Copenhagen (COP 15) 2009
Report #6, Copenhagen-Gone But Not Forgotten

Report #6
January 11, 2010
By David Simpson and Jane Lapiner

Copenhagen-Gone But Not Forgotten

This is a long, somewhat tortured essay on experiences and perspective gleaned by an amateur in both climate science and journalism in Copenhagen. If it does not subtract from the crucial ongoing dialogue, I will be relieved, If it adds even one small iota of perspective that is useful to the cause of dealing successfully with climate change, I will celebrate. Thanks for your patience

View From Above

Flying homeward, a little toy airplane-like figure with a long white contrail flew over a roughly outlined map on the TV screens above us in the cabin of our actual aircraft prior to commencement of the flight’s scheduled movies. Just before Julia and Julia, the little plane indicated that we were perched above Greenland on a trajectory that would take it and us over Baffin Island then down and across upper Hudson Bay and west and south toward the Canadian Rockies.

Below us, cloud cover obstructed our view of the land and sea. Way off on the far south- eastern horizon, a wan sun raced us westward. Across the airplane’s aisle, the view to the north seemed at a distance to be one of half darkness throughout the day. It was moving for me to know that we were skirting the Arctic Circle and that today, via a magic accident while booking the cheapest ticket, was the winter solstice, with the shortest daylight of the year when the northern hemisphere was tilted as far back and away from the sun as it would get.

I was thinking at the time that looking out over such an incredible scene was an illicit act. Here we were witnessing the frigid, beautiful heart of the Arctic on this momentous day whose rigors should have prevented access, that was—bought just for the price of an airline ticket … It was a kind of voyeurism, witnessing something wildly erotic that by rights should have been available only to the most unsullied of heroes.

Then, as if to punish with further reward, the sky below opened revealing an oceanic scene I could neither interpret nor understand. The sea was whipped into a great horizontal gyre, a semi-cyclonic vortex of churning water and ice that seemed from 35,000 feet to be some kind of massive and stately procession from far to the south to the center of the vortex directly below.

Smitten by the awesome configuration below and bereft of clear understanding, I let my imagining run for the moment before the clouds closed back over that raw, powerful scene. I was witnessing a major engine of the biosphere. There below me, I fantasized, might be the actual place where warmer waters entrained by the great Atlantic current were spun into this vortex, churned and chilled, then forced back far under the surface toward the south, purged now of impurities, the Arctic cold performing its essential role of cleansing and renewal.

Sounds in the Empty Halls

The Great Climate Circus is over, the giant tents struck. The clowns have wiped off their greasepaint and the elephant manure, no longer steaming, has been swept into neat piles. (Six conservative Congressman and one Senator had made cameo performances at COP 15 that might, for how they promised to impact on African delegates, just as well have been done in whiteface.)

The halls of Copenhagen’s Bella Center have been cleared of the enormous detritus that this effort at climate salvation left behind, incalculable reams of paper now strewn about that had been the thick schedules of events handed out each morning still warm from the copiers as fast as thousands of hands reached for them. There, too, were the voluminous stacks of leftover literature: newsletter, announcements, brochures, studies, the handsomely tricked out propaganda of hundreds of civil society and NGO groups, and region-specific efforts at adaptation and sustainability that had graced these halls offering the passersby a view of missions that collectively, with sufficient support, might add up to a better world. 

Endless faux plastic coffee cups and dinnerware that had been so proudly vaunted by their hosts as…voila! Recyclable, but then thrown into inadequately marked sorting containers, have by now been gathered together by the cleanup staff and sent off, one fears, to the landfill—illusions of sustainability like games of three card monte out on the midway, a small diversion for the now-vanished rubes along the road toward their larger fools errand. 

The last echoes of the great buzz and hum of 45 000 people (only 15,000 at any one time) speaking in almost every imaginable tongue, is now but an imagined murmur. So many earnest conversations, so much complex information shared in pursuit of goals that were declared unachievable months before the actual conference. There’s the last whispers of one of the greatest environmental/social information exchanges ever known—the panoply of daily choices, side events that amounted to expert tutorials on a dizzying variety of crucial subjects, the array of press briefings a new one every half hour. The almost constant inspirational, sometimes pious speeches the last three days by one Head of State after another until they were indistinguishable. There had been a vast provision of information by some of the most environmentally and scientifically knowledgeable people in the world, some of them newly anointed celebrities.

Then there were the chants, like spice in the mix of sounds, subtly rising up from one periphery or another, that announced brief demonstrations by those who felt their positions inadequately represented in official processes, intended with little effect to nudge the parlay in one direction or another. Most of them, chanting their demands in slogans, were young and vigorous. They swept for their few moments through the halls, colorfully, trailing opportunistic photographers and cameramen like tawdry festoons or sectarian Christmas ornaments so numerous as to nearly drag the tree down. The collective effect of such demonstrations was to remind us both of the demands of the young and of the otherwise total cultural sterility of the surroundings at the Bella Center. This was an event longing for music and color, for celebration of unity in diversity, a tremendous outpouring of expression. Maybe a lament for a planet on the verge of disaster. Perhaps, a cry from ancient cultures whose very roots in the land were threatened.

Gone now too, is the tense hue and cry outside the great hall, the voices of protestors rising in direct proportion to the distance by which they were excluded from the dialogue. Gone are the parades, the festive seriousness that marked these outpourings, all gone now but the rustle of falling curtains, the last dust settling. The police freed from providing insurmountable obstacles to greater public participation, return to their more traditional Yuletide business of rousting overachieving hometown revelers. Denmark was once more free to alleviate conscience and consciousness in Christmas glug and Yuleborg. 

Right after the holidays, the Home Furnishing and Design Exhibit is scheduled to move into the Bella and a little later, the semi-annual International Fashion Fair will fill the hall. In the relative world of event-related commerce, these fairs are equal in social importance to the climate change event, but will require far fewer police. Within the confines of their missions they are likely fated for greater success. 

Oh that our mission had been so fashionable, our goals so simple and comfortable as a displaying the latest sectional sofas! Is selling furniture intrinsically different or easier, really, than selling the perpetuation of the biosphere? Perhaps next year in Mexico at COP 16, if there is a COP 16, survival will once more be in fashion. It is tempting to just stretch out on the closest sofa and watch the ship go down almost as if one weren’t on it. Sometimes it seems that this is what we are all doing.

It would be forgivable, this dragging of the feet of the great powers, some of them newly minted as such, were there accompanying acknowledgement of the disparity between their positions and where we need to go. It doesn’t take much to know what levels of greenhouse gas reduction are really needed—a calculator and a few accurate data points would do it. 

This deep-seated resistance by nations to forgo even the smallest advantage and prerogative without ironclad guarantees of indemnity for their own economies is at least comprehensible, even forgivable as long as it is clear that the little steps they are taking must give way to something far more ambitious soon. Nations, like people, are eventually going to have to take the risk of giving over some advantage to global competitors who might exploit the situation. It’s going to take a little more reality to convince them and maybe ourselves that the real risks are in fact clinging to the status quo.


Indeed, this is a vastly complex job, this business of realigning our human systems, our so-called civilization, with the biosphere. After all, let’s be realistic—our Ships of State are delicately balanced as it is, deep recession having already engulfed much optimism and many options. Every time I heard the eloquent, seething G77 spokesperson Lumumba Stanislaus-Kaw Di-Aping demand the kinds of massive contributions from the US and developed countries that are really needed, I shook my head in a mild despair. Just about everyone I know in the States is pretty pinched right now and many green enterprises close to my heart are begging for more federal stimulus, which is unlikely to be forthcoming, to keep our local economies afloat. Also, these Ships of State even at their healthiest bristle with interests, little bands of buccaneers sharing, for convenience sake, the same craft, waiting on deck for our collective grapples to latch onto new prey. It is certainly unrealistic to stand between privateers and their prey.

We are told in so many ways that we should mould expectations to that which actually can be accomplished given those many bristling interests and the thick plasma through which our current commerce swims. This is all reasonable, but let’s inject a little ‘realism’ in here. Science says—loudly and clearly above even the newly recharged din of the skeptics—that 20 foot sea level rises are not only possible but likely even were we to accept the Copenhagen Accords as they stand now as the upper limit of our accomplishment. Following these Accords, it has been calculated, would still produce a 77% chance that global temperatures would reach 3 degrees Celsius over historic levels. (We are at .8 degrees now and that is already wreaking havoc among many poorer Southern nations.)

Then there is the equity issue in another light. Given the rate of emissions in the US in 2005 (the target year from which we will be reducing our emissions), and also the amount of our historic emissions still taking up atmosphere space, even with our 17% reductions, no space will be left for the CO2 that the developing nations will have to produce to minimally develop. Simple fairness demands that we back off much farther or that we pony up a lot of money to make sure that the developing nations have clean energy for their development. Congress won’t have a problem with giving a percentage of our GDP to poor countries, will they? 

Still, nowhere in the negotiations, as cautious as they may have been, was it suggested that anything over 2C was acceptable. Most African and low-lying nations and the small island states know that their futures are gravely endangered by any temperature rise greater than 1.5 degrees C. The claim in the Accords that we will achieve a 2 degrees limit would be at least encouraging compared to prior commitments if it was tied to commitment to actions that might achieve it. Without such commitment one has to understand that the document reads like an insult to Tuvalu and company and another slap in the teeth to Africa and Bangladesh. 

Even at 2 degrees, glaciers will indeed continue to melt, potentially leaving, for instance, the vast Indian subcontinent to the south and the rich Chinese rice paddies far below the Tibetan Plateau bereft of the sufficient snowmelt waters necessary to sustain agriculture and thus life itself for billions of people. Hundreds of millions will then be forced to migrate toward whatever dwindling little patches of earth are still adequately watered, setting off territorial conflicts of a previously unknown intensity. In some parts of Africa, these drought-induced migrations and the conflicts they unleash are already ‘reality’. How many other tipping points have already been tipped?

No matter how often skeptics yell “alarmism” you can’t change the fact that the best science is indeed “alarming. It is hard to imagine that anyone who fully grasped it, could tolerate the half-measures we as a species are currently taking. The poles of what we refer to as “reality” are approaching a moment of long-awaited, necessary reversal. There will be displacements and a gnashing of teeth, but there will also be a great planet-wide sigh of relief, too.

The Last Days of COP 15

The last days of COP 15 saw the further crystallization and concentration of power that had already resulted in the near-complete removal of civil society from having any influence over the final product that would ostensibly come to represent Copenhagen. Now, those being marginalized were the Parties themselves. Twenty eight made the first cut, five made it into the finals and were allowed to consult but only two were left at the end to control the final statement, the two biggest polluters. China and the United States in the persons of Barack Obama and Chinese Premier Wen Jaibow. 

Most of the rest were given one hour, starting at 3 AM Saturday morning, to approve or disapprove. There was resistance but in the end Parties had little choice but to sign on in some form. Only the objections of four of the ALBA nations (Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America) Bolivia, Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua plus Sudan kept the Accord from becoming more than a document which the countries of the COP simply “took notice”, the weakest term in the UN’s highly nuanced vocabulary for agreement. It is possible to see this evolution as China and the US, along with a few allies, divvying up what’s left of the atmospheric space just as the European powers divvied up Africa in the 19th century.

The process of elimination of alternative voices at Copenhagen was now complete, but — in this process, the authority of the UN which was based on consensus of the parties was damaged and the Kyoto Protocol, the only legally binding agreement about climate change that had ever been signed, was on the rocks, a likely casualty to concentration of power and insistence on volunteer commitments as opposed to legally binding ones like those in the Kyoto Treaty (we’ve all seen in the US where they lead) and, finally,  reluctance to accept any limits on national sovereignty. (It must be said, that China agreed for the first time to some language, still very vague, that allowed for potential external oversight of its greenhouse gas reductions—this is what allowed the US to sign on to the Accord.)

An irony in this two party partnership (and its many sub-partnerships radiating outward) is that the US cannot really play ball. Without a Senate bill joining with the one the House of Representatives passed last June, Obama and Hillary’s suggestions of a 17% GHG reduction, a $30 billion fund until 2012 to help poor countries adapt and implement clean energy technologies, or development of the larger $100 billion fund by 2020 are all wishful thinking. One of the two great powers then is tied up in knots by some of its bristling interests. And even if it could play ball, it will do so only in the field of Carbon Trading which is highly suspect in almost all environmental circles. We seem to have a long way to go.

The last two press conferences late Saturday morning witnessed first Ban Ki Moon, UN Secretary General, and then UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Executive Secretary, Yvo De Boer, both obviously exhausted, doing an entirely predictable jig, mouthing platitudes about the process and participants and generally painting the best face on the outcome that they could.

Representatives of 193 countries did indeed participate. One hundred and twenty heads of State actually showed up to talk about one thing, climate change. There were earnest discussions, constrained of course by the political expediencies under which the Parties worked, no Party more than the US.

The failure, as Bolivia’s Evo Morales pointed out at a tumultuous press conference with Venezuela’s Hugo Chaves and other ALBA statesmen, was not of intent or willingness to talk, it was of political will. Morales said that the Accord has been dropped into the middle of the conference as if by parachute


As the United Nations’ fifteenth Conference of the Parties and its rather tepid, patched-together agreement retreat rapidly in our rear view mirrors, fading into the cloud off our largely undisturbed tailpipe emissions, this is the moment to ask where we go from here, what route do we take and who is will be our best traveling companions? For some, our President included, the Accord was an “unprecedented breakthrough.” For others, many in small island nations or in drought-ridden reaches of Africa, the very word Copenhagen itself is coming to resonate like ’Munich,’ the scene of the l938 treaty that has come to be a metaphor for betrayal and the weakness of good intentions unsupported by specific restraints.

I questioned many African delegates in the Bella Center after the last press conference and later, out into the airports. They were long on ‘D’ words, these Africans—“Disaster,” “Disgrace,” “Disillusionment.” These unwilling victims of our ever more burdensome emissions feel that the so-called Copenhagen Accord and its three pages of vapid text, its two pages of empty commitment lists, expose them to a potential anschluss of unmediated disasters spewing out of a warmed and wounded biosphere. 

In one intense group discussion in the Frankfurt airport, several members of the Ethiopian delegation insisted that if we in America were experiencing what they already are, that we would no doubt get serious. Their sense of grievance was intense. Not only were they being deprived of a share of the atmosphere to pollute with the gasses that their development would cause, they are being abandoned to the vagaries of climate systems unleashed from naïve restraints. They had strong ideas about “climate debt” and “reparations.” Such concepts had earlier been “categorically denied” by the chief American negotiator. Todd Stern, but nonetheless Hillary touted a new $100 billion fund by 2020 for adaptation and technology transfer to the developing nations, especially those most in need. 

In the long run, though, I think we might turn to the South Americans, the Bolivarians, for new models. Here are leftists actually running practical governments and for whom the environment is indeed a living thing worthy of its own rights. It is fascinating to sense that with these South Americans’ living example we were willy-nilly thrust not only way beyond sovereignty, but into a roiling socio-economic cauldron where there are no easy ways to climb out of the soup except on each others’ willing backs. What has in the past been called environmentalism is at last being pureed into a richer soup along with newly forged non-ideological anti-capitalist—or better—non-capitalist, ideology. It seems like a conservative Congressman’s worst nightmare come true—the bad fate they had been fearing for decades, the horrible Red/Green Alliance…the Watermelons! It is not anyone’s intention, though, or pleasure to deliver bitter pills. We just need solutions. Non-doctrinaire, truly sustainable and humane. We are going to have to accept good responses when we see them no matter what their shade or who their maker. 

COP 16 is scheduled for Mexico City late in 2010. There needs to be preparation for it on a grand scale. The Copenhagen Accord is an empty shell. It needs to be filled with real content. The so-called world leaders need to be marched forward with a new imperative jabbing their ribs like a sharp stick. Those who have come to understand that we actually live in the biosphere need to wield the stick. It is our job, simple as that. Let us, in the name of our grandchildren and the planet’s ongoing engines, not shirk it. Our challenge is clear.

On December 14th, Ian Fry, the Tuvalu delegate to the United Nations Climate Change Conference pointed out a harsh fact. “It is an irony of the modern world,” he said, “that the fate of the world is being determined by some senators in the U.S. Congress.” 

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