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We're Headed for the Greatest Resource-Sharing Problem of All Time

For all its complexity, the core of this problem can be stated simply enough: What kind of a climate transition would be fair enough to actually work?

First, a confession: This is not another enumeration of confident judgments. I will not tell you that Copenhagen was an unmitigated failure. Or that this failure was Obama’s fault. Or that, as is the new fashion, China was the ugliest of them all. I will not say that the South’s negotiators made impossible demands. Or argue that the United Nations’ process is unwieldy and obsolete. I will not claim that only domestic US action really matters. Nor will I talk of a “North-South impasse” or a “US-China polluters pact,” two popular formulations that misleadingly imply an equal division of blame.

I will say this: Almost two decades after I started working on climate change, I was happily astounded to witness the crystallization, on the streets of Copenhagen, of a grassroots movement that was both energetic and sophisticated, and to see global civil society groups working in solidarity with the leaders of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable nations to press a collective agenda. And I can tell you something else: Our chances of preventing climate catastrophe rests in large part on the ability of this new alliance to communicate to the world’s richest and most powerful peoples that the emissions emergency is, above all things, a crisis of justice.

As everyone knows, the Copenhagen talks failed to catapult us into the ambitious global mobilization we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But this was never going to happen anyway. What did happen, as the veteran Bangladeshi policy activist Saleemul Huq put it, was “a shaking of the traditional pieces of the global geo-political puzzle and their landing in a new and unfamiliar configuration.” In this sense, the question of success and failure is moot. The real question is whether the new configuration offers us fresh ways forward.

This question cannot be answered by the usual logic of environmental campaigning. Now is a time for reflection – not for pushing forward one more meeting, one more demonstration, one more demand. Of course we need action, and we need it fast. But we also need strategy, because Huq’s “unfamiliar configurations” are going to settle in the midst of another big year that will culminate with another major December climate showdown, this time in Mexico City. If 2010 is major, 2011 and 2012 promise (or threaten) to be just as important, as do the other years in the brief time ahead – the post-Copenhagen era in which we must begin to act.

The Copenhagen summit marked a pivot in world history, a defining moment – if not a decisive one. The climate negotiations saw the debut of a new geopolitics. In it, China looms large, the United States appears weakened (though still with the ability to do great harm or good), Brazil and India are rising, the European Union looks progressive but ineffectual, and a chorus of smaller states have been emboldened to defend their interests in the face of an existential crisis. As for that “second superpower” – world public opinion – it is, frankly, divided against itself. Seen in this way, the end of 2009 may well mark the real beginning of the twenty-first century, in the sense that 1914 and the start of World War I are commonly taken to mark the real beginning of the twentieth. The hope must be that our new century won’t be as hot and brutal as the last one was cold and bloody.

Copenhagen was about far more than the climate talks. To make sense of it, look at it as a milestone in a process that’s still unfolding. The negotiations did not just occur in the official meeting halls of the Bella Center. They took the form of countless debates that happened in the NGO “Convergence Center” on Copenhagen’s Nørrebro, on countless internet comment boards, in civic spaces around the world. The critical debates of Copenhagen spanned the entire globe and a huge swath of opinion. Justice and science, realism and necessity, capitalism and democracy, the cost of affluence and the rights of the poor – it was all in play, encoded in the chants and banners of the estimated 100,000 people who clogged Tivoli Square on December 12 demanding meaningful action. And – most importantly – these debates were a key background to the blow-by-blow negotiations occurring among nation-states.

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