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Posted by Kevin Bundy

December 24, 4:35 p.m.

Ice bear and Frostpaw

Frostpaw the polar bear challenging President Obama to do better on climate change as he is accepting the Nobel Peace Prize.

Photo by Kassie Siegel.

The Copenhagen climate conference is now history, but the repercussions of the world’s failure to adopt measures stronger than the so-called Copenhagen Accord may haunt us for some time.

News reports from Copenhagen in the closing hours of the conference told a dramatic story: President Obama crashed a secret meeting among the heads of a few rapidly industrializing nations and came out of the meeting with an agreement that saved the talks from collapse. Behind these reports, however, lies an infinitely more complex — and far more troubling — reality. Ultimately, the Copenhagen Accord reflects rather than resolves the deep conflicts that brought the Copenhagen conference to the edge of chaos and beyond: divisions between developed and developing nations, deepening rivalries among economic competitors, and the vast distance between the emission reductions necessary to avert disaster and the steps the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases are willing to take.

Instant pundits have spilled a great deal of digital ink already analyzing what went wrong (or right, depending on the pundit) in Copenhagen. But it’s worth asking a few simple questions, even if the answers are anything but simple: What did we really need from Copenhagen? What did we get, and why? And finally, what happens next?

What We Needed: A Strong, Binding International Agreement

Reputable scientists have spoken with a virtually unanimous voice: Climate change is already upon us, and its impacts are unfolding even more quickly than predicted. Meanwhile, greenhouse gas emissions are rising dramatically; atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are approaching 390 parts per million, or ppm, already far beyond the 350 ppm level that would give us a good chance of avoiding the worst effects of climate change. Scientists now agree that global greenhouse gas emissions must peak within the next decade and decline steeply thereafter.

The Kyoto Protocol, initially adopted in 1997, set the stage for what needed to happen in Copenhagen. Many key provisions of the Protocol — a binding international agreement that holds participants to specific emissions reductions — are set to expire in 2012, leaving a major gap in the international effort to combat climate change. The Protocol also has some major holes of its own. Foremost among them are: (1) the absence of the United States from the list of industrial countries that have ratified the Protocol and thus are bound to reduce their emissions; and (2) the lack of binding emissions reduction commitments by developing countries. 

What we needed in Copenhagen was a meaningful, fair, and binding international agreement with global participation and support. Such an agreement might have included two tracks: one track extending and strengthening the legal requirements applicable to the Kyoto parties, the other track binding both Kyoto holdouts like the United States and rapidly industrializing countries like China and India to appropriate reductions. We needed firm emissions reduction targets and firm achievement dates on both tracks, including ambitious short-term targets. We also needed firm funding commitments and financing mechanisms to assist the least developed but hardest hit countries in adapting to the severe environmental changes they have already experienced and are certain to face in the decades to come.

As the conference approached, however, some political leaders did their best to ratchet down expectations, anticipating that long-brewing conflicts among nations might preclude any such deal. But others — including the leaders of small island nations like Tuvalu and the Maldives, which could literally disappear beneath the rising waves by the end of this century — insisted that meaningful action was not only possible, but essential.

What We Got: A Fill-in-the-Blanks “Accord”

The conference itself opened and closed in official chaos. Inside the Bella Center, delegates circulated leaked drafts of agreements, conducted (or were shut out of) frenzied back-room negotiations, and generally failed to agree on much of anything beyond the uniform acknowledgment that climate change is real, science-based, and already happening. In the face of this knowledge, developed and developing countries stared each other down across a gulf that resonated with the echoes of colonialism and the hard facts of global inequality. Blocs of countries formed and splintered, showing divisions among northern and southern countries as well as rapidly industrializing and least developed nations.

In stark contrast, the hallways of the conference center and the streets outside were filled with citizens and activists from around the world who came together and demanded meaningful action. New alliances formed in the side events and on the barricades as people from all corners of the Earth exchanged information and views. A unified call for climate justice went out from Copenhagen, even as NGO and observer access to the conference itself was curtailed and in some cases completely denied — sometimes with violence.

World leaders arriving in the conference’s waning hours, who may have expected only to lend ceremonial weight to a done deal, instead found the meeting deadlocked. So President Obama and the leaders of China, India, Brazil, and South Africa sequestered themselves in a back room and hammered out the three-page political statement now known as the Copenhagen Accord.

The Accord nominally sets a goal of holding global temperature increases below 2 degrees Celsius, but does not contain the specific emissions reduction targets necessary to achieve this goal. In fact, it does not specify any emissions targets or achievement dates at all, but rather leaves those targets as blanks for each participating country to fill in as it sees fit by the end of January 2010. Nothing in the Accord makes these fill-in-the-blank targets legally binding.

Nor is there any indication that the targets, once defined, will prove adequate. If participating countries stand firm on the targets they brought to the conference, there is no way they can meet even the stated 2 degrees Celsius goal, much less the more scientifically defensible 1.5 degrees Celsius goal that the Accord states should be studied further. According to a scientific analysis of the proposals advanced by both developed and developing countries at the conference, these targets would put the world on a path toward exceeding a 3 degrees Celsius temperature increase, at which point we would be committed to catastrophic and irreversible climate change.

The Accord also attempts to bridge some of the gaps between developed and developing countries by providing both short-term and long-term funding for adaptation and mitigation measures in the developing world. Yet the Accord does not specify any long-term source for this funding, leading to fears that financial support will have to come from a still-to-be-developed private carbon market rather than more certain public sources. The Accord also attempts to deal with serious international disputes over monitoring and verification of emissions reductions, but the delicacy of this critical issue led to the use of nebulous, nonbinding language.

The other 188 nations attending the Copenhagen conference had no opportunity to take part in negotiating the Accord, and even very little time to read it, before being asked to sign on. Under the UN’s consensus-based framework, the conference as a whole was unable to agree on adopting the Accord; instead, in a last-ditch effort to avoid ending the conference completely empty-handed, the conference voted to “take note” of it. So the Copenhagen conference ended much as it began: with no new, binding agreement to extend and enlarge upon Kyoto, and indeed, no clear way forward.

Some observers have attempted to frame the Accord as an important first step, or at least better than nothing. Most, however, have expressed varying degrees of disappointment at how far the Accord falls short of the agreement that the world needed to emerge from Copenhagen, and some fear that the back-room dealing and abandonment of the consensus-based UN approach may have permanently damaged the institution. Even President Obama has acknowledged that disappointment in the outcome is justified.

Why We Got What We Got: A Global(ized) Game of Chicken

With the Copenhagen conference almost universally acknowledged as a failure, the blame game is in full swing. Many quite understandably fault the United States, which arrived at the conference with an embarrassingly weak set of emissions reduction targets and an unwillingness to enter into any binding commitment, and then refused to improve on those targets even as the conference approached the brink of collapse. Others point the finger at China and other rapidly industrializing nations, which do not want to lose economic advantages that they are just beginning to enjoy — especially at the behest of wealthy, industrial nations that have enjoyed the same advantages for decades, pumping the atmosphere full of fossil carbon in the process. And even the small island states and others are assigned blame for their pursuit of stringent, science-based emission reduction targets that sometimes brought the consensus-based process to a halt.

There is plenty of blame to go around. Indeed, the real problem in Copenhagen — one that persists despite the Accord — is that industrialized and industrializing countries are engaged in a high-stakes game of “chicken,” each hoping to preserve economic advantage by forcing others to make potentially costly emissions reductions. In effect, many nations in Copenhagen were treating this conference like a trade negotiation, relying more on bluster, bullying, and brinksmanship than on the science of climate change. The notable exceptions were the small island states and the deeply poor nations of Africa, for whom climate change represents an immediate (rather than a somewhat more distant) threat to survival.

Global dynamics aside, it is impossible to deny that domestic politics in the United States cast a long shadow in Copenhagen. Internationally, the “debate” over climate science is passé. But in the United States, denialists and obstructionists continue to hold sway in policy and media discussions of the problem. Fears about global competitiveness are certainly motivating many in the Senate to pursue weak emissions reduction goals, but the well-funded disinformation campaigns of the denial lobby also are taking a serious toll.

What Happens Next: Mexico City, Washington, Sacramento, and Your Hometown

The Copenhagen Accord sets one process in motion while others continue. By the end of January 2010, at least some countries presumably will have filled in the Accord’s blank spaces with promised but nonbinding emissions targets. At that time, we may see just how far short we have fallen from the reductions necessary to achieve the Accord’s goal of holding temperature increases below 2 degrees Celsius. The next climate conference will take place at the end of 2010 in Mexico City.

Meanwhile, in Washington, Congress will continue to debate — or avoid debating — a number of climate bills, all of them far weaker than the science demands. But 2010 is an election year, and many members — smarting from the rancorous healthcare debate — have already expressed reluctance to take on another big, contentious issue. So Congress may do too little, it may do nothing at all, or it may even move backward by scaling back or eviscerating the environmental laws we already have in place.

More promising, although under threat by climate-science deniers and others, is the Environmental Protection Agency’s burgeoning effort to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. EPA recently released a powerful finding that greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks endanger public health and welfare by contributing to climate change. If EPA were to make similar findings for other greenhouse gas sources — which both science and the law compel — the stage would be set for comprehensive regulation and reduction of emissions from all sectors of the American economy. The Clean Air Act, unlike the kind of political compromise that might be forged in Congress (or was reached in Copenhagen), requires regulators to base their decisions on current science. Seeking to use the most powerful tools available under the Act for regulating greenhouse gases, the Center for Biological Diversity and 350.org recently petitioned EPA to set a science-based nationwide cap on greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. One hundred other conservation organizations and scientists have since signed on in support of the petition.

In the absence of strong international and national action, state and local governments are continuing to fill the gap. California is a prime example. The California Resources Agency is poised to adopt guidelines for considering the climate impacts of a wide range of public and private projects under the California Environmental Quality Act. The California Air Resources Board is beginning to consider draft regulations implementing a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gases under California’s Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32), working in conjunction with other western states. Local governments and air districts throughout California and other states continue to wrestle with the difficulties of quantifying, avoiding, and mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.

The Copenhagen Accord leaves a tremendous amount of work to be done. As several international activists pointed out during those two turbulent weeks, the responsibility for that work lies not just with leaders like President Obama and members of Congress, but also with the American people. In international, national, and even local arenas, we must continue to demand strong, scientifically based action to address climate change.

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Polar bears on Hudson Bay © Brendan Cummings