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Climate Problem Is Really A Justice Problem

By Tom Athanasiou

29 December, 2009

Copenhagen was obviously a failure—if you judge it by “the numbers,” the formal emission targets and financial commitments that are needed to support a fair, effective, emergency global climate mobilization. If you judge it, that is, by what is necessary.

The more pressing question, though, is whether Copenhagen was a failure when judged against what was possible. This is a much more difficult question, and has far more to do with judgment than with calculation. And much more to do with the immediate future of climate politics.

The good news is that the truth is coming out, and that people all over the world are seeing it. Everyone, and I imagine this includes Barack Obama, knows a hell of a lot more about the climate crisis, and its politics, than they did a year ago. Not, to be sure, that we didn’t already know that climatic destabilization is triggering a planetary emergency. This has been obvious for years. The difference now is rather that—thanks to the 350 movement, and here I mean not only the folks at, but also Mohamed Nasheed, the President of Tuvalu and a whole lot of terrified scientists—we know that we know it. And that we know it with appalling, quantitative confidence.

The bad news is that after Copenhagen, we also know that the elites are at their limits. That what is needed, as the Copenhagen street had it, is “system change not climate change,” and that lacking system change, our governments are quite incapable of organizing a decisive response to the climate crisis. The bad news, more particularly, is that if we in “civil society” are to do better than our putative leaders, if indeed we are to help the elites break their own chains of powerlessness, we’re going to have to actually dare to assign a bit of responsibility for the Copenhagen fiasco. The bulk of which, alas, will have to go to the wealthy world.

The NGOs grouped into CAN, the Climate Action Network International tried to come to Copenhagen prepared. They even had a scenario analysis close at hand, one that categorized the possible outcomes with names like Breakthrough, Foundation, Greenwash, and Collapse. It was a useful exercise, but the power of the Copenhagen drama, as it finally played itself out, defeated all attempts at easy characterization. I suppose that if you had to pin it down, the outcome would have to be placed somewhere between Greenwash and Collapse. Or, to put a finer gloss on it, in the “not done yet” territory, which is how CAN decided to frame the result.

Looking at the generalities of the Copenhagen Accord and the 2010 negotiating schedule, this may be fair enough. Obama himself took the same line, in a late-night press conference that was actually pretty badly received, calling the accord a "meaningful agreement", but adding that "This progress is not enough,” and "We have come a long way, but we have much further to go.” Which is a fairly obvious point, given that the accord, such as it is, seems (see for example the Climate Scorecard) to condemn us to about 3.9 degrees Celsius of warming. This is the “Four Degree World” scenario, and it’s a fairly magnificent understatement to say that we want to avoid it at almost all costs.

But of course Copenhagen is not the end of the game. The negotiations will continue, as will the organizing, and with the next major climate conference scheduled for Mexico City in November of 2010, they are quite certain to have a major impact on the United States. And if, in the meanwhile, we in America can manage to pass halfway decent climate and energy legislation, we may yet discover that the Obama strategy—which John Holdren, his chief science adviser, characterized during Copenhagen as, simply, “getting started”—offers a plausible way forward, one that can make real progress even in a nation overtaken by insane right-wing ideologues.

Or maybe not. The difficulty here is that understanding can too easily degenerate into accommodation. Yes, we are paralyzed by our right wing, and yes this constrains our choices, but the fact remains that, by not paying our way, by refusing to accept anything like our proper share of the responsibility for the crisis now threatening to overcome us, we make the dithering and dysfunction inevitable. Which of course brings us to the equity side of the story, and here there are several key points to report.

One is that, in a signal development, several self-defined vulnerable country blocs emerged in Copenhagen to play extremely significant roles, and managed to do so while protecting not only their local interests, but the interests of the developing countries as a whole. The first of these vulnerable blocs, of course, was AOSIS, the Association of Small Island States, which face rising seas and, in extreme cases like Tuvalu, actual short-term inundation. But Africa, which has discovered the extent of its own vulnerability, also played a critical role, and by so doing helped to protect the South as a whole from being blamed for Copenhagen’s failure to deliver.

Not that the right-wing press won’t blame it anyway, but at this point I doubt that the gambit has real legs. For while the African people are among the world’s most innocent, in terms of their historical contributions to the climate crisis, they will also be among the most brutally impacted, and this is an injustice too obvious to easily set aside. Witness the open letter that Desmond Tutu sent to all heads of state during Copenhagen, a letter that noted that:

“If temperatures are not kept down then Africa faces a range of devastating threats such as crop yield reductions in places of as much 50 percent in some countries by 2020; Increased pressure on water supplies for 70—250 million people by 2020 and 350-600 million by 2050; The cost of adaptation to sea level rises of at least 5-10 percent of gross domestic product.”

With these sorts of prospects at hand, it’s difficult to be too sympathetic to the North’s domestic political problems. Which is why—and this might perhaps just be wishful thinking—I believe that the rich world will fail to effectively evade responsibility for Copenhagen. There are counter-arguments, of course, and gross media distortions by the score, but so far the failure to reach a better deal is not being blamed wholly on the South. And given that the large “emerging economies” signed onto the accord, it’s unlikely that it will be.

Indeed, given the wealthy world’s failure to adopt strong domestic emission reduction targets, and its equally egregious failure to put a decent mitigation or adaptation support package onto the table, the Copenhagen endgame—in which the emerging economies agreed to the Accord while the weaker and more vulnerable states balked—may well have been the best possible outcome. (Watch the final, 3:10 a.m. plenary here; you won’t regret it!)

In this regard, it may not be absurd to hope that, as Copenhagen passes into history, the overall framework by which we understand rich-world commitments will shift in significant ways. For one thing, and despite a clear desire to do so (it inconveniently requires them to “act first” to significantly reduce their emissions) the rich countries did not succeed in setting the Kyoto Protocol aside. But while Copenhagen laid out a two-track negotiating process, including a “Convention track” in which both the US and China can, perhaps, both be eventually coaxed into accepting their fair shares of the global effort, the "Kyoto track" has also been extended. This gives us a clear mandate—to continue the battle to force the wealthy countries to make commitments on the scale demanded by the science, and by their own historical responsibility and capacity to pay—and just as importantly it gives us a context within which to do so.

The road ahead is clear enough. The next big date is February 1, 2010, by which time countries of all kinds are expected to pledge their emissions reductions. When they do, the battles will predictably, and quite properly, flare up all over again.

For the moment, let me add only that Copenhagen, for all its disappointments, marked a turning point. The need for a global emergency mobilization is obvious, and with it, a set of social and political challenges that can no longer be denied. These challenges will get clearer in the days and years ahead, but the essential situation is already before us, ready to be discovered—with the atmosphere’s ability to absorb carbon now critically limited, we face the greatest resource-sharing problem of all time.

The climate problem, in other words, was and remains a justice problem. If we fail to solve it, it will be in large part because we refuse to see it as such.

Tom Athanasiou wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Tom is the author of Divided Planet: The Ecology of Rich and Poor, and co-author (with Paul Baer) of Dead Heat: Global Justice and Global Warming. He is the executive director of EcoEquity, a core member of the Greenhouse Development Rights team, and a coauthor of The Greenhouse Development Rights Framework: The right to development in a climate constrained world.

YES! Magazine encourages you to make free use of this article by taking these easy steps. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License

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