Some Call Copenhagen a Failure, but Maybe It's Just a Beginning

Some call Copenhagen a failure, but maybe it's just a beginning.

December 20, 2009, 3:06 PM

COPENHAGEN, Denmark, Dec. 20, 2009— -- The Copenhagen climate summit may not be quite the failure some are saying.

It brought into sharp focus a crisis unprecedented in human history.

And on a single day -- Thursday, Dec. 17, 2009 -- it presented an historic spectacle.

One after another, most of the 120-plus heads of state or government here each declared at the podium in their own way that the climate crisis is grave -- quite possibly threatening civilization itself by mid century if humanity doesn't change behavior.

Presidents and prime ministers, almost all delivered the same sharp news.They moved way beyond the science and affirmed ownership of the psychologically painful knowledge that global warming is above all a story about national and global security -- increasingly a threat to civil society as temperatures rise and oceans acidify.

The great majority of earth's heads of state or government were delivering this news clearly and succinctly all on one day and as if with one voice. But, agreed on the simple problem, they found the solution devilishly complex, as of course it is.

The unfolding and accelerating climate crisis came with no instruction book.

Lasse Milbo, the taxi driver who brought me back to the convention center Saturday morning ("They call me Taxi Lasse -- or just Lars"), a voluble man who declared that he likes to take a humorous approach to things because "it's good for the health," asked me a reasonable question:

"Why is it that when they have these big conferences about global warming they fly everybody from all over the world, drive them around in limos, and all emitting tons of CO2 into the air -- and with a lot of police escorts, helicopters, fighter jets...?"

I thought about it.

"Well, we aren't ready yet," I said. "Teleconferencing is getting pretty good -- but we aren't ready yet to have the world's leaders stay home but meet on some super multi-screen all at once and hash out a global crisis."

Then I added: "And there's nothing like the leaders themselves actually getting together, flesh and blood, and engaging with each other's anguish directly and personally -- close enough for pheromones. It makes it real human. Really real."

Taxi Lasse enjoyed that answer.

He also told me wonders about his taxi, a Mercedes E-Class 220 CDI diesel: "Particle filters, recirculation of the exhaust, and a two-way catalytic converter. It's got all the stuff -- not a puff of black smoke, and more environment-friendly than Toyota Prius!"

He spoke with pride of Denmark's global leadership-by-example as a virtually carbon-neutral country.

Some Call Copenhagen a Failure, but Maybe It's Just a Beginning

"We do our best," he said modestly, and dropped me off at the fast-emptying Bella Center, a ghost town now by comparison to the previous days' swirling masses of thousands of delegates, journalists, NGO reps and activists.

No more than a hundred fellow professional journalists from around the world were still at work on wrap-up stories.

On the monitors you could see delegates over in the great hall still debating the controversial "Copenhagen Accord," though by early afternoon they would wrap up and issue the final Accord draft, which the great majority would sign on to, but by no means all.

Then the loudspeaker suddenly announced that Yvo de Boer, the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change," would give a last press conference and we all filed one last time into the Center's enormous press briefing room.

De Boer painted an astonishing picture, one that tended to confirm my observation to Lars about pheromones.

De Boer specializes in a unique brand of global conference diplomacy and appears to hold a black belt in this non-violent art.

With his usual dry but faintly bemused delivery of ideas both circumspect and exact, he recounted for us what he had experienced just the day before -- the last tumultuous day of the summit which produced the non-binding American-brokered Accord that had no specific emission targets and had even dropped the requirement that the parties make it all legally binding by 2010 or any given year.

He said he'd spent 10 hours Thursday in a somewhat stuffy room "with [President] Obama, [French President Nicolas] Sarkozy, [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel, [U.K. Prime Minister] Gordon Brown, [Mexican President Felipe] Calderon and some 20 other heads of state" who were -- to his apparent amazement, now that he recalled it -- "getting into the nitty gritty" of the deal.

"They worked very hard," he said, noting that in all the other conferences and summits he'd worked on, the heads of state and government leave the "nitty gritty" for the aides, and then simply offer final thumbs up or down.

He made it sound almost as if these world leaders were getting into it, almost enjoying the fact they could now do their own negotiating with each other, rather than having to stay aloof.

And after all, as de Boer and others had reiterated after that remarkable Thursday, they had all publicly stated and demonstrated their understanding about how much was at stake. They had a cause worthy of their positions -- a cause sometimes loosely but seriously referred to these days as "saving the world."

Copenhagen Climate Talks: Stubborn Scientific Fact Helps Humanity Organize

And as Obama has stated in passing over the past couple of years: "Everybody knows we've got to do this."

Or as others have put it, "Half a boat can't sink."

What was it really like to see that select high company deal and haggle so directly with each other?

Perhaps the stories of that day-long historic gaggle and confusion of so many of the world's leaders will filter out some day, worked loose by historians.

And it may never happen again.

Yvo de Boer was asked if he thought that, in order to get all the many outstanding issues settled in a year's time at the climate summit expected in Mexico City, he'd need to have all those world leaders assembled again.

"Frankly, I don't see that many leaders happening again," he said. "I think it will now be driven by science, by business, and by society."

It may also be that, with the gravity of the climate crisis so newly stated by world's national leaders in such a unified voice, it will be psychologically helpful to have a little time for the sobering declaration of that fact to sink in around the planet.

Perhaps we weren't ready yet.

In any case, differences between national interests were surfaced -- and surfaced dramatically -- as the world watched.

We have learned more about where obstacles to true co-operation, now required between countries that were sometimes at warlike odds in the past, may lie.

For example, we all know now, or at least think we do, that the Chinese are, as in the past centuries, concerned about the outside world prying too much, given how they reportedly objected to the idea of outside monitoring of their promised emissions cuts.

It may be, as some American environmental activist leaders suggest, that the chances of a strong climate bill in the U.S. Senate this spring would have been hampered if Obama had returned home with too specific a global agreement, given how the Senate doesn't much like to be forced to do something, any more than anybody else.

A stubborn scientific fact is now helping humanity organize itself -- that wherever the invisible heat-trapping gas CO2 is emitted, it quickly spreads out in the swirling winds around the world everywhere.

Everybody gets hurt by these emissions, so it seems appropriate to many people that everybody gets heard, and De Boer has bent over backwards to keep the climate negotiations as transparent as possible, without trying to force anyone to act.

"You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink," he had told reporters in a press conference halfway through the two-week summit.

Copenhagen Climate Talks: Stubborn Scientific Fact Helps Humanity Organize

One overlooked but telling sign suggesting that normally overlooked voices are being heard is to be found in the surprisingly upbeat reaction to the non-binding Copenhagen Accord that was given to reporters Saturday morning by Maldive Islands President Mohammed Nasheed.

He and other members of Alliance of Small Island States have presented an inescapable challenge to the conscience at this summit by reminding everyone that the scientists tell them many of their nations -- their worlds -- are due mostly to disappear in the coming decades as sea level rise advances and accelerates due to human induced global warming.

This is due to both the expansion of sea water as it heats up, and to new runoff from massive ice sheets melting faster at both poles.

"One Point Five to Stay Alive!" has been the chant of island-dwelling demonstrators at the approaches to the Bella Center.

An upper limit of a rise of 2 degrees Celsius (above the yearly average global temperature in pre-industrial times, around the year 1800) has been agreed for some time by most nations as a reasonable and "feasible" goal.The same 2.0 degrees Celsius is explicitly agreed on in the Copenhagen Accord.

That 2.0 Celsius above pre-industrial average temperatures of c. 1800 translates to an additional 2.3 degrees Fahrenheit above the current yearly average.

The Small Island State of Tuvalu declared in the great hall this morning that it could not accept the Accord.

Given all this, the Small Island States have been asking instead for an upper limit of 1.5 Celsius -- not 2.0.

But now at the very end of the new Copenhagen Accord -- in the last phrase of the final Article, Number 12 -- it says there should soon be "consideration of strengthening the long-term goal, referencing various matters by the science, including in relation to temperature rises of 1.5 degrees Celsius."

That's why Nasheed is smiling.

It's not legally binding, it's barely grammatical and not exactly specific, but it's a new beginning, and beginnings are often a little messy.

Perhaps we weren't ready yet.

And given the new global recognition here of the messy and frightening problem, there may now be more people ready to clean it up.

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