Copenhagen was obviously a failure — at least if you judge it by “the numbers,” the formal emission targets and financial commitments that are needed to support a fair and 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, not what is necessary, but rather what was possible. This is a much more difficult question, and it has far more to do with judgment than with calculation. And, here, very little is obvious.

At the moment, I’m willing only to risk a few initial thoughts. The first is that Copenhagen is a great deal more than the Copenhagen Accord. And that from the point of view of public education and movement building, it was an obvious success. Everyone, from Barack Obama on the one hand, to Lumumba Di-Aping, the Sudanese chair of the South’s “G77 plus China” negotiating bloc on the other, from me to, I’m willing to bet, you as well, dear reader, knows one hell of a lot more about the climate crisis, and its politics, than we did a year ago.

Not 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 350.org but also Mohamed Nasheed, the President of the Maldives and a whole lot of terrified scientists, we know 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 manifestly not up to the task of saving the world. 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 successfully force them to break their own chains of powerlessness, we’re going to have to break out of the “dysfunctional system” frame, which blames everyone and no one, and 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.

We know, most of us, more about the demonstrations than we do of the negotiations, so let’s attend to the latter. Consider that the hundreds of inside-game NGOs grouped under the banner of CAN, the Climate Action Network International, who came to Copenhagen having prepared, as best they could, to play all the way through the endgame. They even had a scenario analysis close at hand, one that grouped  the possible outcomes into categories like Breakthrough, Foundation, Greenwash, and Collapse.  It was a useful exercise — scenario analysis often is — but the power of the Copenhagen drama, as it finally came down, defeated all attempt at easy characterization. I supposed that, if you had to pin it down, the outcome came down somewhere between Greenwash and Collapse. 

The semi-official movement frame is “not done yet,” and all told, looking at the Copenhagen Accord and the 2010 negotiating schedule, it seems 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 C of warming. This is the “Four Degree World” scenario, and it’s an fairly magnificent understatement to say that we want to avoid it at almost all costs. 

But of course Copenhagen was not the end of the game. The negotiations will continue, as will the organizing, and with the next major 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/energy legislation, we may yet discover that the Obama strategy — which John Holdren, his chief science advisor, characterized during Copenhagen as, simply, “getting started” — offers a plausible way forward, one that can make progress even in a nation ridden 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 Republican oppositionism, and yes this constrains our choices, but the fact remains that, by refusing to accept anything like our proper share of the responsibility for the global 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 also the interests of the developing countries as a whole. The first of these 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 the risk of appearing ridiculous, I’ll add that it’s getting hard for even the most jaded of our pundits to overlook the injustices and tragedies that the people of Africa now face.  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 be 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 I believe — and this might perhaps just be wishful thinking — 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/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 quite succeed in sidelining the Kyoto Protocol.  Copenhagen, to be sure, laid out a two-track negotiating process, including a “Convention track” in which both the U.S. and China can, perhaps, both be eventually coaxed into accepting their fair shares of the global effort,  but 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 Feb. 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, is and remains an international justice problem. It’s more than this, of course, but justice is nonetheless the key. If we fail to solve it, it will be in large part because we refused to see it as such.