<cross-posted on SustainUS AoC Blog>
Sitting in a cavernous reception hall dimly lit by Christmas lights and a projector screen broadcasting President Obama’s announcement of the Copenhagen Accord was not the end to the UN Climate Change Conference that I had anticipated—but really what had I anticipated? It was very late Friday, December 18th, 2009 and around me sat members of the International Youth Climate Movement, environmental organizations, and representatives of non-governmental organizations from across the world who had come to Copenhagen to bear witness to the UN climate negotiations but who had been shut out of the Bella Center, where the negotiations were held, in the final days of the two-week conference. As President Obama’s press conference concluded, there were resounding boos in the audience and blank stares as we sat aghast at the agreement that had just been described
The political outcome that came out of the conference, the Copenhagen Accord, realizes none of our demands and is characterized by a weak pledge and review framework for key mitigation targets that was left empty of commitments as leaders flew home. As news of the Copenhagen Accord spread in Copenhagen, stories on how it was brokered emerged to provide tinder for a wild fire of political drama and finger pointing. Reports suggest that the Accord came out of an unscheduled meeting between President Obama and leaders of China, Brazil, South Africa, and India. President Obama then announced the Copenhagen Accord as a “meaningful outcome,” before it went to the entire body of nations at the conference for acceptance. Then, after an all-night negotiating session, and lacking consensus on its approval, the UNFCCC decided to merely “take note of the Copenhagen Accord.” So, countries may sign onto it as they like, but there is no mandate to do so. The end of January 2010 was the deadline for countries to sign on to the Copenhagen Accord (though countries will not be turned away if they want to sign on later). As of January 31st, 55 countries have signed on, including the U.S, China, and other large greenhouse gas emitting nations, which currently account for 78% of global emissions. While accounting for global emissions is one thing, reducing those emissions is quite another. Under the Copenhagen Accord there is an aim to limit warming to 2 degrees C (an increase that will still leave many island nations uninhabitable), analyses indicate that current proposed targets, if implemented, will still leave us with drastic warming of 3.9 degrees C by the end of the century. Absent from the Accord are details about how deforestation will be reduced, how and how much money will be provided for climate adaptation and how exactly emission reductions will be monitored and verified. The Accord is not fair, ambitious, or binding. An incomplete political outcome was anticipated going into the negotiations, but for most there was still a harsh sting as we watched the results unfold that evening.
The UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen was one of the largest events ever held to address climate change politically. Though it was by no means the first effort; these negotiations have been occurring regularly since the early 1990’s. Copenhagen however, saw an unprecedented level of attention as the UN was overwhelmed with people, like me, interested in taking part in advocating for real solutions and witnessing the process that was to lead to a binding agreement. In total, 120 heads of states attended, and brought a previously unseen level of engagement to the issue. All this could have set the conference up for success, though unfortunately that was not the case. Fingers have pointed the blame in different directions. Though for us here in the US, we cannot look much further than our own inactions. In the US Senate energy and climate legislation is moving through at a snail’s pace, despite it being a way to create jobs, spark economic growth, and improve our energy independence.
The disappointing politics is the story most often told, but on the ground Copenhagen was much more than a political chess game. As President Obama’s press conference concluded on that Friday night and the force of the moment set in, a member of the International Youth Climate Movement brought us back. Standing up on a chair he announced that this was unacceptable and issued a call to action—a rally outside the Bella Center. More than eleven million people supported a fair, ambitious, and legally binding treaty, and there we were in Copenhagen watching those demands be sidelined. What else were we to do? Traveling by taxi and train, and dogged by police inquisitive of our plans as midnight passed, we arrived at the Bella Center, a place that had over the weeks become a familiar refuge from temperamental hostel owners, expensive Danish restaurants, and frigid winds. With our photo badges no longer allowing us access, hundreds of us stood chanting and holding signs outside in a last ditch effort to make our voices heard. Despite 2009 being one of the warmest years on record, the frigid Danish air threatened to drive us away, though we stayed warm as we stood close and lifted our voices for the world. As the negotiations continued inside, a Bolivian delegate who heard of our response came outside to offer support and reminded us that, “while it hadn’t been a success on the inside, it had been one on the outside.”
The days and weeks preceding had seen a climate march of 100,000 people, a 7-hour sit-in inside the Bella Conference Center, 1,000’s of candlelight climate vigils globally, and a handful of people who had refused food for over 40 days being joined by thousands for a day of fasting for climate justice. The Bolivian delegate was right, Copenhagen was a magnificent coalescence of people whose demands for action are not unheard. People came from around the world and left with new friends and allies to support their work in the years to come. More than a means to a political agreement, Copenhagen served as a catalyst for an emerging global community of people committed to ensuring our relationships with each other and the planet are sustainable.
I spent almost three weeks in Copenhagen, arriving days in advance of the conference and leaving several days after it concluded. It was intoxicating to be in a place where the pace and energy levels were so high and where everyone was operating at full capacity–pushing our limits intellectually, physically, and emotionally. There were dozens of times when I paused and looked around me, only to be silenced by what I saw–unable to put words to the scene unfolding.
I see a growing need for our global society to collectively dig deeper into what it means to be a citizen of this planet. Our individual spheres of influence wrap around the world, and yet it is so easy to forget this. In Copenhagen I met hundreds of people from around the world, many whose lives are being affected by climate change in very real ways, right now. Hearing people talk about droughts and rising sea levels back home, it is hard not to think about my own home and wonder if we can change our ways here. Returning home, I at once want to lapse back into the main stream of complacency and to continue escalating my activism, calling out all the atrocities of the world. A middle path will probably result from this, more deliberate and sustainable than if I realized the extremes of either. Like everything though, it is all part of a process and I’m learning, like many of my peers, that lasting change does not come in the form of legislation and treatises, but in the building momentum of people who dare to pursue solutions in the world.