three thingsCopenhagen was a disaster for anyone who anticipated actual progress toward a functional global solution. What was true on Thursday (‘Empty’ climate deal worse then no deal, says White House) went out the window Friday, and an event that was to crown ten years of international effort produced utterly useless language, unenthusiastically scrabbled together in hours by 5 out of 192 nations, and this coda to a pathetic half-effort got exactly one day of our President’s time.

That’s worse than I expected, and I expected nothing (though I did hope that 350 ppm would be recognized as the benchmark for global survival). Amidst the ashes of utter failure, what, if anything, can be said in the positive?

I think there are three important things that might conceivably result from collapse of the UN climate negotiations, in terms of U.S. environmentalists’ thinking and conduct.

Acceptance. U.S. environmentalists have been comforted by the thought that small-but-crucial-steps embodied in a U.S. climate bill and COP15 treaty would avert the worst. Spinning is already underway to keep that hope alive, but it will require a whole new level of denial to swallow it, and it may be that truth, miserable as it is, is easier to accept. The painful reality is that nothing we have done to date has altered the world’s trajectory much, and we have passed the point where incremental actions, moderately advanced, might arguably have staved off cataclysm. There is no hope for an easy exit.

Fear. The train of thinking for many U.S. environmentalists has run something like this: “There’s no way Kerry/Markey or anything else we’re working on will do the job, but it’s the best we can do. If we give up on the best we can do, then we will be faced with remaking American politics, transforming our own institution, supplanting consumer/market economy with eco-principles, and so on, all of which are obviously impossible. Therefore, I must keep my nose to the grindstone because the only alternative is to give up.” If, or once, reality is accepted, then the choice is no longer between faint hope and terrifying despair; it is between potentially useful fear and despair. It is the individual, society, or nation (and, perhaps, thoughtful species) with nothing to lose that may attempt big things.

Clarity. The COP15 debacle and a Senate bill based on “renewable energy, clean coal, natural gas and nuclear energy,” according to sponsor John Kerry, are our doing–the direct, linear result of our decisions to downplay climate realities, worry about majority public opinion rather than building a militant minority, negotiate with an intractable opposition, package a global, civilization-busting threat as a domestic opportunity for energy independence and job creation, and so on. As the architects of our strategy themselves admit, we could not have a better political position than where we stood at the beginning of this year, nor could we have chosen better champions than Rep Markey, Sen. Kerry, and President Obama, nor won wider corporate support, than the endorsers of U.S. CAP.

But we lost, and so now it is time to try something else.