Grist's coverage of Copenhagen climate talks

We’re at the halfway point in the U.N. Copenhagen climate summit. Week one brought us the troublesome leaked climate treaty draft; the surprise proposal (from the tiny island nation of Tuvalu) to lower the acceptable rise in global temperature from 2 degrees Centigrade to 1.5; lead U.S. negotiator Todd Stern’s unequivocal rejection of the argument that the CO2 spewing U.S. owes reparations to developing countries; and, of course, Saturday’s massive (and mostly peaceful) protest march through the streets of the Danish capitol.

So, now what? We asked our expert panel to handicap Copenhagen week two. What (and who) should we watch out for as we head into the climate summit’s last five days? Here are edited excerpts from their responses:

Sanjay Khanna

Sanjay Khanna 
Climate journalist and Huffington Post blogger

Here’s what to expect in the final week of the COP 15 Super Bowl. Can you get John Madden to do the voiceover?

Awright, sports fans, keep a sharp lookout for diplomatic posing, he said/she said finger pointing, and a general lack of wisdom in grasping the stakes.

Watch out for small victories, draft proposals that appear better than worst-case scenarios, and an overall result that’s completely insufficient to provide Africa, Australia, small-island states — and other regions in the crosshairs of catastrophic climate change — cause to hope for anything resembling a sustainable future.

Expect to see the growth of despair, sadness, and anger among youth delegates as their gorgeous, inspiring, and practical insights are essentially ignored by the generation that should rightfully be safeguarding them from the mental and physical threats that climate change has kicked off.

Watch the climate scientists too. They’re feeling increasingly “pissed” about constantly speaking truth to power, not being heard, and being cornered into an activist role because of industry hijinks, political delays, stolen emails, and harassment.

Observe the adoption of carbon-trading concepts that benefit investors, while also having profoundly negative consequences for ecological systems and bio-cultural diversity.

Listen for dissatisfaction among NGOs who are seeing the impact of the financial crisis on obtaining new funding for initiatives they’ve pitched at COP 15. (Why so little money when the impacts of the climate crisis have been so rationally laid out?)

Continue to bear witness to the absence of humane and realistic remedies among those nations that have the greatest material resources for the billions who suffer most greatly on our small planet.

So, stay motivated! There’ll be no shortage of challenges to address after this COP 15 Super Bowl is said and done. Remember: Before you get started on post game strategy, get out there and hug your teammates for a good long time. We’ll need each other’s support more than ever and everyone sacrificed a lot to get here. 

Rhiya Trivedi

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

To be honest, I’m a little concerned that I, along with thousands of other youth delegates will have no idea what the final week of COP-15 will look like. Because of a new badging system, only approximately one third of each civil society delegation will be allowed into COP at any given time; our capacity for mass actions, nuanced negotiation tracking, and coordinated messaging and communications is being eroded by the Secretariat as they prepare for the high level session [that will involve] hundreds of finance and environmental ministers, and heads of state.

On one hand, I can understand the security concerns associated with 15 000+ people descending on the conference center every day; but on the other, I can’t help but feel muzzled. For youth, our power lies not only in our narrative, but in our resounding numbers. We’re going to need a new strategy in the coming days.

Just as they were when COP-15 opened, the possibilities for the next week are almost infinite. What’s needed for a fair, ambitious, and legally binding treaty is not thousands of pages of text and complex language; it is new, additional, sustainable, adequate, and predictable finance and technology transfer coupled with ambitious emissions reductions targets for developed countries. It’s a global commitment to zero and low-carbon growth, and a collective recognition of historical responsibility. If they were truly committed; if they were truly listening, our leaders would get in those rooms, behind closed doors, and make it all happen.

Or, the first week could have lowered ambition so profoundly that any greenwash in the coming week will garner applause and celebration from all corners of the world. Just as it did in L’Aquila, Italy, a statement endorsing 2 degrees, or 350 parts per million might represent progress, when in the end it does little to truly stop climate change and the suffering it has caused the world over. It’s all on the table and the table is behind closed doors.

Joe Mendelson

Joe Mendelson
Director of global warming policy at the National Wildlife Federation

Several things are certain for this week — long lines to get in, terrible food, and exhaustion. Beyond that, we wait for a sense of direction that the negotiations will take. We now have negotiating text that is serving as the basis for further discussions as the ministers take over. I’m not sure I can make predictions as to where it will head, but I see a couple key focal points to watch.  

First, will the U.S. seek behind the scenes to use the proposal tabled by the AOSIS (small island) countries as a way to try broaden the fissures in the G77 plus China? AOSIS envisions a legal form of a future agreement that merges the Kyoto Protocol with the other Long-term Cooperative Agreement (LCA) negotiation track into one treaty-like instrument. If the U.S. decides to work with AOSIS on this legal form issue it may provide some leadership in recognizing their moral plea for action and could place significant pressure on the rest of the G77 plus China to yield on recognizing a post-Kyoto framework. 

Second, the issue of whether there can be some mechanism that provides for adequate near term verification of the targets that China put on the table weighs heavily. The U.S. must come out of Copenhagen with some reasonable assurances that China will actually reduce from its baseline emissions. Failure to get this would probably do serious harm the possibility of completing Senate legislation. China of course is hestistant to subject its actions to outside scrutiny. Can the Chinese and U.S agree to something in between? Maybe it won’t be in the text, but we will see some joint statement? Another 64K question.

Third, can there be some agreement on a range of long-term financing for the developing countries? The U.S. is reluctant to even put an aspirational number out there but most developing countries won’t budge without it. There is hope that advocates can move the U.S. position and it may come down to a pledge from the develop countries for “quick start” (2010-12 before the next agreement) and a pledge for only several years beyond the quick start.  

Neil Tangri

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

I’m going to go out on a pessimistic limb here and say: watch out for a trap. On Saturday, the Copenhagen police sprang a trap on demonstrators, arresting almost a thousand peaceful marchers in a pre-planned show of force. I think the rich countries are planning something similar for the end of this week. They are refusing to negotiate on the most difficult numbers — emissions reductions targets, finance numbers, etc — saying that these are issues that can only be handled by the ministers and heads of state who will arrive at the end of the week. But the African group smells a trap — they have just suspended the COP until there is meaningful movement on the substantive issues. Why? Because there are also WTO-style backroom negotiations going on, which they are not invited to. The world’s poorest and most vulnerable countries fear that their leaders will arrive in Copenhagen and be presented with a terrible choice: sign a suicide pact or be blamed for the talks’ failures.

Kassie Siegel

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

Watching week one of the COP was an Alice in Wonderland experience, as the official proceedings have had such a disconnect from what the science and common sense tells us should be happening if we are to actually solve the climate crisis. Tuvalu and the Alliance of Small Island States, fighting for their survival, have provided a notable exception.  As the second week begins, we should be watching the small island states and the scientists for guidance on where things should be going. The U.S., unfortunately, is the one to watch for the direction the talks are most likely to go, and is currently pulling in the opposite direction from what the science calls for.

Watch the Island States. The Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) has really taken on a critical role at the conference. Led by a proposal by Tuvalu

these states, which will completely disappear under rising seas if the world follows the U.S. proposal, have pushed the conference to acknowledge the disconnect between what’s on the table and what is needed. When under consensus reality you lose everything, you ultimately have nothing to lose by challenging that consensus. Later this week, President Mohammed Nasheed of the Maldives will give a speech that will likely articulate what the rest of the world needs, but does not want to hear.

Watch the scientists. Statements about the need to reduce carbon dioxide concentrations back to below 350 ppm are piling up. A new U.N. Environment Program report released in September summarized as follows:

Accepting any stabilization target above 350 ppm CO2 really means that society has made a decision to make do without coral reefs. It is therefore also a decision to accept the serious consequences of coral reef loss on biodiversity, on sea fisheries around the world, and on the half billion people who depend directly on coral reefs for their livelihoods. Removing CO2 has thus become an imperative for survival.

Dr. Jim Hansen and co-authors wrote back in 2008:

If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm, but likely less than that.

The first week of negotiating brought us no closer to science-based targets. What are the scientists saying towards the end of the second week? Because any agreement which does not do what the science says is necessary to avert climate catastrophe cannot be declared a success.

Watch the U.S.: Without a fundamental shift in the U.S. position on reduction targets and finance, there appears little chance of truly breaking the logjam, and that meaningful change appears unlikely this week. 

Watch the activists: With little chance for a truly fair, equitable, and science-based deal here in Copenhagen, efforts to galvanize the public need to increase. With the fate of the planet hanging in the balance, we need to redouble our efforts to build the movement for real solutions and a better world for all of us.

KC Golden

KC Golden
Policy Director at Climate Solutions

I don’t have a prognosis; I’m trying to get out of that racket.  I have a very strong sense that we’ve all become much too vulnerable to relentless (and generally downward) expectation management from official sources. We spend way too much energy reprocessing and echoing their self-defeating inside wisdom. We’ve slipped into sort of a detached third person mode that I find scary. We’re all observers, diagnosticians, bloggers (!), pundits with sophisticated political analyses that too often serve as rationalizations for failure.

This week is the world, setting to work on the job it most needs to do. We need to be agents of our future, not meteorologists. If we come to hedge, predict, calibrate, position, and ultimately assign blame, we’re toast. If we show all the way up, fully conscious of the stakes and determined to seize the opportunity, this could be a turning point.

This much we know: It’s not too early.

OK, one little lapse into punditry: Watch the long-term climate finance discussion. There’s breakthrough potential there, especially for eliminating fossil fuel subsidies and shifting it into climate solutions in the developing world. That’s a potent two-fer, with big climate results both from collecting the money (ending the subsidies) and from spending it. Stop funding the problem, start funding the solution.

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