Grist's coverage of Copenhagen climate talks

Earlier this week, yet another “leaked” U.N. document caused a fuss in Copenhagen. Leaked document #2, first reported on by the Guardian, showed that the commitments on the table for a post-Kyoto treaty would still allow for a potentially disastrous 3C temperature rise in global temperature. Bill McKibben of, whose name was mysteriously scrawled acorss the top of the leaked document, was horrified.

Here’s how our panel of experts interpreted the document and the reactions to it:


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Rhiya Trivedi

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

Our delegation (the Canadian Youth Delegation) has been fielding lots of questions about Climate Gate lately — our policy team (including yours truly) pretty much decided to de-wonk our messaging around it, and basically go with the fact that the real scandal is that the Earth is warming and few are doing something about it [at the national level]. The leaked U.N. report seems to simply be a continuation, albeit a harsh one, of this simple fact. So people seem to be talking about the leak (and by talking, I mean tweeting and e-mailing since God and 300 civil society members alone know what’s up inside the Bella Center), but not with any overwhelming sense of surprise or shock. We knew that what we’ve got on the table isn’t nearly enough. The numbers around what the aggregate Annex 1 emissions reduction target currently adds up to have ranged from 11-17 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 (including the U.S.). Science has called for 25-40 percent to give us only a 50-50 chance of limiting global warming to 2 degrees. So were we under the impression that “1.5 to stay alive” or “as far as possible below 2 degrees” were even possibilities at this point if nothing changed? I wasn’t, even if I stood with Tuvalu, and AOSIS, and the African Group at various occasions in the past two weeks. So while 3 degrees is a scary number, it doesn’t really alter the fact that in my mind, we are still consciously consigning the world to unjustified and preventable suffering. I have no idea what new tipping points we will trigger at 3 degrees, or how many people this new development will negatively effect; I just know that it will trigger tipping points and negatively effect those least responsible and most vulnerable. I know that the moral climate justice narrative has done little to raise the ambition of those most responsible and with the greatest capacity to usher in solutions, irrespective of 2 degrees or 3 degrees or 6 degrees. I’m terrified for the planet and its people, but not any more than I was a few hours ago. In terms of process, I’m trusting that the UNFCCC has used this information to apply pressure behind the scenes, even if it garnered few results. If they knew this and allowed A1 targets to stagnate, I’ll find it hard to forgive.

Andrew Light

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Andrew Light 
Senior fellow at the Center for American Progress

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 This one is easy to answer, and the fact that everyone is jumping on it as the “sky is falling” document du jour demonstrates how knee jerk our community has become. And frankly, how hungry we are for bad news.  

The first line of the document reads:  “This note provides an assessment of pledges made by Annex I parties, and voluntary actions and policy goals announced by a number of non-Annex I Parties in the lead-up to the COP to the UNFCCC held in Copenhagen.”

This document is an assessment of the commitments currently in place and pending by parties prior to Copenhagen. Some of [these commitments] may be contingent on a treaty, and most are not.  This is not an assessment of targets in provisional treaty language currently being discussed or commitments that were made contingent on the existence of a new treaty. This is an analysis of unilateral commitments that have been floated, period.  Not commitments for a specific multilateral process such as the UNFCCC.  

So, show me in Waxman-Markey where it says, “this bill will only be enacted if the U.N. creates a post-Kyoto treaty framework.”  You can’t because it doesn’t exist.

Show me something in China’s announced auto efficiency standards, forestry proposals, or their 2012 energy intensity target which says “these polices will only be enacted if the U.N. creates a post-Kyoto treaty framework.”  You can’t because it doesn’t exist.  

The reason why such language doesn’t exist is because parties engaged in this process are decreasing their emissions for reasons other than satisfying the structure of a new treaty.  They are doing it to create new clean energy jobs, achieve energy security, clean up their environments, and retool themselves for a global economy where emissions are going to matter. The key is to write a treaty that takes existing country commitments and strengthens them past 2020 to 2050 in order to hit the targets that have been agreed to in other forums, such as the MEF and the G8. We’ll get one stop along the way in Copenhagen, I think, and finish the job in 2010.

Also, there is nothing exclusive about this Guardian story.  The analysis of current country commitments is the same as the findings of a number of other organizations that were bundled together last week into a joint press release issued by the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change, UNEP, Ecofys, Climate Analytics, Sustainability Institute, the European Climate Foundation, and ClimateWorks.  Missed that one Guardian!  

Frankly though, I’m not surprised that this analysis was bought as a secret leaked document by this crew.  Guardian reporters have proven themselves suckers time and time again on the international climate story by pushing out bad analysis as scoop.

I read the assessment of where we are with current commitments as good news not bad.  We’ve done an analysis of publicly available Project Catalysts numbers which conclude the same thing as this “secret” document. But rather than calling foul it looks like good news to me.  

When you add up everything that the 17 largest economies have on the table, not for a treaty necessarily, mind you, but awaiting domestic action that could happen regardless of a treaty, then we are five gigatons away from commitments that should get us on a 450 ppm stabilization path by 2020. That’s essentially 65 percent of the way there. Why is that a bad thing?  

The fact that we’re potentially 65 percent of the way there without an agreement is reason to push forward, not back away, and improve on the ambition parties have expressed prior to a finalized word in any climate treaty.


Joe Mendelson

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

As many of us said at the outset, Copenhagen was wired to be a step in the process and not the ultimate stage for the grand outcome previously all had hoped. The leaked document doesn’t hold any surprises that there is a gigaton gap between the science and the offers on the table to cut emissions. What surprises me is the continued hyperbole and almost rooting from many for a total failure. No deal is better than any deal just leaves us well beyond 450, 550 and 650. How is that a good outcome?!

It looks like we have had a breakthrough on financing and China accepting some “transparency” of its commitment. Those two pieces will provide a stepping stone for completing our domestic legislation and momentum for the next meeting. The question remains what the format of the mandate to move to a legally binding agreement will be, and whether Mexico City or an earlier meeting becomes our next milepost. Simply put, we are not done yet, but likely another step toward the finish line.


Kassie Siegel

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

The leaked UNFCCC Secretariat document concluding that the emissions reductions promised by the U.S. and other countries would, even if fully realized, still result in atmospheric CO2 concentrations exceeding 550 parts per million and a global temperature rise of over 3 degrees C, confirms the biggest public secret of the Copenhagen conference: a  “successful” conference, as defined by the U.S., in the real world translates into a death sentence for small island nations, coral reefs, polar bears, and much of the world’s biodiversity. 

Sign Up for More News from GristAnd the 550 ppm and 3 degree C prediction of the Secretariat is likely optimistic; independent scientists conclude that current proposals in Copenhagen would take us to over 750 ppm and 3.9 degrees C of warming. We’ve known since the Obama administration announced its proposal of cutting carbon dioxide by less than 4 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 that, absent the U.S. substantially changing its tune, Copenhagen could not be deemed a “success” in any rational sense of the word. The IPCC estimates that reductions of 25-40 percent below 1990 levels are needed by 2020 to avoid greater than 2 degrees of warming, while cuts of over 45 percent are likely needed to get on a trajectory for the only scientifically and ethically credible target: 350 ppm. While over 100 countries have endorsed a 350 ppm target, the U.S. has not. And while not openly calling for a 750 ppm (or even 550 ppm) target, the U.S. posture in Copenhagen is a de facto endorsement of such a result.

Barack Obama is one of the smartest individuals ever to hold the office of the presidency in the United States. Presumably, he is fully aware of the consequences of the emission scenarios advanced by his negotiating team in Copenhagen. For the U.S. to put on the negotiating table a proposal that, by all reasonable and rational accounts would result in the death or displacement of millions of people and the extinctions of hundreds of thousands (perhaps millions) of species, is unacceptable. 

While many argue that a deal here based on the current reduction targets would be better than nothing and/or a good start, the problem is that if we are to save the Arctic, save the island nations, prevent further catastrophic impacts in Africa, and save the planet’s plants, animals, and the ecosystems on which we all depend, we need to act swiftly and decisively. We stand at the precipice of climactic tipping points beyond which a climate crash will be out of our control. We cannot take half measures and wait until after 2020 to begin deep emissions reductions. 

I agree with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who said that it is better to have no deal than to have a bad deal. The leaked UNFCC document further confirms that what has been proposed so far in Copenhagen is a very bad deal for all of us.


Sanjay Khanna

Sanjay Khanna 
Climate journalist and Huffington Post blogger

The challenge of the Kyoto (and now Copenhagen) process was always how binding commitments could be enforced among nations with disparate socio-economic interests.

That’s why it’s dawning on me that climate negotiators in many countries are being stretched by opposing forces of development and deceleration.

In the short term, addressing the implications of climate science would mean nation states finding a way towards a sane development model, which would mean self-imposed reductions in GDP, along with the implementation of cleaner technologies, after which a more growth-oriented approach might be possible.

But the masters of this process aren’t the climate scientists, nor are they the politicians. They are the bilateral and multilateral trade agreements enforced among nations. They are the fact that Europe, the U.S., and other Western nations whose corporations have invested heavily in manufacturing in Chinese, Indian, and other developing countries’ markets, hoping to maintain a corporate growth trajectory amid downturns in the developed economies.

So, in fact, the developed countries are, according to Mike Littrell, a cultural mythologist and political strategist, in a “mixed motive game.” “From the perspective of risk management,” says Littrell, “mixed motives are most dangerous.” In other words, negotiating emissions reductions while encouraging emissions to rise so that Western economic targets can be met leads to decisions that can only be counterproductive and catastrophically dangerous. (Disclosure: Mike Littrell and I work together, and Mike did consulting with the Obama campaign during the Iowa caucus.)

Developed countries that invest in developing countries (after breaking down trade barriers) typically demand investments in the energy grid so that their factories can run at the lowest possible cost. In China, for example, that has meant the building of coal factories to cheaply support both the needs of domestic consumption and factory production.

So, the U.S. and E.U. trade negotiators actually need China to create cheap energy capacity for factories manufacturing their products. They wouldn’t want to push China too hard to reduce emissions in this context and that’s likely why they are, in a sense, as invested in the Chinese energy regime as the Chinese are. Which makes E.U./U.S. negotiators economic, not climate, negotiators.

This may partially explain the double binds, the ineffectual and unhappy negotiations so far, and the feeling among all of us in civil society that we’re being held hostage to a kind of normalized madness.

The document in question is simply part of this process, and now we must take heart wherever we can, so we can reflect on optimal next steps after the dust settles on the COP 15 process.

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