Grist's coverage of Copenhagen climate talks

Climate CrossroadsPhoto illustration / iStock images

Comedian Eugene Mirman is going to Copenhagen for Grist to cover the international climate talks. Eugene is a fairly well-informed guy (he at least scans Google News looking for reviews of his latest album), but he’s the first to admit that he doesn’t live, eat, and smoke climate policy.

At his request, the Grist staff threw together a basic cheat sheet on Copenhagen. It’s overly simplistic. It avoids lots of important details. It’s probably offensive. In short, it’s just enough to help Eugene feign cluefulness when he’s accosting world leaders in Denmark.

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Give our cheat sheet a gander. How would you explain Copenhagen to Eugene Mirman? Share your wit and wisdom in comments below …

Dear Eugene:

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COP15 is climate geek-speak for the 15th annual meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the U.N. climate convention. This meeting — being held in warm, sunny Copenhagen (“the South Padre Island of Scandinavia”) — is a big deal because the goal is to produce a new, binding climate agreement aimed at cutting greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide and staving off climate catastrophe.

Everyone wants to save the world, right? Yes, but … there are plenty of thorny issues dividing the world’s governments (just imagine getting 192 third graders to agree on a single fast-food joint). Here’s how we break down the Copenhagen talks:


Probably the biggest tension at the conference is between the rich, developed world (that’s us!) and the developing world — i.e. the Global South, the Third World, those billions of people whose lives just aren’t very cushy.

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The world’s poor nations are pretty pissed. Just as they’re getting to a point where middle-class, consumer economies are within their reach, the rich countries are telling them to cool their jets. Economic development comes at a high environmental price, as most of the world is still in the business of burning coal and oil to power factories, cars, electronics, etc. And then there’s the fact that richer people tend to want golf courses and McMansions, 24-hour fried chicken joints and Starbucks stores on every block — stuff that’s ultimately hard on the natural world.

The poor countries say: “You guys got to grow rich by burning coal for 200 years. Now you want us to give up our dreams of 24-hour electricity and shopping malls? How dare you!”

That, in a nutshell, explains much of the diplomatic wrangling over global climate action.


Poor countries want to save the world too. But it’s gonna cost money — rich countries’ money. Probably the biggest obstacle on the international scene to getting a climate deal is figuring out how to pay to help poor nations prepare for a climate-changed world — a.k.a. “climate adaptation.”  It will cost money to leapfrog the poor countries to a more sustainable future powered by clean energy. And it’ll cost money to deal with all the climate change that’s already going to happen no matter what.

Maybe this would have been easier in the Roaring ’90s or the Housing Bubble ’00s, but these days the rich world is, well, broke. Even the do-gooder European Union can’t agree on how much its member countries should contribute to an international climate-adaptation fund.  And you can bet Obama doesn’t relish having to ask Congress for more money for poor people in countries Americans can’t even pronounce.  


The business community is all over the map when it comes to climate action. The usual “bad guy” suspects oppose efforts to curb carbon emissions. And conservatives the world over say carbon trading or carbon taxes amount to just another effort to choke economic growth and feed big government.

The “good guys” in the biz world are a pretty diverse lot. Some are clean energy and technology types who will profit from shifting toward renewable energy sources and efficiency. Some are responding to consumer pressure to at least look like they are doing something to save the world. Some business leaders may actually be concerned about the state of the planet.  It’s a motley crew. To the extent that there’s a leader, it’s the Copenhagen Climate Council and its charismatic spokesman, Aussie Tim Flannery.  Tim looks like the type of guy who could shotgun a big can of Foster’s while arguing the finer points of ocean acidification with a bunch of angry Japanese whalers. Perfect for leading a business alliance! 


Getting a climate treaty approved will require balancing the competing interests of countries that aren’t exactly Third World and aren’t exactly rich — Russia, China, India, Brazil (for starters).  Each of these countries could make or break a deal.

Russia: Besides being a KGB/Mafia-run autocracy, it’s a huge energy producer.  There’s lots of oil in Russia’s Far East, and tons of natural gas (which Europe relies on).  Plus the Chinese are buying up Siberian forests to turn them into Ikea furniture and particle board. Russia will want to be compensated if its resources aren’t going to be worth as much in the future.  Plus, they just generally love stickin’ it to the West.

China: If China’s economy fails to grow, the Communist-in-name-only regime will be toppled. Right now, the 5-6 percent annual growth Beijing needs is being achieved by burning lots of coal.  China’s leaders do understand that climate change is real. They are pumping bagillions of yuan into clean energy and technology research. But it’ll be a while before that pays off, so for now the Chinese don’t want to commit to firm carbon caps.  And in the meantime, they’re buying up resources all around the world to feed their insatiable industries.

India: If you think America is tricky to engage, take a look at India.  Despite all the economic growth there in the past two decades, much of the country remains very poor. It needs growth to bring its 1.2 billion citizens out of poverty, compete with China, and maintain the huge army it has sitting on the border with Pakistan (and deployed through the central part of the country to fight the Maoist rebels who are actually starting to look like a real threat).  India’s leaders are saying two different things: to Indian voters, they’re saying, “Screw the West, we’ll grow however we want.” To the West, “We understand the climate challenge. We want to be part of the solution.”  Not a very tenable situation from a domestic political standpoint, and surely an indication that India, much like China, is unwilling to sacrifice growth for climate action.

Brazil: Here’s another increasingly rich country that needs continued economic growth to deal with its own poverty problem.  It’s gonna cost the West some serious $ to keep the Amazon forest from being slashed and burned. Meanwhile, Brazil may try to represent the interests of Latin America’s poorer nations in a bid to extend influence.  What this means is that a powerful voice will be speaking on behalf of poor countries that are looking to get paid for not chopping down their forests.

Saudi Arabia, etc: When we wean ourselves off of oil, we’ll be free of all those nasty regimes where everyone wants to kill us!  Hooray!  Oh, wait … not so fast.  Saudi Arabia and other Islamic petro-states are pretty screwed. Their populations are growing like crazy, their corrupt governments have failed to foster robust economic growth, and the only thing keeping everything together is $80/barrel oil.  If the money spigot gets turned off, you can bet there will be new Osamas popping up all over  the Middle East.  So, the oil states wanna get paid too.  Imagine that — for 50 years, we’ve paid billions for their oil, and now we’re supposed to send them billions more to not sell their oil?  How’s that gonna play in Red America?  Exactly.


Remember the Maldives! There are lots of small countries, mostly island states, that are going to disappear if sea levels rise as much as scientists predict. Understandably, they are pissed.  They like their islands just the way they are — above sea level.  These countries will be vocal in Copenhagen. But they are kinda like the angry guy in the check-out line at 7-Eleven — the rest of us just keep our eyes on the floor, sympathizing a bit with his plight but really just hoping the whole situation will go away.  Small island nations have a big handicap — very small populations and not much money, so they lack clout. And that explains why they are screaming so loudly.

The truly føcked also include bigger countries like Bangladesh, where millions of people are crammed into a river delta that will definitely be under water in 100 years.  And that ties back to the whole adaptation-financing issue mentioned above. How much will it cost to help the Bangladeshes of the world get ready for millions of their people being displaced by climate change?


Yeah, Obama won the election!  Everything is immediately better, right?

Ha!  The rest of the world is kinda ticked at our beloved Prez. They don’t appreciate that he can’t just order Congress to pass a climate bill, and they’re not happy that the White House appears to be dedicating more effort to Afghanistan and health reform than climate change. Obama will show up in Copenhagen without a firm promise from the U.S. to cap its carbon emissions.  Plenty of countries are sitting on the sidelines, waiting for Uncle Sam to get in the game.


Did we say that there would be a binding climate treaty done in Copenhagen? Really? I don’t remember that, but if you say so. … What we really meant to say is that we’ll get lots done in Denmark, but we’ll save the real party for 2010 in Mexico City. It’ll be sunnier there, we’ll eat some spicy food, take in the local wrestling matches, maybe dip over to Cabo for some R&R…

Felíz Año Nuevo, baby! COP16 will happen next December in Mexico. Obama and other world leaders recently said they will reach a “politically binding agreement” in Copenhagen, which is fancy diplomatic speak for, “We’ll hunker down in our Danish study hall and bang out as much homework as we can, but there’s no way we’re getting this project turned in before next semester.”

Andale, muchachos!

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