COP15: Hopehagen–or Flopenhagen?

cop15_logo_b_mSo the verdict is in on the UN climate negotiations that just wrapped in Copenhagen and it’s all but unanimous:

Carl Pope, Sierra Club: The world’s nations have concluded a historic–if incomplete–agreement to begin tackling global warming.  Tonight’s announcement is but a first step and much work remains to be done.

Frances Beinecke, Natural Resources Defense Council: We have taken a vital first step toward curbing climate change for the sake of our planet, our country and our children…. There’s still more work to be done.

Fred Krupp, Environmental Defense Fund: A lot of hard work remains, but a lot of hard work is finished. The new positive steps taken here…president the U.S Senate and President Obama with a n historic opportunity.

Jonathan Lash, World Resources Institute: “Much more is needed, but today marks a foundation for a global effort to fight climate change.

Elliot Diringer, Pew Center for Global Climate Change: The Copenhagen Accord is an important step forward in the international climate effort…it lays the foundation for a system to hold countries accountable. …Much remains to be negotiated.

Hmm..  I thought the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio or the 1997 Kyoto Protocol or the 2007 Bali Roadmap were first steps. Shouldn’t we be taking the second, third or fourth steps by now? Or, if you prefer the foundation metaphor, shouldn’t we hurry up and build the house, before sea levels rise and storms intensify?

This isn’t to suggest that the 15,000 or 20,000 people who descended on Copenhagen during the last two weeks wasted their time. What is being called the Copenhagen Accord sets a target of limiting global warming to a maximum 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial times. It promises billions of dollars of aid for poor countries. It points the way towards a resolution of the fundamental conflict between U.S. and China over their so-called “common but differentiated” responsibilities to deal with global warming. That’s important–when it comes to climate and the global economy, the G-2 of the U.S. and China tower over the rest of the world. The leaders of Europe, Japan and other countries at the summit were largely left to rubber-stamp the deal, as The Washington Post reported.

The trouble is, none of this is good enough. Nations can now set own emission reduction targets. (Earlier versions of a political agreement being discussed in Copenhagen had called for specific reductions by 2020 and 2050.) It does not set a deadline for signing and binding treaty. (Until fairly recently, that deadline was supposed to be now.) Sure, aid is promised to poor countries, but aside from some token amounts, no one can be sure where the money will come from.

This isn’t a strong deal. It isn’t  a weak deal. It’s not a deal at all.

It’s a disaster waiting to happen.

Having said that, I understand the thinking behind the first-step-much-work-needs-to-be-done analysis coming from the inside the Beltway environmental groups. With the climate debate now shifting from Copenhagen to the U.S. Senate, they need to tread carefully. They can’t be overly critical of President Obama or undecided senators; they need to suggest that something real was accomplished in Copenhagen, to help persuade legislators that the U.S. can enact strong climate regulation without giving a competitive edge to China or India. Carl Pope of the Sierra Club made this argument explicitly, saying: “Now that the rest of the world–including countries like China and India–has made clear that it is willing to take action, the Senate must pass domestic legislation…”

But, again, the rest of the world has not committed to anything.

For a reality check on where we stand, let me refer you to the Climate Scoreboard put together by scientists at MIT, the Sustainability Institute and Ventana Partners, with the support of Nike, Citigroup, Fidelity Investments and others, which uses computer simulations to  model the long-term climate impacts of decisions being undertaken today. Please see the Climate Interactive blog for more detail.

Put simply, we’re not going where we need to go.

A big part of the problem here, as Bill McKibben has written eloquently, is that the world’s governments treat climate change as just another political problem–and it’s not.

Think about the health-care agreement reached this weekend. It’s the product of a series of compromises, some of them quite ugly, but it has the support of President Obama and Democrats in Congress because they believe it’s the best they can do, for now. Maybe they’ll come back to “reform” health care again in a few years. It’s a step, even a big step, in the right direction.

This is how politics usually works. It’s incremental. Even on great moral issues like civil rights, governments move piece by piece–first the military was desegregated, then came schools, then  voting rights, finally housing and employment bias were barred, if I remember my history right. This approach gives people time to get used to change. It’s the mindset behind first-step-much-work-needs-to-be-done.

But incrementalism isn’t going to do the job when it comes to climate change. Every day that goes by when we emit more global warming pollutants into the atmosphere than nature can take out, the job gets harder to do. So a small but inadequate step, even one in the right direction, can actually leave us worse off than before.

One metaphor that helped me understand this is a bathtub: The faucet (industry, transportation, deforestation) is pouring more water in to the tub than the drain (nature’s ability to absorb CO2) can take away, and there’s no way to make the drain any bigger. Just turning down the faucet a little doesn’t help; the water level in the tub can keep rising, albeit not as fast as before. The longer the faucet pours in more water than the drain can take away, the more radically we have to turn it down to stop the tub from overflowing.

McKibben explains it this way:

Physics has set an immutable bottom line on life as we know it on this planet. For two years now, we’ve been aware of just what that bottom line is: the NASA team headed by James Hansen gave it to us first. Any value for carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere greater than 350 parts per million is not compatible “with the planet on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted.”  That bottom line won’t change: above 350 and, sooner or later, the ice caps melt, sea levels rise, hydrological cycles are thrown off kilter, and so on.

And here’s the thing: physics doesn’t just impose a bottom line, it imposes a time limit. This is like no other challenge we face because every year we don’t deal with it, it gets much, much worse, and then, at a certain point, it becomes insoluble—because, for instance, thawing permafrost in the Arctic releases so much methane into the atmosphere that we’re never able to get back into the safe zone. Even if, at that point, the U.S. Congress and the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee were to ban all cars and power plants, it would be too late.

Oh, and the current level of CO2 in the atmosphere is already at 390 parts per million, even as the amount of methane in the atmosphere has been spiking in the last two years. In other words, we’re over the edge already.  We’re no longer capable of “preventing” global warming, only (maybe) preventing it on such a large scale that it takes down all our civilizations.

There’s the argument for Flopenhagen.

As for Hopenhagen, well, I saw a lot of things to get excited about during my week in Copenhagen.

Denmark itself, for one: The nation gets 20% of its energy from wind, it’s rolling out a national system for charging all-electric cars and roughly 55% of the people of Copenhagen ride a bike every day, most to go to work. You won’t be surprised to hear that they are thinner as a group than those of us in the U.S.

Speaking of wind, Tulsi Tanti, the founder of Suzlon Energy, told me that China is the world’s biggest and fastest growing market for win energy. His company is manufacturing turbines in China, and he says the government there is committed in a serious way to clean energy — even if it doesn’t want to be held to absolute limits on emissions.

Finally, the kids. There were thousands of them in Copenhagen. They are committed to organizing to stop climate change, they are smart, they are idealistic, they are not pragmatic and they are not fans of the first-step-much-work-needs-to-done approach. For more, check out 350.org or Avaaz or the Youth Climate Movement.

You know how people say we need to save the earth for our kids? I’m starting to think that it’s the other way round, that they are going to have to save it for us.

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Comments

  1. Marc – Thanks for saying it like it is and helping put some much needed clarity on COP15.

  2. Great piece Marc.

  3. Kudos for pointing out the spin. And especially for pointing out how we are still spinning our wheels in practically the same place we were over a decade ago, and how utterly meaningless that spin is. You would think Carl Pope were running for congress. We will apparently compromise and diplomacize ourselves right into apocalpyse. Very disappointing results from Copenhagen.

    Merry Christmas or happy holidays, Marc. And keep up the good work.

    Dave Gardner
    Producer/Director
    Hooked on Growth: Our Misguided Quest for Prosperity

  4. An excellent overview!

    For a surprising look at a positive alternative that can rapidly begin to wind down the need for fossil fuels, see the article: 5 Steps to Revive the Auto Industry and the Economy on the Aesop Institute website.

    Season’s Greetings!

    Mark

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