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Copenhagen: a look back at the most striking narratives

David Roberts, grist
Last week was absolutely extraordinary, full of more drama and consequence than anything I’ve witnessed in the green world in the six years I’ve been covering it. It was the coming together of so many forces and narratives that the tangle will likely be unpacked over years, not days.

For a close look at the details of the Copenhagen Accord, see Robert Stavins. For a wonderful tick-tock of how the last day unfolded, see John Vidal and Jonathan Watts. For more analysis, see Andrew Light, Michael Levi, Jeremy Symons, Julian Wong, Jake Schmidt, and Noah Sachs.

Having had a chance to catch my breath after a manic couple of weeks, here are a few of the more striking narrative threads that have stayed with me.

Clash of expectations

What made Copenhagen such a charged atmosphere was the clash of two forces. On one side: the rising expectations, engagement, and intensity of civil society. Activists have spent the last two years characterizing COP15 as humanity’s last chance to save itself; success was characterized as a full legally binding treaty targeted at 350 ppm of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. On the other side: a set of political circumstances and leaders that rendered activist aspirations all but impossible…

…Leaders up in it

One of the most unusual and fascinating stories of the summit is the fact that heads of state got down in the muck and negotiated text. This never happens. When leaders arrive at international negotiations they typically expect to sign something that’s already been hashed out, call it a victory, and fly home. At most there are a handful of remaining issues. Last Friday at Copenhagen there were dozens, large and small, remaining when over 100 heads of state arrived. That left them in a frantic game of phone calls, leaks, and meetings, sometimes with mid-level negotiators, sometimes one-on-one, sometimes even unexpectedly, as when Obama famously barged in on a meeting with China, India, and Brazil…

…China fail

Obama being the hypnotizing, endlessly fascinating figure that he is, much attention has focused on his role in the talks. To hear some green lefties tell it, Obama is single-handedly responsible for failing to secure a full, legally binding treaty…

…UN fail

Here’s what you need to know about the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change: it’s based on a framework that can’t solve the problem, but changing the framework requires unanimity among 192 wildly diverse nations, so it’s stuck…

…Senate fail

In retrospect it might not have mattered, given Chinese intransigence, but the reason Obama went to Copenhagen with such weak targets is that he couldn’t promise anything the U.S. Senate—the world’s most dysfunctional legislative body—wouldn’t deliver. Even the 17% by 2020 that Obama promised was a little risky, given the lingering possibility of failure in the Senate…

…Twitter win

For the green world, Copenhagen marked a real coming of age for social media. The NGOs made unprecedented use of Facebook and Twitter to mount campaigns and keep in touch, but for me as a journalist the real story was Twitter…

…Looking forward

As an exhausted Obama said before leaving Copenhagen:

One of the things that I’ve felt very strongly about during the course of this year is that hard stuff requires not paralysis but it requires going ahead and making the best of the situation that you’re in at this point, and then continually trying to improve and make progress from there…
(21 Dec 2009)

If you want to know who’s to blame for Copenhagen, look to the US Senate

George Monbiot, the Guardian
The last time global negotiations collapsed like this was in Doha, in 2001. After the trade talks fell apart, the World Trade Organisation assured delegates that there was nothing to fear: they would move to Mexico, where a deal would be done. The negotiations ran into the sand of the Mexican resort of Cancún, never to re-emerge. After eight years of dithering, nothing has been agreed.

When the climate talks in Copenhagen ended in failure last week, Yvo de Boer, the man in charge of the process, urged us not to worry: everything will be sorted out “in Mexico one year from now”. Is Mexico the diplomatic equivalent of the Pacific garbage patch: the place where failed negotiations go to die?

De Boer might pretend that this is just a temporary hitch, but he knows what happens when talks lose momentum. A year ago I asked him what he feared most. This is what he said. “The worst-case scenario for me is that climate becomes a second WTO … Copenhagen, for me, is a very clear deadline that I think we need to meet, and I am afraid that if we don’t then the process will begin to slip, and like in the trade negotiations, one deadline after the other will not be met, and we sort of become the little orchestra on the Titanic.”

We can live without a new trade agreement; we can’t live without a new climate agreement. One of the failings of the people who have tried to mobilise support for a climate treaty is that we have made the issue too complicated. So here is the simplest summary I can produce of why this matters….
(18 Dec 2009)

There is a way ahead after Copenhagen

David King, the Independent
As the dust begins to settle and the delegates return home, the mood from the Copenhagen climate meeting appears to be one of disappointment, even dismay. I don’t think this is fair. Certainly there were disappointing aspects, though they weren’t entirely unexpected. But the underlying message was positive in one crucial regard: at last, the developing world has found its voice in the climate change debate.

The agreement thrashed out late on Friday night by President Obama and his small, hastily convened cabal of key states was not in itself very meaningful. By the time the text emerged it had lost its most important statement – a timeline to achieve a legally binding protocol by the end of 2010. This was a clear demonstration of Obama’s weakness. He is a hostage to his own Congress and Senate, and if he goes beyond what they can stomach, they will certainly give him a bloody nose.

But it did have two positive aspects. First, it was not in itself a fully fledged protocol. This was a relief since at this stage a weak protocol would have been very much worse than nothing at all. Second, none of the nations that Obama felt he needed to turn to were in the so-called Annex I group of rich countries. Instead, he brought in China, India, Brazil and South Africa, all rapidly emerging countries that are now seen as essential participants at the negotiating table…
(20 Dec 2009)

Contributed by Billhook, who observes:

Carbon trading is a fact, and, short of some miraculous revolution where all govts renounce it in favour of regulating all GHG outputs efficiently and fairly (without being voted out at the next election) it is going to remain a fact.

I suggest that carbon trading could be reformed into a very effective instrument for ending global warming, since it can be as Equitable as the agreed allocation of its tradable emissions entitlements under an annually declining cap, and it can be as Efficient as the parameters agreed for the spending of revenues on mitigation and adaption programs.

Moreover, the policy framework Sir David proposes (that is widely known and endorsed as “Contraction & Convergence”) has another crucial advantage both for its negotiation and for its resilience in operation under the looming stresses the nations will face – it has the advantage of being eminently simple in its expression of the fundamental principle of advancing equity between peoples. We converge from emission rights reflecting the status quo, to per capita parity in those rights under a sustainable cap, over an agreed period of years.

For further information, see: for ‘Global Commons Institute’, who originated and still promote the framework.

Copenhagen: Things Fall Apart and an Uncertain Future Looms

Bill McKibben, yale environment 360
It’s possible that human beings will simply never be able to figure out how to bring global warming under control — that having been warned about the greatest danger we ever faced, we simply won’t take significant action to prevent it. That’s the unavoidable conclusion of the conference that staggered to a close in the early hours of Saturday morning in Copenhagen. It was a train wreck, but a fascinating one, revealing an enormous amount about the structure of the globe.

Let’s concede first just how difficult the problem is to solve — far more difficult than any issue the United Nations has ever faced. Reaching agreement means overcoming the most entrenched and powerful economic interests on Earth — the fossil fuel industry — and changing some of the daily habits of that portion of humanity that uses substantial amounts of oil and coal, or hopes to someday soon. Compared to that, issues like the war in Iraq, or nuclear proliferation, or the Law of the Sea are simple. No one really liked Saddam Hussein, not to mention nuclear war, and the Law of the Sea meant nothing to anyone in their daily lives unless they were a tuna.

Faced with that challenge, the world’s governments could have had a powerful and honest conversation about what should be done. Civil society did its best to help instigate that conversation. In late October, for instance, — the organization of which I am a founder — held what CNN called the “most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history,” with 5,200 demonstrations in 181 countries all focused on an obscure scientific data point: 350 parts per million (ppm) of CO2, which NASA scientists have described as the maximum amount of carbon we can have in the atmosphere if we want a planet “similar to the one on which civilization developed, and to which life on Earth is adapted.”…
(21 Dec 2009)

All over the map: Rounding up editorial reax to Copenhagen

Russ Walker, grist
It’s too weak! … No, it was a fool’s errand to begin with … China is to blame! Of course not, it was the United States that brokered a bad deal for the world’s poor … There’s no hope … Progress was made, there’s more to do … Despair … Hope …

Such was the general tone struck by newspaper editorial boards over the weekend about the climate accord announced late Friday from Copenhagen. Below is a roundup of Copenhagen editorializing. As the product of pre-1990s public education in the United States, this author is only able to read and speak English, so this is heavily weighted toward American and British publications, with a heavy smattering of newspapers based in Commonwealth nations (aka former Brit colonies).

Here we go:…
(21 Dec 2009)

No One Is Going To Save You Fools

thereisnospoon, Daily Kos
Before I explain the generic insult, let me first make something perfectly clear: I am your enemy. That you don’t know this is understandable: after all, people like me prefer it that way. But until you understand just what you’re up against and why, you’re going to continue to lose, and look like fools in the process.

Barack Obama has indeed sold you out. He and many of his Democratic colleagues have sold you out on healthcare, and they’ve sold you out on financial reform. You were looking for a savior, and you’ve been had–not an altogether atypical result for those looking for a strong leader to “save” them.

He hasn’t done this because he’s a bad guy. In fact, he’s a great guy. I think he’s doing pretty much the best job he can. He’s sold you out because he’s not afraid of you. And really, if I may be so bold, he shouldn’t be afraid of you. You don’t know who really runs the show, and you’re far too fickle and manipulable to count on.
(16 Dec 2009)

Copenhagen – Historic failure that will live in infamy

Joss Garman, the Independent
The most progressive US president in a generation comes to the most important international meeting since the Second World War and delivers a speech so devoid of substance that he might as well have made it on speaker-phone from a beach in Hawaii. His aides argue in private that he had no choice, such is the opposition on Capitol Hill to any action that could challenge the dominance of fossil fuels in American life. And so the nation that put a man on the Moon can’t summon the collective will to protect men and women back here on Earth from the consequences of an economic model and lifestyle choice that has taken on the mantle of a religion.

Then a Chinese premier who is in the process of converting his Communist nation to that new faith (high-carbon consumer capitalism) takes such umbrage at Barack Obama’s speech that he refuses to meet – sulking in his hotel room, as if this were a teenager’s house party instead of a final effort to stave off the breakdown of our biosphere.

Late in the evening, the two men meet and cobble together a collection of paragraphs that they call a “deal”, although in reality it has all the meaning and authority of a bus ticket, not that it stops them signing it with great solemnity…
(20 Dec 2009)
sent in by EB reader Bill Henderson
related: After the catastrophe in Copenhagen, it’s up to us

Terminator 2009

Rebecca Solnit, tomgram
It’s clear now that, from her immoveable titanium bangs to her chaotic approximation of human speech, Sarah Palin is a Terminator cyborg sent from the future to destroy something — but what? It could be the Republican Party she’ll ravage by herding the fundamentalists and extremists into a place where sane fiscal conservatives and swing voters can’t follow. Or maybe she was sent to destroy civilization at this crucial moment by preaching the gospel of climate-change denial, abetted by tools like the Washington Post, which ran a factually outrageous editorial by her on the subject earlier this month. No one (even her, undoubtedly) knows, but we do know that this month we all hover on the brink.

I’ve had the great Hollywood epic Terminator 2: Judgment Day on my mind ever since I watched it in a hotel room in New Orleans a few weeks ago with the Superdome visible out the window. In 1991, at the time of its release, T2 was supposedly about a terrible future; now, it seems situated in an oddly comfortable past.

What apocalypses are you nostalgic for? The premise of the movie was that the machines we needed to worry about had not yet been invented, no less put to use: intelligent machines that would rebel against their human masters in 1997, setting off an all-out nuclear war that would get rid of the first three billion of us and lead to a campaign of extermination against the remnant of the human race scrabbling in the rubble of what had once been civilization.

By the time the film was released, the news of climate change was already filtering out. Reports like Bill McKibben’s 1989 book The End of Nature had told us that the machines that could destroy us and our world had, in fact, been invented — a long, long time ago. Almost all of us had been using them almost all the time, from the era of the steam engine and the rise of the British coal economy through the age of railroads and the dawn of petroleum extraction to the birth of the internal-combustion engine and the spread of industrial civilization across the planet. They weren’t “intelligent” and they weren’t in revolt, nor were they led by any one super-machine. It was the cumulative effect of all those devices pumping back into the atmosphere the carbon that plants had so kindly buried in the Earth over the last few hundred million years…
(20 Dec 2009)

A Climate Con: Analysis of the Copenhagen “Accord”

David Spratt and Damien Lawson, climate code red

The Copenhagen Accord could not be further from what civil society, along with most developing countries sought to achieve at this conference. There is no Fair, Ambitious and legally-Binding deal.

Instead it is a non-legally-binding three page document, drafted by United States, China, India, Brazil, Ethiopia and South Africa that says little beyond what had been discussed at previous international meetings.

Yet US President Obama and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd both held press conferences announcing the accord before it had been completed and attempted to spin the document as a historic achievement.

But the Conference of the Parties [COP15] at Copenhagen decided only to “take note” of its existence and some countries including Tuvalu strongly repudiated the document. The COP15 agreed to continue negotiating on an extension to the Kyoto Protocol and a new agreement on “long-term cooperative action.” The next full meeting is scheduled for late November in Mexico…
(21 Dec 2009)