December 1, 2009

Tonight we are focusing on the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark. It runs from the 7th to the 18th of this month with the aim of creating a successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol, which expires next year.  The scientific and political issues surrounding the conference are complex, and to help us understand them more fully, we’ll have as our guest later in the program Alexander Ochs, Director of the Worldwatch Institute’s climate and energy program, who will be participating in the conference.  We’ll also give you a description of various activist activities that are planned for Copenhagen, including a harbor shutdown and a mass bicycle ride.

Listen to the show.

Background on the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference

Tonight we are discussing the upcoming Copehagen Climate Change conference, also known as COP 15. That acronymn stands for the Fifteenth Session of the Conference of the Parties to the Climate Change Convention, or the Kyoto Accords,

As you probably know, the United States was the only major country in the world not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, while 187 states have signed on.  The Protocol was initially adopted in December 1997 in Kyoto, Japan when 37 industrialized countries committed themselves to a reduction of four greenhouse gases  (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, sulphur hexafluoride) and two groups of gases (hydrofluorocarbons and perfluorocarbons). The Kyoto protocol officially expires in 2013, and Copenhagen is an effort by the U.N. to create an updated treaty that will more comprehensively work to solve global climate change.  Reference:

The website for COP 15 has published a statement by Yvo de Boer, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. He sees four essential questions for the Copenhagen discussions:

1. How much are the industrialized countries willing to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases?

2. How much are major developing countries such as China and India willing to do to limit the growth of their emissions?

3. How is the help needed by developing countries to engage in reducing their emissions and adapting to the impacts of climate change going to be financed?

4. How is that money going to be managed?

“If Copenhagen can deliver on those four points I’d be happy,” says Yvo de Boer.


There is, in fact, a great deal of skepticism over whether Copenhagen can accomplish any of its aims, especially with both China and the U.S. having said in advance that they don’t plan to sign the new treaty.

However, both China and the US made moves last week intended to show a willingness to cooperate:

President Obama finally announced that he will attend Copenhagen during his trip to Oslo to pick up his Nobel Prize. But he will only attend the opening days of the conference, while many world leaders will be staying for the entire two weeks.  The President also announced that the U.S. would commit to a 17-20% reduction of carbon emissions, 17 percent below 2005 levels, by 2020, or 3 percent below 1990 levels. That’s the approximate level passed by the U.S. House of representatives in its climate change bill and currently stalled in the U.S. Senate.

Obviously, Obama can’t deliver any more the Congress will approve, but even so, Reuters has quoted Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Michael Somare as saying,  “…President Obama’s offer appears grossly irresponsible and kills all hope for Copenhagen.”


China responded to President Obama’s statement by saying that it will enact a 40-45% reduction in “carbon intensity,” which is a measure of carbon dioxide emissions keyed to gross domestic product.

However, Mridul Chadha in the Red Green and Blue environmental web site says that, for China, this is “more like business as usual”, since China’s economic growth will be so much in coming years that it could cut “intensity” levels but still be pouring ever more C02 into the environment.


Not only is there some skepticism about the outcomes of the Copenhagen conference, some critics argue that it may already be too late to affect climate change. Writing in the U.K.Guardian last week, Paul Kingsnorth said that: “A climate deal is like trying to halt the rains in Cumbria” [a notoriously rainy part of England].  He writes that recently in Cumbria:

“it looked as if things might be returning to normal. The road outside my house, which had become a stream bed, reverted to asphalt. The waters which had coursed through nearby homes were falling back. The roads were and still are closed, the bridges still down, the fields still lakes, but it seemed the worst was over.

Only now it’s raining again in Cumbria, and everybody is waiting to see when it will stop and what it will leave behind.

I have no idea whether the extreme weather raging outside my window has anything to do with climate change, but I do know … that there is a standard response to a situation like this which, as an environmentalist, I might be expected to follow. It is to say that these floods are a warning of what will happen if we can’t urgently reduce global emissions. It is to say that next month’s Copenhagen conference is a turning point, and that we urgently need a deal to stop climate change.

But I find I can’t say this stuff anymore; not because I have stopped believing in climate change, but because I have stopped believing we can prevent it. As the politicians prepare to fly to Copenhagen, I can’t help thinking of [Neville] Chamberlain’s trip to Munich in 1938. Everyone could see, then, what the future held: it was there in Hitler’s speeches and in the ferocious aggression emanating from Germany. But still, Chamberlain hoped for the best. He came back with a worthless agreement, and everyone cheered. We forget now how the public loved Munich. They desperately wanted to believe peace was possible, precisely because it was obvious that it wasn’t….

Perhaps when Copenhagen fails, it will help us to accept that our visions of the future are also skewed by false hope….

We have pushed back the forests, denuded the oceans, exhausted the soil, tipped other species into extinction, expanded our population to the point where we can barely feed ourselves, and changed the chemical composition of the atmosphere.… An economy predicated on constant growth cannot be the gine of a change that urgently demands less of it….

[This] is not to say that the End Times are here. One of the other problems with the climate change narrative is that it offers only two futures: Saving the World, or Apocalypse Now. We will probably get neither. More realistic is that we will experience what most previous human societies experienced – a painful decline after a period of over-expansion….

The world is not going to be as we once believed it would be, and if failure at Copenhagen brings that reality nearer, then it could be of some use. It might help us to understand that windfarms and green consumerism are not harbingers of a “sustainable future” but the last gasps of a wounded beast. We have less chance, now, of keeping this show on the road than we in Cumbria have of stopping the rain. In both cases, we are going to have to learn to live with what comes from the sky. Reference:

Our Questions for Alexander Ochs

Alexander Ochs is the Climate and Energy Program Director for Worldwatch Institute. He was formerly director of international policy at the Center for Clean Air Policy and has a long history of involvement  in international climate change issues. He will be heading off to Copenhagen to participate in the climate change conference next week.

Part I: The Need for and Aims of Copenhagen

  • Please tell us a little about your work as Climate and Energy Program director for the Worldwatch Institute. What has the Institute been doing to prepare for Copenhagen?
  • What will you specifically be doing in Copenhagen? (We note that there is a Copenhagen Briefing link on your website—will you [or others] be doing daily briefings?)
  • Except for a few diehards, the world now seems convinced that climate change is “real.”  As you look at the climate change research, what do you see as the greatest needs for a new climate change treaty?  What levels of cutbacks would be required to make a difference?
  • Is the hope to stabilize climate change?  reverse it?  merely slow down the inevitable?
  • A part of the Copenhagen conference will be devoted to the costs of affecting climate change, the costs to developing nations (in particular) for reducing emissions and possible reparations to some countries that are already experiencing damage due to climate change. Please give us some perspective on these costs.  Who would be expected to pay the bill?
  • What is your most optimistic scenario for the outcomes of Copenhagen?

Part II: Politics

  • Both the U.S. and China have said in advance that they won’t be signing a treaty in Copenhagen.  Does that doom the conference from the start?
    • What is your perspective on President Obama’s pledge last week to agree to 17% emissions reductions?
      • What are the prospects for significant climate change legislation passing the Senate next spring?
    • What do you think of China’s “pledge” to reduce “carbon intensity” by 40-45%?
  • The European Union is already ahead of the U.S. in controlling emissions. Great Britain’s Gordon Brown last week called for 10 billion pounds in financial support for developing nations. Can the rest of the world simply proceed doing the right thing and hope that the U.S. and China will follow along?
  • Other forces: Can cap-and-trade successfully limit emissions?   Will (as one of the guests on this program argued) $20/gallon gasoline (and rising petroleum prices generally) drive the economy greenwards?  Can green industry (both clean and that producing alternative energy products) create a new economy to replace oil-and-smoke?
  • We asked for your most optimist scenario for the outcomes of Copenhagen? What are some possible middle-of-the-road or Plan B outcomes?
  • What can our listeners do to participate in the global movement to reverse climate change?

Check out the Worldwatch site for its Copenhagen briefings and other environmental news and causes;

Activism at Copenhagen

We’d like to round out this evening’s discussion of the Copenhagen conference with an overview of what will be happening outside the conference hall, as thousands of activists converge on Copenhagen to lobby for particular environmental concerns.  The website “Activists’ Guide to Copenhagen” writes:

Never mind the boring old delegates at [the]…climate talks in Copenhagen. Nearby at the “alternative people’s summit” Klimaforum 09 and at events and actions around the city, the largest ever gathering of climate activists will take place which aims to create a global network that will take the environment movement forward for the next year and beyond.

“We’re expecting more than 10,000 people a day,” says Richard Steed, one of the organisers of Klimaforum09, which has been funded by the Danish government. “This is about creating a people’s network which will carry on communicating and working together long after the conference is finished. I don’t think Klimaforum is about smashing the state, but we don’t want to see business as usual any more, that isn’t going to solve anything. We’re looking at radical solutions.”

Naomi Klein, George Monbiot and Vandana Shiva have all committed to speak during the two weeks of meetings and workshops on subjects like climate justice, transition towns, capitalism, ecological debt. Groups including Friends of the Earth, Campaign against Climate Change, and the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance all piling in.

The Copenhagen activist calendar includes:

11 December  Climate for Life has organised the Summiteers’ Summit to Save the Himalayas in Copenhagen which will bring 22 Nepali sherpas and Everest summiteers to march through Copenhagen to coincide with International Mountain Day on December 11.

12 December   Friends of the Earth International’s Flood for Climate Justice aims to “flood” the streets of Copenhagen with people calling for a good [financial and climatic] deal for the developing world. And numerous groups will participate in a march on to the city center and the Danish parliament.  Their slogan is “System Change, Not Climate Change

13 December   Climate Justice Action will be attempting to close Copenhagen harbour for the day to highlight the contribution of trade and travel in man-made global warming, and to call for the inclusion of shipping emissions in a deal at Copenhagen.

14 December No Borders Action! No Climate Refugees! Campaigners highlight the impact of climate change and the displacement of people because of drought and natural disasters.

15 December Resistance is Ripe! Agriculture Action Day is supported by A SEED Europe, La Via Campesina and Reclaim the Fields, among others, and is calling for sustainable farming and land rights.

And that day there will be an Angry Mermaid Award for the company or lobby group that is “doing the most to sabotage effective action on climate change.”

16 December “Reclaim Power! Pushing for Climate Justice”: Negotiations and actions will intensify as ministers and heads of state arrive in the Danish capital to clinch a deal, or at least agree terms of a deal that will be signed next year.

Bike Bloc promises to put mass bike action at the Bella Centre on 16 December that will end with the Peoples’ Assembly for Climate Justice, organised by Climate Justice Action and Climate Justice Now. They will be collecting used bikes, salvaging parts, and  designing and creating a “device of mass transportation and pedal powered resistance machine.” .