Grist in Copenhagen

The COP15 climate conference starts next week in Copenhagen, and our panel of experts is optimistic … ish.

We asked them, “What’s the mood as Copenhagen approaches?” Many say they draw inspiration from the fast-growing, increasingly diverse, grassroots global climate movement. But they aren’t under the delusion that Copenhagen will produce the comprehensive, legally binding treaty the world needs.  And a few offer up some seriously downer doom. 

Here are edited excerpts from their responses: 

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Kassie Siegel

Kassie Siegel
Senior counsel and director of the Climate Law Institute for the Center for Biological Diversity

Working on climate issues in the U.S., one gets used to a twisted disconnect between accepted “political reality” and scientific reality. By way of 
analogy, imagine we’re all in a bus designed to survive a crash at no more 
than 55 miles per hour. We are accelerating toward a brick wall and 
already doing 65 mph. The debate among the passengers in the front rows is 
over whether we should hit the wall at 75 or 85 mph. Most of the passengers 
are oblivious to the wall and a few even deny its existence. President 
Obama, the driver, in the spirit of consensus and cooperation, announces 
that he is adopting a policy that will result in us hitting the wall at 80 
mph. Some cheer his leadership on this issue. The wall looms ever closer. 
A growing number of scientists and activists are yelling from the back of 
the bus to slow down, but no one seems to hear us. 

As climate activists we cannot in good conscience pretend that the wall is 
further away than it actually is or that gradual deceleration is sufficient 
to avoid a catastrophic impact. Given the reality of current carbon dioxide 
levels in the atmosphere, the rapidly disintegrating sea ice, emissions 
trajectories that exceed even the worst-case IPCC scenarios, and the 
abysmally inadequate response to the climate crisis by the U.S., it is very 
hard to rationally retain much hope for a good outcome in Copenhagen. Given 
where we are politically, and where we need to be, it really takes an 
optimist to believe the future is uncertain. 

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Nevertheless, as Copenhagen approaches, I still somehow find myself 
optimistic that the gulf between the enormity of the climate crisis and the 
tepid political response to it will begin to be narrowed. If it does, we 
will find ourselves working in the most exciting movement of our time for 
meaningful change that will slash carbon pollution and build a profoundly 
better world.


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Rhiya Trivedi

Rhiya Trivedi
Climate activist and first-year student at Middlebury College 

I am optimistic for Copenhagen, for 
a set of politically binding commitments and resolutions that will 
culminate in a legally binding, global climate treaty in Mexico City in 
2010, if not before. I am optimistic that our leaders will pull out the 
stops when the eyes of the world turn to Denmark, and 
that we will arrive at innovative solutions for sharing this burden, curbing deforestation, and leveraging finance and resources for 
adaptation, technology transfer, and capacity building. 

Maybe this hope is misinformed or nearsighted because I am currently up 
to my eyeballs in this energetic, colorful, and inspiring movement. I’m 
open to criticism.


Alex Steffen

Alex Steffen 
Executive editor of

It seems worthwhile to try and offer some perspective on what Copenhagen is and isn’t, at least as it looks to me.

Copenhagen is not the moment when we get a signed treaty. 
It’s also not the moment of the U.S. 
finally stepping into a leadership role on climate. It probably won’t 
even be the moment when President Obama stands next to the other heads of state and takes the “World leaders express grave concern” photo. 

It seems to me that what the Copenhagen moment is, though, is 
something profound: it is essentially the first time the entire world 
has come together at multiple levels–national governments, cities, 
businesses, networks of individual citizens–to start tackling our 
planetary crisis. This is the first meeting of the rescue committee. 

Up until now, every other international environmental and climate 
meeting has been 
hampered by doubts, or denialists, or just the partial commitment of 
the governments involved. Up until now, selling the need for action 
has been part of the agenda, and has usually take up most of the 

That’s no longer true here: With the exception of U.S conservatives, 
the debate is over (and they’re the Taliban of climate science, ostracized as ignorant on the international stage). Again, with the exception of the U.S., the highest levels of government are involved 
and in many cases committed to action, if in a heavily caveated way. And, in a really major way, climate action has begun to coalesce on a 
set of principles (atmospheric concentration targets, climate equity, 
etc.) that offer the hope of some rapid change, and that are being 
taken up by actors at a number of levels. (I personally think the attendance of the mayors of most of the world’s largest cities, from Tokyo to New York to Sao Paolo, is probably more important than the attendance of some U.S. senators.) 

Copenhagen may not be the signing moment, but it may still be the defining moment.


Sanjay Khanna

Sanjay Khanna 
Climate journalist and Huffington Post blogger

Copenhagen is unlikely to deliver the “fair, ambitious, 
and binding” agreement that TckTckTck and other NGOs are demanding. If 
Copenhagen does indeed fail, I hope that one positive outcome may be that 
more people begin to prepare in the months and years ahead for political 
failure to converge with increasing economic, social and climatic 

My greatest concern is that the failure of a substantive 
agreement in Copenhagen may mean an increase in anxiety and depression among 
people who realize that our collective response is not proportional to the 
threat of climate change. A rise in despair and anguish would be a logical outcome of continued 
failures in global climate negotiations–which may imply that all of us will 
need to take better care of ourselves and others in order to deal with the 
psychological and social toll of continued political conflict around 
climate-crisis issues. Consider that the degradation of mental health in 
response to a worsening global climate would affect citizens’ abilities to 
think well and to solve problems, something that would slow down even 
efforts to adapt to climate change, let alone mitigate it.


Neil Tangri

Neil Tangri 
Director of the Waste and Climate Change campaign at the Global Anti-Incinerator Alliance

For those who think that Copenhagen is our last 
best shot, the outlook is grim. The U.S. and other rich countries are 
desperately trying to take a legally binding deal off the table. And if 
there is a deal, it is unlikely to meet either of the two basic minimum 
requirements: (1) reduce emissions fast and far enough to keep the globe 
from going into climate crisis; and (2) be fundamentally equitable. 

Many folks, on the other hand, think that the climate movement is gathering steam; 
governments are finally starting to take the problem seriously; the 
biggest players (like U.S. and China) are finally starting to make 
concessions; and so we’re much better off delaying 6 to 12 months for a 
better deal. So the news that a binding deal will be put off actually 
may be cause for cautious optimism. 

And then there are those who think that today’s governments are never 
going to be able to solve the problem–they are simply too 
compromised. In order to address both the climate crisis and the 
inequity crisis, we need a fundamental reordering of the global economic 
system. That will not happen through a series of Band-aids but as a 
result of crises–including political ones. Copenhagen offers an 
opportunity to force just such a political crisis through the 
application of “street heat.” The people in the streets will provide a 
passionate counterbalance to the milquetoast pronouncements of 
politicians inside.


Hugh Bartling

Hugh Bartling 
Associate professor of public policy at DePaul University in Chicago

The main factor contributing to my optimism is the sophistication of global civil-society 
networks coordinating around the common purpose of seeing an equitable 
and effective deal get done. Youth, NGOs, and activist organizations 
are clearly pushing the policy thinking and negotiation conversations 
forward. The beauty and strength of these networks lie in their 
diversity and global reach, which, for me, portend a degree of 
resiliency. This resiliency means that pressure will continue to be 
placed on negotiators and national leaders to complete a deal. 

My general optimism, however, is tempered with a degree of skepticism 
around certain happenings. 

Obama’s mitigation targets are weak and probably not 
sufficient to meet the demands of the science, and I am concerned about the timing of Obama’s visit to Copenhagen. The high-level segment doesn’t 
begin until a week after his appearance. Could Obama’s trip actually backfire if he isn’t around to talk to his 
peers? I am also concerned about the whole issue of valuing forests, 
respecting the rights of indigenous groups living in forests, and 
insuring that forest verification and monitoring mechanisms are 


David Turnbull

David Turnbull
Director of the Climate Action Network–International

I’ve started to get a reputation amongst the climate folks in Copenhagen of being “the optimist” in the
 crowd. And yes, despite the scary science, the tough politics, and the
 immense pressure, I remain optimistic.

Working in a coalition of roughly 500 organizations from dozens of countries
 around the world has allowed me to interact with some of the most dedicated and brilliant people I could ever imagine, all of whom are devoting their
lives to finding a solution to the climate crisis. This gives me hope.

We’ll have a well-oiled advocacy machine in the [Copenhagen conference center] working together to push for the strongest agreement possible. We’re a force to be 
reckoned with, basing our positions on science, equity, and reason. And governments are already listening.


Casper ter Kuile

Casper ter Kuile
Co-director of the U.K. Youth Climate Coalition

Political leaders successfully coordinated a large-scale lowering of 
ambition after the Barcelona talks. However, recent emission-reduction 
targets from the U.S. and China, the personal attendance of a host of global
 leaders, and financing announcements from the Commonwealth Summit are again raising expectations for Copenhagen. Campaigners will be trying 
to build these positive developments into tangible results, but they’ll need 
to engage mainstream public and media pressure to break through existing deadlocks. 


Dave RochlinDave Rochlin
CEO of ClimatePath

Anyone hoping for COP15 to be a panacea will be disappointed. But the writing is on the wall, and obstructionism is giving way to begrudging expediency. This means Copenhagen could be either a victory or tragedy, depending how far and fast the participants are willing to go vs. how far and fast we need to 
go to avoid some of the more calamitous scenarios.