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April 17, 2009

Eco Chamber #2: Countdown to Copenhagen

Posted by Emily Hunter at 12:45 PM ET


Copenhagen Climate Convention logoThe countdown to Copenhagen is 233 today. That is the number of days left until the Obama administration must sway its own domestic politics by getting Congress on side of climate action, and prove real leadership in global emission reductions. It's a very short timeframe, especially when, in a state of economic turmoil, one big "E" seems to take precedent over another, economics over ecology.

Come December, 170 countries will come together at the Copenhagen Climate Convention in Denmark to attempt at an agreement on reducing greenhouse gases. The Copenhagen agreement will replace the Kyoto Protocol. But like Kyoto, if there is not real leadership from the U.S., the Copenhagen agreement will fail too.

More than leadership, Copenhagen comes down to American politics. Republican and Democratic senators alike are more interested in economics than ecology today, and that attitude will further stall any significant action on climate change. Many scientists say we no longer have any time to wait.

"I frankly think that this Copenhagen is the last chance for us to deal with this problem," Andrew Weaver told the Montreal Gazette recently. Weaver is an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) contributor and author of Keeping Our Cool: Canada in a Warming World.

With the Arctic now melting faster than scientists had previously believed — possibly reaching 100 percent summer melting as early as 2013 — global climate change is pushing us toward a precipice. International consensus says that by 2050 it is "virtually certain" that temperatures will rise to 1.5° to 2°C, unless there are sharp carbon reductions. Every decade there is delay, experts say, temperatures will continue to rise by half a degree.

On the earth's surface, this temperature rise means that young people today will be living in a vastly re-shaped world when they are older. Thirty percent of species will be at risk of extinction; there will be widespread aridity and crop failure in the global south, where most of the Earth's population lives; and we will see up to 12 meters of sea level rise. That doesn't even get into the new geopolitical world we will be living in, with mass human migrations and conflict.

As we come to a close of the first decade of the 21st century, with emissions only rising, now, more than ever, is the time for action. People around the world en masse are calling for it. This year's Earth Hour had over eighty countries and one billion individuals participating, according to WWF Canada's Communications Director, Josh Laughren, who spoke about the Earth Hour event on the Green Majority radio show on April 10th. That's a huge leap forward from last year's Earth Hour, with 35 countries and between 50 and 100 million participants.

WWF is calling this year's Earth Hour a "global phenomenon." Earth Hour is meant as a symbolic action on the fight against global climate change. By dimming lights, people are voting for the earth and creating a mass demand for action.

However, US deputy special envoy for climate change, Jonathan Pershing, told the Reuters news agency that global climate agreements are complicated. "Finding common ground will take some time."

In domestic American politics, the situation is further complicated. With a recent Congress bill passed that now requires any cap-and-trade climate plan needing sixty votes to see the light of day. And with the two U.S. parties preoccupied with the economy, the prospects for a cap-and-trade bill looks dismal.

President Obama's election promise was to have swift action to combat climate change. the promises included cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 14 percent by 2020 and a cap-and-trade emissions plan. However, on the recent climate talk in Bonn, Germany, as part of a series of talks leading up to Copenhagen, delegates were disappointed with the U.S.'s vague and far-reaching plan to cap emissions. Obama's rapid action on climate now appears cautious and slow.

But slow and steady is a luxury we can no longer indulge in. And people around the world are making a stand for climate action now. At the recent G20 Summit in London, UK, 4,000 protesters were part of a "Climate Camp" protesting against the proposed cap-and-trade systems with slogans including "Nature Doesn't Do Bail-Outs." The activists argued that cap-and-trade is just another system for emitters to hide behind, while true emissions reduction remains on the back burner.

At the same G20 conference, over 20,000 protestors took over the streets of the central banking district, rioting about the economy. For many in Washington, this "separate" issue of the economy is often a fig leaf to hide more inaction on the climate. But economics and ecology are not two mutually exclusive entities. Rather, with a failing economy comes opportunity: opportunity for sustainability, with green industries and jobs, less dependency on oil, and more renewable energy.

Our world is out of check, but we have an opportunity for a sustainable one. Copenhagen is the first and last opportunity for Obama to make it so. But a slack pace will not get us there. Instead, we have 233 days — and the world is counting.

Emily Hunter title=Emily Hunter is an environmental journalist and This Magazine's resident eco-blogger. She is currently working on a book about young environmental activism, The Next Eco-Warriors, and a documentary on illegal whaling in Antarctica.

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