A bit of pessimism from Copenhagen

As dawn breaks on the last day, it’s very hard to be optimistic about the outcome, either here today (taken loosely – important climate meetings notoriously run over schedule) or in the coming months and years. The big countries are plainly negotiating as if their primary objective is to protect their national economies, rather than to protect the planet and the vulnerable people, species and ecosystems that live on it. This even though it’s well known by now – including by the governments here negotiating –  that in the long run, climate change will undermine economic prosperity and possibly even economic survival.

The symbolism has been unfortunate, as civil society members like myself have gradually been restricted more and more from the physical facilities of the convention and the political processes going on inside (to say nothing of the arrests and beatings that have been widely reported and filmed). Yes, we can watch certain parts on the web, the speeches anyway. But it’s plain – and, ultimately, unsurprising – that we can have little influence in the span of days or weeks. If we’re going to make a difference, it’s through patient organizing over months and years, organizing that has done much to change the public consciousness, but not yet enough to overcome the inertia and active resistance to the necessary transformation.

And indeed, a big transformation is clearly needed. As I have said a hundred times in the last few years, if you can’t tell that it’s already too warm, you’re not paying attention. Debating whether we’re going try to limit climate change to two degrees Celsius, or accept a three or four degree increase, is not unlike debating whether you’ll wait till after lunch or after dinner to call the fire department, when your house is burning at 9 a.m. If it were in fact free to stop all greenhouse gas emissions, we would do so immediately. But it’s not, so we keep quarreling about who should do what, so that we can all avoid having to do anything.

It is safe to say that in the US, we’ll continue to be told that the problem is that the “emerging economies” are the problem, that it’s because China and India won’t do their parts that we’re not making progress. The obvious fact that the country with a quarter of the world’s pollution, a quarter of the world’s wealth but only a twentieth of the world’s population really does have a unique obligation, will probably go missing in the debate. Hopefully we’ll be able to get past this before it’s too late. Meanwhile, I sit in my hotel room, nothing to do but write, mere miles from the conference center, but very, very far from where I, and we, need to be.

Paul Baer


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