Meg Boyle, acclaimed youth climate leader (though isn’t it time we jettison the ‘youth’ modifier – I weighed in here on this issue last year!) and my comrade-in-arms at whatwedo.org has this excellent new post from COP15.  Please offer your comments, and be in touch with her this way: Meg AT whatwedo DOT org

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As a matter of political strategy, many of the representatives of the US Administration at the UN climate negotiations here in Copenhagen are stuck in the 20th Century—nervous about upsetting Congress and repeating the 1997 Kyoto negotiations.  Kyoto, of course, was the all-important climate negotiation where Vice President Al Gore signed the United States to a global deal on climate change, but returned home to the knowledge that the Senate wouldn’t ratify the treaty, leaving the world in the lurch and the US negotiating team  feeling a bit sheepish.  

The current US team, some of whom have staged a comeback to the negotiations post-Kyoto, have therefore decided it’s better not to promise too much in terms of international commitments here in Copenhagen than to disappoint the world again if Congress won’t deliver.  Instead of aspirations to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions to science-based levels, support significant action in the developing world, and join a legally binding international agreement that would hold the US accountable to its promises, aspirations to mediocrity have become the rule of the day here.  It’s a funny sort of paradox, given that the US is also so eager to highlight everything that’s new in US climate action back home, from stimulus funding for the green economy to the EPA endangerment finding. 

The Obama Administration should take to heart its own message: Things are changing.  It’s not 1997 anymore.   Not in the United States, and not in the rest of the world, either.  These days, fewer and fewer people are willing to admit they ever enjoyed the movie “Titanic.”  Some reuniting aside, the Spice Girls have moved on.   The world, thank heavens, now has Harry Potter (to think there was a world before Harry Potter!).  I, thank heavens, am no longer in junior high school.  Swine flu has replaced avian flu as the scary virus du jour.   And things are a little different on climate change, too…

In random order, here are the top six signs it’s not 1997 anymore:

1.  The world’s eyes…and iphone apps…and tweets…are on Copenhagen
Around the world, everyday citizens are following these talks minute-by-minute through blogs, YouTube videos, text messages and twitter on gadgets that we just didn’t have back in the day; it gives all new meaning to transparency and civil society access to the talks.  Mainstream media attention to the negotiations has likewise been unprecedented.  The global public knows Copenhagen is happening, and leaders are under pressure to bring an agreement home.

2.  (Insert a “How many heads of state does it take…” joke here)
Normally UN climate negotiations are the realm of diplomatic teams tasked with representing a pre-set position that allows little wiggle room. But well over 100 heads of state and many more high level ministers are expected to arrive here in Copenhagen next week to bring the negotiations—and a new global deal—to a close.  With that much decision-making authority in one room (and so many reputations and elections at stake!!), anything is possible.

3.  Developing countries are taking the lead
The last year has seen developing countries coming to the table at these talks with concrete proposals time and time again.  The Alliance of Small Island States is advocating a science-based global climate goal of 350ppm.  South Africa has just announced a new climate target. Brazil, China, India, and South Africa are showing heightened cooperation.  The Arab region is coordinating more closely with other allies in the developing country block known as the “G77.”   China and India have declared emissions intensity targets that will curb their emissions below business as usual before 2020.  Suddenly some folks stateside, US Senators and Representatives not least among them, are getting a little concerned that  if we don’t move quickly, the United States’ new green industry might just be China’s new green industry instead.

4.  “Congress has grown grassroots”
“Congress has grown grassroots” is an apt expression I’m borrowing from a Congressional staffer who came to share the good news about possible US climate action at last year’s climate negotiations in Poland.   Maybe Congress didn’t feel they had the backup they needed to act on climate in 1997, but they should certainly be feeling it now.  Last winter, over 12,000 young people descended on Washington DC for a youth conference on climate change and to lobby their elected leaders.  That’s about as many people as attend the global negotiations in an average year.  This week, many of those youth and many more are taking action to show their solidarity with the negotiations in Copenhagen.  The world needs more climate champions in the US Senate, and when they stand up to lead, American climate champions in communities across the nation will stand ready to back them up.   Of course, the mounting movement isn’t just in the United States- you needn’t look any farther than the recent 350.org global day of action on October 24th to realize that.  The largest day of climate action in history, October 24th united local leaders in over 180 countries to call for a science-based goal in Copenhagen.  Over 350 of those leaders are now inside the halls of the climate negotiations.

5.  Climate science is ever-advancing
Climate impacts on the ground are outstripping even the latest models.   The arctic could be ice-free in the summer within five years, decades faster than expected.  Sea levels are rising faster than previously predicted.  Concerns over ocean acidification are also mounting. Methane leaks observed in arctic permafrost and seabed sediments are raising fresh questions about climate feedback loops and what level of warming will push us past tipping points to catastrophic climate change.  In 1997, the evidence was grave enough to move the world to gather.  In 2009, many, many scientists, peer reviewed papers, and real-world observations later,  it’s graver still.

6.  New leadership
In the last couple of years, several key countries have elected new, more climate-friendly administrations.  Sure, at moments, the new US leadership in these talks looks unsettlingly like the old “leadership. ” But the science isn’t going to change, so the politics must.  And surely President Barack Obama should know about changing politics better than pretty much anyone.

Meg Boyle

whatwedo.org