After Copenhagen: On being sadder but wiser, China, and justice as the way forward

(Revised, Feb 19, 2010)

(For a snappier version of this analysis — without the charts! — see the Earth Island Journal)

First up, this is not another enumeration of confident judgments. I do not presume that Copenhagen was an unmitigated failure, or that this failure was Obama’s fault, or, as is the fashion, that China was the ugliest of them all. Nor do I suggest that the South’s negotiators made impossible demands. Or argue, with disingenuous resignation, that the UN process is obsolete. Or believe that, finally, only a US breakthrough really matters.

To be sure, Copenhagen was absolutely a failure, in the precise sense that it failed to catapult us into the fair and ambitious global mobilization that’s needed to prevent climate catastrophe. But this was never going to happen. What did happen, as the veteran Bangladeshi policy activist Saleem Huq put it, was a shaking of the traditional pieces of the global geo-political puzzle and their landing in a new and unfamiliar configuration. In this sense, the question of success and failure is moot. The real question is whether this new configuration offers us new ways forward, and if any of them lead beyond the “North / South impasse (a misleading formulation that implies an equal division of blame) to enable a meaningful global mobilization.

This question cannot be answered by the hard, uncompromising pragmatics of campaign logic. This is a time for reflection, not for pushing forward, one more meeting, one more demo, one more demand at a time. This time we need strategy as well as tactics, and we need it fast. 2010, which will culminate with another showdown in December in Mexico, is going to be another big year. As, for that matter, will 2011, and 2012, and all the other years in the brief period just ahead, the post-Copenhagen period in which we must, finally, begin to move.

Continue reading “After Copenhagen: On being sadder but wiser, China, and justice as the way forward”

Getting China Wrong

It’s been a long time since Copenhagen.

A few weeks after it ended, chatting to a friend about some stupid comments I’d overhead during that long last night, he said that “everyone gets a pass for anything they said during the first week.” The first week after Copenhagen is what he meant — a time of exhaustion and near despair in international climate circles.

I bring this up because some of the stupid things that were said during that first week are still with us. There were plenty of them, of course, but this post doesn’t pretend to be comprehensive. It’s just about China.

Copenhagen, of course, was not a success. But it did change the game, in particular by establishing a framework in which both northern and southern countries can step forward to “pledge” to mitigation actions of various kinds. As they do, scientists and institutes around the world are tabulating the pledges, normalizing them, calculating their implied aggregate impact on global temperature, and — inevitably — drawing conclusions about which countries are doing their “fair share” and which are free riding on the efforts of others. Continue reading “Getting China Wrong”

The 350 ppm Carbon Dioxide Challenge and How to Achieve it

There are many within the climate movement who, if truth be told, would prefer it if the lefts now deeply serious, and increasingly sophisticated, engagement with the climate challenge were to be, well, soft-pedaled. The left, after all, is still dangerous place to be, particularly in the US.

We do not rank ourselves within this tendency. For one thing, we do not believe that the climate crisis can be managed without real (if not absolute) economic justice, and this alone puts us on the left. For another, the question that most concerns us is global emergency mobilization, and at this point were not at all sure that the existing social formation (to quote Immanuel Wallenstein) is up to the job.

In this context, The 350 ppm Carbon Dioxide Challenge and How to Achieve it, a little essay by one Renfrey Clarke, can only be praised. It contains a few nuances that we could quibble with, but the overall framing of Clarkes argument, and his angry tone, are entirely justifiable. And, frankly, he is a reasonable man:

To argue that the capitalist system cannot afford to deal with climate change is thus at least technically wrong. The system has paid a similar or much greater cost in order to meet previous challenges. The central reason why the nettle of climate change is not being grasped is that private capital is exactly that private, required to produce profit for specific people and corporations. Combating climate change means profits foregone, in the case of oil left in the ground and stranded assets, in the case of coal export facilities made idle. Both the oil and the coal trains are owned by particular corporations, able to lobby politicians, influence media outlets and fund political parties and candidates.

There is nothing here to disagree with.