The tension has begun to build in the lead-up to the COP-15 climate summit in Copenhagen at the end of the year. It's clear there's a paradox in the making: COP-15 is almost certainly going to be a watershed moment, and yet hopes for a binding treaty with hard commitments actually being signed in Copenhagen seem to be slipping away as time runs out (due in some large part to the constraints of U.S. domestic politics).
Indeed, UN climate chief Yvo de Boer has already been redefining success in Copenhagen to mean not binding targets but rather agreements in principle:
1. How much are the industrialized countries willing to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases?
2. How much are major developing countries such as China and India willing to do to limit the growth of their emissions?
3. How is the help needed by developing countries to engage in reducing their emissions and adapting to the impacts of climate change going to be financed?
4. How is that money going to be managed?
This is not sophistry. Indeed, while many of us would like to see a clear, tough treaty setting an ambitious path to 350 ppm, that doesn't mean that anything that falls short of that is a failure. This is particularly true if Copenhagen helps reframe the debate.
We need a moment of focused global attention on climate change, the need to address it, and the many opportunities for increasing prosperity through climate action. That's why, in the latest issue of SEED, I argue that the best thing President Obama can do to make the talks a success is to show up in person, whether or not an agreement can be reached:
Because as important as a global deal on climate is, I believe that Copenhagen offers an even greater opportunity: a chance to focus the sustained attention of the entire nation on climate change, educate us about the science involved and galvanize our will to act.
We need the record set straight. The American people need help understanding not just the clarity of the scientific consensus on climate, but also its fierce urgency; not just the need for strong and immediate action, but the incredible opportunity for transformation such a commitment offers us as a nation and the world as a whole.
Copenhagen can still be a wild success if, for a couple of weeks this year, media around the world turn their attention to climate change and climate solutions. If we can really grapple with how far and how quickly our understanding of the science involved has advanced, how universal the consensus is on the need to act (and act quickly) and how many aspects of a carbon-neutral society would actually increase our prosperity, well-being and quality of life. We need to see climate change in a the new light of urgent solutions, and Copenhagen could provide that light.
That would be a major victory, whether or not a single diplomatic agreement gets signed. After all, changed thinking is the first step to a changed world.
Of course, the industries and nations who stand to lose in the short run from the focus that Copenhagen might bring must know that the event is a threat. It will be interesting to see what kind of distractions get thrown up, and how people respond to them.
I agree with you on a few points - that Copenhagen will be a really important educational moment to focus the world's attention on the climate crisis and on our collective response - and that on the flip side, we can't put all our eggs in the Copenhagen basket for getting the world on an ambitious track back to 350ppm.
At the same time, I think this piece sets the bar pretty low. Just saying that Obama showing up will be a good enough start seems to be too little, too late. I agree that the political reality in the U.S. is daunting to overcome. But let's not sell ourselves, and our allies from small island nations and other vulnerable communities short now when we still have many months to change that political reality.
With increasingly gloomy scientific reports, now is not the time to set the bar low. We owe it to our movement, and to future generations, to set the bar where we know it needs to be, and then do everything in our power to reach it before December.