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Why Copenhagen May Be a Disaster

Treating climate change as just another political problem may mean the end of civilization.

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Obama is doing the same thing with climate change that he did with health care.  He’s acting with complete political realism, refusing to make the perfect the enemy of the good (or, really, the better-than-Bush). He’s doing what might make sense in almost any other situation.

Here, unfortunately, the foe is implacable. Implacable foes emerge rarely. The best human analog to the role physics is playing here may be fascism in the middle of the last century. There was no appeasing it, no making a normal political issue out of it. You had to decide to go all in, to transform the industrial base of the country to fight it, to put other things on hold, to demand sacrifice.

Yet it’s all too obvious that we’re not dealing with it that way.  The president hasn’t, for instance, been on a nonstop campaign to make everyone realize the danger. When he went to China, he certainly reached some interesting agreements about cooperation on automobile technology, but that’s not the same as seeking a wartime partnership.

Nor is the senate meeting late into the night figuring out how to mobilize our country’s resources and people in the struggle to save our planet.  Here’s how Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill summed up the mood: “I don’t think anyone’s excited about doing another really, really big thing that’s really, really hard that makes everybody mad.”

Some of us have been trying hard to open some political space for world leaders to step up to this challenge.  We built a worldwide movement at 350.org that managed to pull off the “most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history” (at least according to CNN).  In some places, it even sparked the desired result.  Ninety-two nations, all poor and vulnerable to the early effects of climate change, have endorsed that radical 350 target.

Some of their leaders, like Mohamed Nasheed, the president of the Maldives, a nation made up of more than a thousand islands in the Indian Ocean, have emerged as tigers, ready to fight. No one would be surprised to see him lead some kind of walkout from the Copenhagen negotiations, since he’s declared over and over that he won’t be party to a “suicide pact” for his low-lying nation; he is, in other words, unwilling to treat global warming as a normal political issue.

We, however, couldn’t get even the most minor player in the Obama administration to come to one of the 2,000 rallies we staged across this country.  None of them were interested in jumping into the space we were trying to open.  If the U.S. is this willing to treat climate change as politics-as-usual, most of the other major players will simply follow suit.

They'll sign some kind of paper in Denmark -- that became all but certain on Friday night when Obama announced he'd jet in for the meeting's close.  European leaders and some environmental groups may then call it a “qualified success,” and on we will go through more years of negotiation. In the meantime, physics will continue to operate, permafrost will continue to thaw, sea ice to melt, drought to spread.

It’s like nothing we’ve ever faced before -- and we’re facing it as if it’s just like everything else. That’s the problem.

Bill McKibben is the author of 10 books, most recently Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. He is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College in Vermont.

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