A Planetary Movement

A Planetary Movement

The Copenhagen summit has witnessed the coming of age of a genuine, global and muscular mass movement on behalf of climate action.



“The future of the world is being decided here over the next few days,” said Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland, as she addressed the huge demonstration at the climate change summit in Copenhagen. The rally here was but one of thousands of mass actions held around the world on December 12 to pressure President Obama, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and the 115 other heads of state and government soon to arrive for the conclusion of the United Nations-sponsored summit. As the final days of negotiations approached there was, as always with climate change, plenty of troubling news. But there was also an unmistakable, perhaps game-changing, sign of hope. For the Copenhagen summit witnessed the coming of age of a genuine global and surprisingly muscular mass movement on behalf of climate action. Diverse, youthful and unafraid to demand the supposedly impossible, this new climate movement is a force that governments, corporations and other powerful institutions seem destined to reckon with for years to come as the fight to preserve a livable planet enters the post-Copenhagen era.

Activists throughout the world have been calling for strong climate action ever since the UN Earth Summit in 1992, but never has civil society, including the media, been half as visible or influential as it has been at Copenhagen. Even the bleary-eyed delegates cocooned in the Bella Center–the vast complex ringed by security forces where the negotiations have taken place–could not escape the movement’s insistence on action now. The halls of the Bella Center have been almost uncomfortably crowded with journalists and activists of countless ethnicities and backgrounds, while in the streets pedestrians are confronted by a dazzling variety of posters, lighted signs and slick advertisements urging change. Contrary to many news reports, 99.9 percent of the activists have been nonviolent. Their demonstrations were motivated mainly by anger that governments are falling catastrophically short of what needs doing.

Most striking of all has been the movement’s success at putting a key demand–reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million (ppm)–squarely on the public agenda. The turning point came a day before the December 12 demonstrations, when the thirty-nine nations of the Alliance of Small Island States offered a draft treaty that explicitly embraced the 350 target. Within days, according to Jamie Henn of the activist group 350.org, the 350 target was endorsed by more than 100 countries, nearly all of them ranking among the poor and island nations that are already suffering from sea-level rise, drought and other intensifying impacts of climate change. Reducing atmospheric CO2 concentrations to 350 ppm is, in turn, aimed at limiting the earth’s eventual global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. “The idea,” Mohamed Nasheed, the first democratically elected president of Maldives, the low-lying island nation in the Indian Ocean, told me, “is that people will agree not to murder others. Anything above 1.5C, and we [in Maldives] have had it.”

Often derided as politically naïve and economically disastrous, the 350 target is nevertheless scientifically compelling (as evidenced by the personal endorsement it got from Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the often conservative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and Lord Nicholas Stern, former chief economist of the World Bank). Author Bill McKibben, a chief organizer of the December 12 day of actions, notes in the latest Mother Jones that already, with CO2 levels at 387 ppm, glaciers are melting, drought is becoming endemic across the US Southwest and deluges like the record 2006 rains in India are worsening. He then asks, “You really want to go for 450?”

But there is no denying that returning to 350 ppm will require truly radical cuts in future emissions, as well as massive efforts to remove CO2 already in the atmosphere, through growing trees and other “carbon negative” practices. And it is hard to overstate how unwelcoming the big emitter nations are to such talk. The main resistance comes from the United States and the other rich industrial countries, whose emissions over the past 200 years caused global warming. But China, now the world’s largest emitter on an annual basis, is also strongly opposed. Indeed, at press time, the fate of the Copenhagen talks appeared to rest on whether the two climate superpowers, China and America, could impose their will on emissions cuts on the rest of the world. Representatives of developing and island nations say their governments have been under intense pressure from the two superpowers; China, for example, has reportedly offered to build hospitals and schools in Burundi if that East African nation will fall in line.

The vast gap between rich and poor is also reflected in the rancorous debate over climate aid. The European Union has endorsed or offered almost $11 billion over the next three years to help developing countries shift to green technologies and adapt to the inevitable impacts of climate change. Developing countries and activist groups have denounced this as a shameful pittance. They point out that even the World Bank, an institution dominated by the rich industrial powers, has estimated that developing nations will need $75 billion to $100 billion a year to cope with climate change. Lumumba Stanislaus Di-Aping, the Sudanese diplomat who chairs the developing nations Group of 77, complained of the proposed $10 billion, “[That] is not enough to buy the coffins to bury us.”

With the closing days of the summit just ahead, all eyes are on Obama. The president appears to remain very popular internationally, and people understand the opposition he faces in Congress. But if he and his fellow world leaders fail to reach a fair, ambitious and binding agreement in Copenhagen, the global reaction is likely to be swift, harsh and enduring. A mass climate movement has come of age, and it won’t take No We Can’t for an answer.

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