Chicago Green Jobs

Copenhagen, Climate Change, and the Art of the Possible
October 23, 2009, 4:20 pm
Filed under: Creating Green Behavior Change

Word on the street is that the Copenhagen climate change talks will not result in a treaty this year. Most of the reactions I’ve seen tend to fall into two camps: “this delay is the triumph of Evil Corporate Interests™ over the common good” and “this is a victory of economic rationality over Tree Hugging Hippies™.”  Needless to say, these are not especially useful frames. So what are we to make of this delay?

The most important thing to remember is that the world has moved from a scientific debate about whether or not climate change is happening to a policy debate about what we’re going to do about it. It may not always feel that way when polls show that Americans are getting more doubtful about the existence of climate change,  but when the Pentagon, Desmond Tutu, and the World Bank are working on the same problem that’s a good sign that action is in the offing.

Politics, however, is the art of the possible.  According to the NYT, Yvo De Boer, the Dutch diplomat who oversees the negotiations, thinks hammering out a good agreement will take at least another year: “There isn’t sufficient time to get the whole thing done. The form I would like [the session] to take is the groundwork for a ratifiable agreement next year.”

Do we have another year to burn on this? I think we do. The interests and issues around managing climate change are complicated in the extreme, and we need to get this treaty right.  Let’s take a look at some of the key issues that need untangling:


“The reality that we face is that the cause of the fundamental emissions which result in global warming are to a large extent the responsibility … of developed countries,” Alf Wills, South Africa’s top climate negotiator, according to the NYT.

If there’s one thing all the major players agree on, it’s that climate-change triggered drought, disease, and displacement will disproportionately affect the residents of the countries that contributed the least to the problem in the first place.  The leaders of developing countries are keenly aware of this injustice, and are determined not to agree to a treaty that would require them to limit their economic growth to meet CO2 reduction targets.

In fact, India and China just signed a pact to unite against a climate treaty that requires developing countries to adhere to binding emission limits. Their united front will lend serious negotiating strength to the Group of 77 developing countries who are all striving to balance their responsibilities towards creating economic growth with the imperative to mitigate climate change. However, this anti-binding cuts stance is not sitting well with developed countries.


“We don’t want to close a steel mill in Canada and import steel from China. We don’t want to close a coal- powered generating station in Ontario and then import dirty coal- fired electricity from Michigan.” Canadian Environment Minister John Baird, according to Bloomberg

China has overtaken the United States as the world’s largest emitter of CO2, with India on track to become the third largest emitter by 2015. A treaty that places no binding emissions restrictions on developing countries would not only hand a strong economic advantage to two of the biggest contributors to the problem, it also opens the door to a scenario in which rising emissions from developing countries negate all the cuts developed countries make.  That is a risk that  developed countries are unprepared to take, especially in the midst of an already painful economic downturn. This is the reason President Bush refused to push for the ratification of the Kyoto treaty, and President Obama has signaled that he may not accept a treaty that doesn’t include binding limits.


“Maldivians have lived in these islands for over 2,000 years; and we don’t want to trade paradise for an environmental refugee camp,” President of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed.

A rise in world temperatures will have a net negative impact worldwide, but again some regions will be hit harder than others and most of those regions are in the developing world. So who should pay for developing nations to adapt to climate change: the governments themselves or the countries that emitted all the CO2 on their path to robust economic growth? A recent World Bank study estimates the costs for developing countries of adapting to climate change at about $100 billion per year for the next forty years, which is about twice as much as current levels of aid.  Developed countries want any aid money to be tied to binding emissions cuts in developing countries, a stance that the G77 strongly opposes.


“We’ve been taught, especially in America, that happiness will be at the end of some sort of material road, where we have lots and lots of things that we want,” Peter Whybrow, author of American Mania: When More Is Not Enough, according to Wired.

Successfully adapting to a carbon constrained world will ultimately require a shift in how we think about some of our deepest values and associations. How many of us equate a big juicy steak with celebration? How many of us see soft, air-dried toilet paper made from old growth forests as a non-negotiable comfort?  These things may seem trivial, but they are symptomatic of a strong strain in American culture of equating success with consumption. That’s a mighty hard mindset to change, and it’s a very easy one to export to other countries.  The negotiators hammering out that treaty are attuned to the willingness of the people they represent to make the changes that an effective treaty will require.

So What Can We Do?

This is quite a list of issues to untangle. In fact, I’d say that the negotiations around hammering out an effective climate change treaty are the most complicated that the international community has ever attempted. We have to get this right.  A one year delay is worth it if it results in a treaty that has the kind of buy-in to make it stick.

In the meantime, what can we do? Ultimately the responsibility for tackling climate change rests with all of us: the actions we take every day and the messages we send the leaders who are hammering out solutions at the legislative and corporate level. If you want to see a real climate treaty ratified, the most important thing you can do now is work to create powerful social movements to support action on climate change.

So tell me: what’s your PSP?


Leave a Comment so far
Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: