General · 31st January 2010
Several weeks have passed now since the chaotic final moments of the Copenhagen Summit. In the days that followed the end of the Summit it was impossible to get perspective on things. First it was Obama who was blamed for failing the world (Obama’s hands are tied by the need to get climate legislation through the US Senate where conservative Democrats are opposed), then it was China who was cast as the villain (China has since demoted its lead negotiator, indicating that it’s not happy with how things ended either, and is currently going forward with major carbon intensity targets and clean energy investments), and then the Danish hosts themselves were widely criticized for their generally poor management of the conference and for shutting the vast majority of the countries out of the final negotiations that led to the Copenhagen Accord (this is I partially agree with, although it was only part of the problem).
In retrospect, the incredible spectacle of world leaders racing the clock to personally negotiate a Deal to Save the Planet - and failing spectacularly - has obscured the larger patterns laid bare by the Copenhagen Summit. There are three major patterns that I want to highlight here. To make it easier to do so I’m going to try and make those patterns tangible by identifying them with specific actors and naming them: wrenches, survivors and sub-nationals.
Who sets the bar for climate action? The bar that was set for northern countries in advance of the Copenhagen Summit was determined by both scientific and ethical considerations - the need for northern countries to “go first” and make deep cuts in global warming pollution of around 25-40% below 1990 levels by 2020 (many scientists would argue that they must be even more aggressive). The idea is that southern countries - especially the big and rapidly industrializing countries like Brazil, China and India - would continue increasing their pollution for a time as they raise their living standards and then all countries would work together to converge, by around 2050, on an equal per capita pollution level that was low enough to prevent catastrophic climate change. The scientific bar is set by the need to avoid catastrophic climate change, the ethical bar is set by the need to recognize the historic responsibility of northern countries for climate change and give southern countries space to achieve a good quality of life.
Wrenches work by continuously pulling the bar down from levels that will work to the levels that will protect the most polluting sectors of the most polluting countries. Canada’s conservative government is a wrench - they are always working to protect the tar sands with low targets and loopholes. Democratic Senators from coal and rust-belt states (under intense pressure from America’s titanic fossil fuel companies) are another wrench - they are making it impossible for Obama to commit to targets that would meet either the scientific or the ethical bar. I call them wrenches because they function like “monkey wrenches” thrown into the gears of a machine to sabotage it.
The wrenches shaped the Summit from day one. The “Danish Text” that leaked out in the first days of the Summit was an attempt to satisfy the wrenches and still come close to preventing catastrophic climate change - which meant that southern countries would have to do much more to reduce global warming pollution. In effect, they were being asked to cement inequality - that northern citizens could pollute more per person than southern citizens - into international law. There was no way that China or India were going to agree to that.
If the wrenches had their way the result would have been a deal that looked good but didn’t really have much substance - political cover for everyone to hide the distance between northern and southern countries while the wrenches popped champagne in their hotel rooms.
The wrenches didn’t expect the survivors. The survivors are people from small island and African nations for whom climate change is a survival issue, threatening the existence of their countries and/or millions of their lives. These were the people who responded to the leaked Danish text by saying that the $10 billion in financing that it promised for southern countries would not even cover the cost of the coffins that they would need because of the low pollution reduction targets. The global movement - the millions and millions of people organized by campaigns like 350.org - backed the survivors by calling for action that recognizes the emerging scientific consensus: that climate change is happening faster than anyone expected, that we are already in the danger zone, and that to protect the most vulnerable we must go farther and faster than was imaginable only a few years ago.
The survivors changed the nature of the dialogue at the Summit. They were a bold presence with a clear moral argument - don’t make a “suicide pact” that condemns millions to death and suffering. The survivors were specifically resisting the kind of deal that the wrenches wanted: something that would seem okay but was actually a monstrous official commitment to climate catastrophe. They pushed back incredibly hard. So much so that by the second week the survivors were under enormous political pressure, particularly from the US, to not only accept a weak deal, but to then praise whatever agreement came out at the end so that the White House would have an easier time passing climate and energy legislation through the US Senate. While all attention in the final days focused on the biggest countries, the survivors deserve a lot of credit for shaping those days by making it almost impossible for the big countries to strike a weak deal and then achieving a public relations victory.
As the wrenches made a real deal between the biggest countries impossible, and as the survivors made it very difficult to achieve a flashy-but-weak deal, much of the most important action in Copenhagen was actually happening at the sub-national level. Throughout the two weeks at Copenhagen there were thousands and thousands of events and meetings between sub-national governments, civil society, research groups and businesses. These groups were focused on solutions and collaborations that, in most cases, will go forward regardless of the outcome of the talks.
The sub-national work is important because it pushes forward the realm of the possible, shows that the sky won't fall because of climate action, and develops the tangible solutions that we need to connect and scale up to a global level. Without a coordinated global approach the leadership and innovation will happen at the sub-national level, so efforts to push sub-nationals forward is now one of the best ways to make a global deal possible.
This work is particularly important in BC. While BC took an early leadership position in Canada there are now two major questions that need to be answered in the right way. First, will BC implement climate action policies that are both effective and fair, policies that will engage, inspire and benefit people so that they become more and more popular over time and thus allow greater and greater changes? Second, will BC continue to scale up the development of the fossil fuel industry, particularly in the northeast of the province, and thus not only counteract its other climate policies but also become increasingly dependent on those revenues and, ultimately, slip into becoming another wrench province within Canada that makes it harder to achieve progress nationally or internationally?
Those are the kinds of questions that we need to work on together, knowing that there are millions of others like us around the world.
You can meet Jamie Biggar when he visits the island for Sierra Quadra's screening of the award-winning film, The Age of Stupid, on Friday February 26. Jamie was part of the Canadian Youth Delegation in Copenhagen this past December.