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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?

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This surely is one of the core achievements of Copenhagen. Were it not for the “street heat,” even the provisional possibilities of the new situation would not be ours. The massive demonstrations outside the summit halls, the activist flash mobs within the conference, the demonstrations, and constant in-your-face pressure – this and much more had an effect not just on the tone of the negotiations, but on the substance as well. Even after civil society groups were ejected from the Bella Center, their demands echoed in the formal negotiating rooms. The green movement showed itself to be far clearer on the logic of climate justice than it was even a year ago. The ubiquitous placards calling for an accord that would be “fair, ambitious, and binding” were the right ones. The demonstrators showed smartness and savvy wrapped in a sense of urgency.

The point is that, as a focus for public education and movement building, Copenhagen was an incalculable success. Everyone – from Barack Obama to Lumumba Di-Aping, the Sudanese chair of the South’s G77 negotiating bloc, to you and me – knows a hell of a lot more about climate change and its politics than we did a year ago.

Not that we didn’t already know that we face a planetary emergency. This has been obvious for years. The difference now is that – thanks to the global campaign 350.org, and Mohamed Nasheed, the President of the Maldives, and a whole lot of terrified scientists – we know that we know it. And we know it in an altogether appalling manner. We know, at least in outline, what will happen in Africa, though we may wish we didn’t. And Tibet. And the Australian grain belt, and Florida, and the southern oceans, and of course Greenland. We’ve talked about the bogs, the permafrost, and the risks to forests. We’ve heard, finally, about the threats to people: We know how they will suffer, how they will die.

Copenhagen did not deliver the stringent targets and commitments needed to support the fair and ambitious climate accord the protest banners demanded. But this, fortunately, isn’t the end of the story. We can also ask if Copenhagen was a failure when compared not to what is necessary, but rather to what was possible. We can explore whether (this is a key twist) it opened new possibilities, or at least prevented new possibilities from being foreclosed.

Clearly there were successes in Copenhagen. The emergence of a semi-organized bloc of “Most Vulnerable Countries” (the acronym is MVCs) is news that will stay news, and not just because of the tension between the MVCs and “emerging economies” like China and India. The larger issue is that the MVCs have come to know themselves as frontline states, and in so doing have irrevocably transformed the global politics of climate crisis. It goes without saying that, in the coming battles, the most vulnerable will reserve much of their ire for the wealthy countries of the North.

Witness the open letter that South African Archbishop and Nobel Prize Winner Desmond Tutu sent on December 15, after a walkout by the unified African bloc led to a sudden halt in the official negotiations. The Africans aimed to pressure the wealthy countries into honoring their obligations to accept stringent new reduction targets, and Tutu wished to make the stakes quite clear. His letter was blunt: “If temperatures are not kept down then Africa faces a range of devastating threats such as crop yield reductions in places of as much as 50 percent in some countries by 2020.… A global goal of about two degrees C is to condemn Africa to incineration and no modern development.”

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