Countdown to Copenhagen The World Faces an Urgent Climate Crisis. Is the International Community Up to the Task?

“Please don’t be stupid.” The speaker was Mohamed Nasheed, the president of the Maldives. He was addressing the world via video, announcing the intention of his tiny island nation (just 115 square miles, twice the size of Washington, D.C.) to go carbon neutral. Putting a British plan into action, the Maldives will switch to renewable energy by installing 155 wind turbines, acres of rooftop solar panels and a biomass plant burning the islands’ plentiful supply of coconut husks.

Global warming is not an abstract concept for Maldivians. Composed of 1,200 small islands and atolls in the Indian Ocean, the Maldives is one of the world’s lowest-lying countries, and its 385,000 people could be made homeless if sea level rises just six feet—and scientists say it will.

But Nasheed was quick to point out that as goes the Maldives, so goes the planet. “If the world can’t save places like the Maldives today,” he said, “we won’t be able to save London, Hong Kong and New York tomorrow.”

Nasheed is hoping that the United Nations Climate Change Conference, known as “COP15” since this is the 15th such meeting, in Copenhagen, Denmark, from December 7-18, 2009, will, with a newly committed U.S. delegation, finally produce an effective global warming treaty. “Copenhagen can be an historic event in which the world unites in a collective spirit of collaboration,” he said, “or Copenhagen can be a suicide pact. The choice is that stark.”

The COP15 process is very important, but it’s gotten surprisingly little attention from U.S. media as the world’s nations jockey, under the auspices of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, to craft a successor to the Kyoto Treaty (which runs out in 2012).

It would be hard to call Kyoto a success. With the U.S. opting out and most participating industrialized nations falling short of their targets, it hardly made a dent in rising worldwide emissions. As Nature opined, “The Kyoto Protocol is a symbolically important expression of governments’ concern about climate change. But as an instrument for achieving emissions reductions, it has failed. It has produced no demonstrable reductions in emissions or even in anticipated emissions growth.”

Kyoto’s central goal of reducing emissions by 5.2% of 1990 levels by 2012 is not in sight; instead, emissions have only escalated. Among industrial signatories, only Germany, Denmark, Norway and Great Britain could be said to be meeting Kyoto targets under some measures. And China’s huge economic surge (running on coal) led it to become the world’s biggest emitter last year.

Much at Stake

The world doesn’t need another Kyoto, it needs something much tougher. Will the COP15 meeting lead to an effective treaty? A draft plan, prepared by nongovernmental organizations, calls for holding the global mean temperature to two degrees Centigrade above pre-industrial levels, and (backed by China and much of the developing world) put forth an emissions target for industrialized countries of 40% below 1990 levels by 2020. While this would be a laudable goal, it is well nigh impossible to achieve under current political conditions.

In his 2007 speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which he heads, Dr. R.K. Pachauri estimated that stabilizing CO2 levels as envisioned in the draft plan (445 to 590 parts per million) would reduce world gross domestic product (GDP) levels by “less than 0.12% up to 2030 and beyond up to 2050.” But that hasn’t proven reassuring to industrial countries dependent on—and accustomed to—steady economic growth.

Seal the Deal! stamp. ©

The Obama administration’s climate negotiator, Todd Stern, has already said as much. “In our judgment [this kind of cut is] not necessary and not feasible given where we are starting from,” he said. “So it is not in the cards.”

A U.S. climate bill is not likely to get passed before COP15 because, as Frank O”Donnell of Clean Air Watch put it, the health care debate has “basically sucked all the oxygen out of the room.” It is equally unlikely that the legislation, when and if it does pass, will contain the kinds of cuts China and its allies are demanding. The House version of the U.S. climate bill would actually make an 80% reduction in emissions, but from 2005 levels and not until 2050. The Senate version increases that to 83% reduction, but neither is a strong enough response to what we now know about the magnitude of the warming problem.

A recent Center for American Progress poll found that 63% of registered and likely 2010 voters in swing states would be more likely to vote to reelect their incumbent senator if he or she supported the energy and climate bill. But other factors besides popularity enter in, including a hard press from energy lobbyists.

Ross Gelbspan, author of Boiling Point (Basic Books), keeper of The Heat Is Online blog and part of a team of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists at The Boston Globe, is pessimistic about the passage of a strong climate bill. “The current House bill is meaningless, compared to the escalating pace of climate change,” he says. “Given, moreover, the intention of a number of Republicans to enlist Democratic allies to scuttle the bill’s domestic cap-and-trade provisions, it seems foolish to expect any meaningful leadership from the U.S. by the time the Copenhagen talks take place.”

A Turning Point

An Oxfam stunt depicting life underwater to mark the 100-day countdown to COP15. © Oxfam

Although experts concur that it’s already too late to stop global warming, its intensity can still be mitigated. The course of world emissions in the next decade is likely to be set within a few scant months of this article appearing. Will Copenhagen contribute to a global consensus on finally reducing emissions—not just slowing the rate of growth?

Opinions range from deeply pessimistic to decidedly upbeat. List former Vice President Al Gore among the latter. “There is a very impressive consensus now emerging around the world that the solutions to the economic crisis are also the solutions to the climate crisis,” he told the Guardian. “I actually think we will get an agreement at Copenhagen.” Gore calls Obama’s election “one of the main factors,” but he also thinks people are getting the message that “the planet is under assault.” And he thinks business leaders are getting it, too. “They’re seeing the writing on every wall they look at. They’re seeing the complete disappearance of the polar ice caps right before their eyes in just a few years,” he says.

Gelbspan sees the glass as half empty. “We are standing at the threshold of climate hell,” Gelbspan tells E. “Unless the nations of the world launch a coordinated global public works program to rewire the world with clean energy, history will remember COP15 as the ultimate copout.”

The most difficult hurdle for COP15 to get over is the North-South divide. “There’s a lot of finger-pointing,” says Alden Meyer, who directs strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). “Developing countries think indus

trialized nations should take the lead in providing financing, and the response is that developing countries will actually be the biggest polluters. The good news is that now countries like South Africa, Mexico, Brazil and South Korea are putting forth proposals on what they can do on their own.”

A new UN analysis suggests it might cost as much $500 to $600 billion per year for the next 10 years for developing countries to build renewable energy infrastructures. The hope is that a Marshall Plan backed by western nations could provide that aid. “But there is a very small current flow into economic assistance,” says Meyer.

On December 5, ahead of the UN climate summit in Copenhagen, tens of thousands of people affiliated with the Stop Climate Chaos Coalition will bring a “blue wave” to London’s streets to demonstrate their support for a safe climate future. © Stop Climate Chaos Coalition

New Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama said in early September that he would stand by a campaign pledge to reduce his country’s climate emissions to 25% below 1990 levels in 10 years—but only if “all major countries agree to ambitious targets.” That presumably includes China and India. “Will Japan also commit to providing aid to the developing world?” Meyer asks. “That’s a big question.”

David Doniger, climate policy director with the Natural Resources Defense Council, provides a nuanced critique. “The cartoon view of Kyoto was that the developing countries weren’t prepared to make any commitments,” he says. Doniger pointed out that the Hagel-Byrd Senate resolution (passed on a 95-0 vote in 1997) demanded that the U.S. not be signatory to any treaty “unless the protocol or other agreement also mandates new specific scheduled commitments to limit or reduce greenhouse gas emissions for Developing Country Parties within the same compliance period.” And with that as a condition, the U.S. would never be party to a consensus agreement.

“But in the last three or four years, a lot has changed,” Doniger says. “The U.S. understanding that global warming is real is way up from what it was 12 years ago. And, with one or two exceptions, developing countries have also changed their attitudes. Both China and Mexico, with both internal and foreign relations drivers, are moving away from their roles as very dirty emitters. Big developing countries understand that their own sustainable economic growth requires movement to cleaner energy sources. China has been acknowledging it will change its high-emissions business as usual.”

One reason for the sea change is that, as E wrote in its book Feeling the Heat: Dispatches from the Frontlines of Climate Change (Routledge), the effects of global warming have become apparent and observable. “Scientific advisors inside the developing countries are telling their governments not only that global warming is real, but that it will have its worst effects in developing countries,” Doniger says. Doniger points at India, “which has been talking a very tough line. But the perception is that if the rest of the developing world moves, India will have to follow.” India is a big player, accounting, says the EIA, for 7% of the increase in emissions by 2030, when it will emit 1.3 billion metric tons annually.

The U.S. rejected Kyoto in part because it gave developing countries some breathing room. Despite the Senate’s resolution, it required wealthier countries to act first in cutting emissions, then to financially assist poor countries in making their own reductions. But the rich countries mostly failed to meet their goals and, according to Joseph Romm, a former Clinton-era DOE official who now runs the blog, “Emissions have exploded at a faster rate than even the UNs’ most pessimistic scenario.”

Romm thinks the draft Copenhagen treaty has two flaws that should be addressed before COP15 convenes. It unrealistically demands that industrialized countries reduce emissions by 40% below 1990 levels by 2020—and it completely leaves out any mention of China. Romm says, “The new climate protocol should require China to at least stall emissions growth at under half the past decade’s rate and ensure that the country’s emissions peak no later than 2025.”

Although China is finally making clean energy commitments, it is difficult to imagine it meekly accepting Romm’s scenario. In an E interview, Romm said he is not particularly optimistic about the prospects for Copenhagen. “Given that the process didn’t begin until January…I don’t think Copenhagen was ever going to deliver much more than a framework,” he says.

And, he adds, “The likelihood of getting a climate bill out of Congress is about 50-50 right now, but if President Obama puts his full weight behind it, then I think we”ll get a bill. I’m not certain it matters whether the Senate votes before or after Copenhagen. What matters is that the Senate passes a bill with shrinking carbon caps.”

Front-Line Scientists

Most scientists present their findings in peer-reviewed papers that appear in Nature or Science; few wade into the roiling waters of partisan politics and policy making. One of our foremost climate scientists, James Hansen of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, now often gives lectures and signs petitions—compelled by the urgency of what he calls “a planet in peril.”

Hansen’s impressive scholarship is what gives him credibility when he backs go-faster scenarios intended to avert a catastrophe. The dangerous level of atmospheric CO2 “is much less than once believed,” he said in Congressional testimony back in February. “The safe level is no higher than 350 parts per million (ppm), probably less, and we have just passed 385 ppm…We cannot burn all of the coal, let alone unconventional fossil fuels such as oil shale, unless the combustion products are all captured and disposed of, which is implausible. We must put a price, a rising price, on carbon emissions.”

Hansen’s proposal starts with a carbon price of about $115 per ton of CO2, which translates to a $1-a-gallon tax on gasoline “large enough to affect purchasing decisions.” The tax would yield $670 billion annually, and 100% of the money would be returned to the public ($3,000 per adult). The tax-and-dividend proposal produces a strong financial incentive for lowering one’s carbon footprint, because the less fossil fuel is burned, the more likely the dividend will exceed the tax.

Hansen calls cap-and-trade proposals, which give corporations financial incentives to curb their emissions, “tax and trade,” because he believes it is “wrong and disingenuous’ to hide the taxation—and increased energy prices—at the core of the idea. He also charges that cap and trade will cause energy price volatility, enrich Wall Street traders and, because of its complexity, invite lobbyists to propose weakening changes and delay implementation.

Cap and trade, he says, “will surely be inadequate to achieve the sharp reduction of emissions that is needed,” but a straightforward—and steep—carbon tax will meet the challenge. Unfortunately, cap and trade is perceived as potentially winnable (despite the Republican opposition that Gelbspan cites) precisely because it is not labeled a tax, and a carbon tax is undisguised.

No Time for Delay

The climate activists at, with their goals endorsed by heavyweights such as R.K. Pachauri of the IPCC, have been trying to hold the world to 350 ppm of

CO2 in the atmosphere, but as Hansen points out it has already soared past that. While the world debates global warming, CO2 emissions—slowed only by global recession, not appreciably by international policy—continue to accumulate in the atmosphere. Here are some of the recently observed changes (many courtesy of Ross Gelbspan at The Heat Is Online):

” The world’s carbon emissions are rising three times faster than they did in the 1990s, and, according to the International Energy Agency, the cost of avoiding dangerous climate change may be three times higher than the IPCC’s 2007 estimate;
” Scientists expect at least half the years between 2009 and 2019 to surpass the average temperature of 1998—the hottest year on record;
” Ice melt in the Antarctic, the Arctic and in Greenland is enough to double the rate of sea-level rise, which means as much as a six-foot rise by the end of the century (remember that a six-foot rise swamps the Maldives). The Arctic is warmer than it has been in 2,000 years.
” The world average ocean temperature just set a record of 62.6 degrees Fahrenheit. In July, water temperature was the hottest it has been in 130 years of record-keeping;
” A team of international scientists, meeting in Copenhagen in the run-up to COP15, say that the world faces increased risk of “abrupt and irreversible climatic shifts’ as global warming moves faster than anticipated.

Global warming is accelerating, in part, because our planet itself is starting to react—by, among other things—releasing storehouses of the potent greenhouse gas methane and giving up the natural ability of forests and oceans to absorb CO2. Mother Nature is trying to get our attention, and it’s unclear if she”ll have it in Copenhagen and the halls of Congress.