“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 CO