no punishment for failing to meet those nationally defined goals. In short, it's as if China and the United States agreed to take a self-written exam only on condition that there's no difference between earning an A or an F.

For some, the accord represents an inch of progress--at least all major world economies agreed that there is a problem. If the accord does not quite set the stage for a binding compact at the next climate summit, in Mexico City in 2010, then perhaps something will be inked by 2012, when the first phase of the Kyoto Protocol expires, or by 2015, when the Copenhagen Accord mandates a review. It has taken seventeen years, from the first Earth Summit in Rio and the creation of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992, to get this far; perhaps it will take another seventeen to take action.

There is only one problem with this kind of incrementalism: nature does not award points for trying. It neither swoons over recognition of its laws nor bends to the timelines of political reality. It does not bargain with denialists and oil lobbyists, and it does not care about GDP or the filibuster or approval ratings. The physics that governs climate change is inexorable, and its outcome can be mitigated by only one thing: reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

Our best scientific understanding of climate change says that to have even a 50-50 chance of staying under a 2 degree rise, we need to cut 40 percent of most countries' emissions by 2020. The UN's analysis concluded that even if everything on the table in Copenhagen were implemented, we would still be facing an almost 3 degree rise, and a postconference analysis by a team of MIT researchers estimated that the Copenhagen Accord puts the earth on track for a 3.2 degree rise. In other words, if we continue with the incremental politics we've pursued so far, we are sure to face major ecological collapse: the polar ice caps melt, the Amazon and other forests break down, coastal cities like Copenhagen go under and drought sweeps across Africa--all of which lead to hundreds of millions of refugees.

So the task of the growing climate justice movement is nothing less than to transform political reality. In the United States, that means targeting members of Congress who are bought by the fossil fuel industry while at the same time offering a broad critique of consumption, energy use and car culture. It also means changing the political process for dealing with climate change. The Obama administration's decision to allow the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide is promising, but the president's lack of leadership in Copenhagen is a clear sign that he will have to be pushed--hard--before he will flex the government's muscle against corporate polluters.

Globally, activists must somehow find another way to negotiate the broken multinational UN system that allows the United States and China to dictate the terms of a deal. And they should continue to push alternative ideas like climate debt and a moratorium on searching for new fossil fuels that got the official snub in Copenhagen. These are no small tasks.

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