Copenhagen Climate Summit Opens: What's at Stake?

Copenhagen Climate Summit Opens: What’s at Stake?

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By Nick Berning (cross-posted from Open Left)

Hi from Copenhagen, where a crucial round of negotiations aimed at yielding a solution to global climate change began this morning.

I’m here with three — soon to be five — colleagues from Friends of the Earth’s group in the U.S. (there are Friends of the Earth groups in 77 countries) and we’re going to post frequent updates about the negotiations as they unfold over the next two weeks.

Kate (Here in the picture is our policy analyst Kate Horner addressing hundreds of our closest friends at a Copenhagen planning meeting of Friends of the Earth’s international network.)

My goal with this post is provide you with a brief overview of what’s at stake in the negotiations. It’s a precursor to more newsy follow-ups.


The future of our planet isn’t at risk (it’s not going anywhere), but the lives of billions of people on it are.

As human activity causes atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases to rise, the planet is slowly warming and the climate is destabilizing. We’ve already seen some consequences (disappearing Arctic sea ice and increasing droughts in Africa, for example) from the limited warming that’s taken place to date, but the real danger is what happens if we don’t act quickly to stop greenhouse gas emissions.

An overwhelming majority of climate scientists agree that we’re on a trajectory that could by the end of the century lead to temperatures not seen on Earth since dinosaurs roamed a planet that consisted largely of swamps. By 2100, business as usual would have a high risk of producing a climate that is 5ºC hotter than existed at the start of the industrial revolution. The costs of such warming would be dire. At 5ºC, multi-meter sea level rises would threaten people in coastal areas around the world, and droughts, heat waves and floods would lead to dramatic food and water shortages, producing “climate refugee” crises and mass migrations in short time periods. The result would be an economic and security nightmare. Indeed, many experts say even a 2ºC temperature increase poses unacceptable risks and that greenhouse gas concentrations are already too high.

What’s worse is that there’s a significant lag between the time carbon dioxide is pumped into the atmosphere and the time that the full impact of the resulting increase in carbon dioxide concentrations is felt. This means that if we wait until tragic impacts are taking place, it will be too late to fix the problem by merely reducing pollution. Indeed, additional warming will already have been locked in.

Don’t use this as an excuse to go off and get depressed though, because it’s not too late to solve the problem. While some harmful impacts are by this point unavoidable, if we dramatically reduce emissions now, we can keep temperature rises below 2ºC and help vulnerable communities adapt to the climate changes they still face.


Discussions like this post so far (focusing on global warming science and the impacts that climate destabilization will cause if left unchecked) tend to bore or turn off a lot of people. So I hope I haven’t lost you yet.

What should especially interest readers like you (assuming you’re progressives) is that climate change is as much about social justice as it is about the environment. It’s a story about powerful and wealthy elites dispossessing a majority of the world’s population.

One more brief scientific note though. When thinking about global warming from a scientific perspective, emissions in any given year are far less important than the cumulative concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Once they get into the air, greenhouse gases (particularly carbon dioxide) tend to stay there. Think then of the atmosphere as having a set total amount of greenhouse gas emissions it can safely accommodate. Scientists aren’t certain exactly what this total is, but they’re confident that we’re close, and an increasing number, including top NASA climatologist James Hansen, believe we’ve already exceeded it.

Back to the justice piece. Wealthy, industrialized nations have filled far more than their fair share of the atmosphere with pollution. The United States is one of the worst offenders. Those of us who live in the U.S. make up only about a twentieth of the world’s population, but we’re responsible for a full fourth of the greenhouse gases humans have put into the atmosphere.

The situation is doubly unfair in that many of the communities most vulnerable to climate change impacts are the ones that have done the least to cause the problem. That’s why wealthy, industrialized countries that gained their wealth by filling more than their fair share of the atmosphere with pollution now have a responsibility to lead the way in solving the problem. (This responsibility is more than a moral one; it’s also a legal one, enshrined in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, to which the U.S. is a signatory.)

Here’s a useful analogy. Imagine how you’d feel if I backed a pickup truck into your house. And then, once I realized what I’d done, if instead of paying for damages, I told you you’d be stuck with the bill as I continued to smash my pickup through other parts of your house. That’s similar to what the wealthy countries are doing here.

This gets us to the second key piece of what’s being debated at the negotiations. The first, as you’ve probably already intuited, is determining which countries have to reduce emissions and by how much. But there’s an equally important component of the discussions going on here, which has to do with the extent to which wealthy countries repay (quite literally — in the form of money on the table for clean energy deployment as well as preparation for and adaptation to climate change impacts) the climate debt they have incurred as they polluted more than their fair share of atmospheric space. Developing countries still have a right to develop. It would be outrageous for the U.S., which used fossil fuels to develop, to tell a country like India, where hundreds of millions of people still lack access to electricity, that it must stop developing because the atmosphere can’t handle more emissions.

So those are the key issues at stake in the pursuit of a treaty that’s fair:

* Will developed countries lead the way in cutting emissions at a rate that’s aggressive enough to do what scientists say is necessary to avoid catastrophic warming?
* Will the same developed countries put enough clean energy and adaptation money (known colloquially at the negotiations as “climate finance”) on the table to ensure that vulnerable communities are protected and that the hope of economic improvement remains available to impoverished people around the world?

There are a lot of other structural questions being worked out, such as what compliance mechanisms are in place to ensure that countries live up to their pledges, or how to ensure that forests are protected in ways that respect the rights of the indigenous peoples who live in them. But if we can get these two key bullets worked out, there’s a good prospect for achieving a decent treaty.

Unfortunately, that’s not an easy task. The top obstacle has been the United States. U.S. negotiators have spent the year pushing for weak, essentially nonbinding emissions reductions, and they have put far too little money on the table for repaying our climate debt to yield any agreement, much less a fair one. One of the key things we’ll be looking to President Obama for over the coming two weeks is increased ambition and the bold leadership that has thus far been missing. The EPA’s announcement today that it’s moving forward with a process to use the Clean Air Act to reduce pollution is a good start, but even bolder leadership is needed. Keep reading Open Left. We’ll let you know how our president does.

In the meantime, keep checking out to learn more.