Copenhagen: The Gap Between Climate Rhetoric and Reality

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As the UN conference moves through its second and decisive week, the calls for strong global action to deal with climate change do not appear to be penetrating inside Copenhagen’s Bella Center.

by Bill McKibben, Scholar in Residence, Middlebury College

from Yale Environment 360

One week down here in Copenhagen, and an enormous tide of words and images and sounds. There have been nonstop press conferences (the press briefing room at the Bella Center actually has bouncers to make sure the rhythm never stops), and an anarchist can’t throw a rock without hitting a blogger. On Sunday, I attended an incredibly beautiful service at the central Lutheran cathedral, where the Archbishop of Canterbury preached one of the most powerful sermons I’ve heard in years.

Week two will be even more talk. Heads of state begin rolling in Monday — Mohammed Nasheed of the Maldives will be one of the first to arrive. By Wednesday, expect serious limo-lock at the Bella Center, as premier after president after goon (e.g., Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe) takes to the podium. The tidal wave of talk builds to a crescendo on Friday when Barack Obama arrives, ready for the follow-up to his Nobel speech.

And the press will be covering the war of words with incredible diligence (in between searching out the couple of hundred violent souls hidden among the tens of thousands of peaceful protesters). You’ll read stories about “gaps opening” between blocs, and “positions hardening,” and on and on. By week’s end, though, the world’s leaders will have managed to put something down on paper, and most here will have blessed it as “good first step,” and back to the airport we all shall troop.

But here’s the thing: The words don’t count. None of them. If you want to understand what’s going on here, you need to shut out the words, the drama, the craziness, and just focus on numbers — and really just a few.

Outside the window, right now, the atmosphere contains 390 parts per million (ppm) of CO2. That’s too much — as a result, sea ice is melting, glaciers retreating, deserts spreading. Science has told us where we need to go: 350 ppm. There’s really not much pushback against that number — the UN’s chief climate scientist Rajendra Pachauri has made it clear that it’s a necessary target.

But it’s tough. Any chance of getting there would require governments deciding to concentrate all their energies on speeding the transition to renewable energy. We’d have to work with the same fervor we do when a war beckons. And, uh, we’re not.

How do we know that we’re not talking about doing nearly enough? We know because bright minds at Climate Interactive, a collaboration of the Sustainability Institute, the Sloan School of Management at MIT, and Ventana Systems — have a couple of nifty computer programs that allow them to plug in the proposals that countries have put on the table, push a button, and calculate what it means for the atmosphere.

So here’s the number at the moment. Take every plan — the meager American one, the more aggressive European targets, the Chinese promises to use less carbon per yuan of output, the Brazilian pledges about forests, the Maldives hope of going carbon neutral inside a decade. Push the button. In the year 2100, the atmosphere will contain 770 parts per million CO2.

That figure is actually getting worse. A few days ago it was 760 ppm, but then the Japanese reneged on a plan to aggressively cut their carbon, adding all sorts of hedges and conditions. 770 ppm is not 350. It’s not 450, which is what the big environmental groups were pushing for five years ago and what the Obama administration still takes as its target. It’s not 550 parts per million, which would be double the pre-industrial revolution concentration. It’s — if it’s not hell, it’s pretty much the same temperature.

None of the honeyed words that will be uttered in the next five days can cover up the stench of that number. 770 parts per million CO2, or 650, or 550, or 450 are, from what we can tell, a recipe for a failing planet. A journalist was interviewing me today, and he said: “You’re campaigning for 350, but you’d settle for 450, right?” Hell, I’d settle for 550. But what I want doesn’t matter. You’d have to go interview physics itself and ask what it would settle for — and my strong guess is that 350 is its bottom line and it’s not going to change.

So as you watch the proceedings from a distance this week, feel free to tune out most of the rhetoric. Hopes will rise, hopes will fall, hopes will soar, hopes will be dashed. But that carbon number, if it stays anywhere near its current range, is pretty much all that matters. The irony is, civil society around the world gets it: The “most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history,” according to CNN, rallied around the number 350 in demonstrations on Saturday.

At the end of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s sermon here in Copenhagen Sunday, the mighty church bell rang 350 times, and then church bells across Europe and around the world did the same. Demonstrators marched peacefully through the streets of Copenhagen by the tens of thousands on Saturday carrying 350 placards. Around the world, people held 3,000 candlelight vigils, spelling out the number with their flames.

But so far little of it has penetrated the Bella Center where these talks are underway. Those on the outside know the answer; those on the inside are trying mightily to come up with some convincing fudge.

About Bill:
Bill McKibben is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College. His The End of Nature, published in 1989, is regarded as the first book for a general audience on global warming. He is a founder of 350.org, a campaign to spread the goal of reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide to 350 parts per million worldwide. His most recent book is American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau.

© 2009, Yale Environment 360. All rights reserved. Do not republish.

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Author: Yale Environment 360 (30 Articles)

This post originally appeared on Yale Environment 360. Yale Environment 360 is an online magazine offering opinion, analysis, reporting and debate on global environmental issues. The site features original articles by scientists, journalists, environmentalists, academics, policy makers, and business people, as well as multimedia content and a daily digest of major environmental news. Yale Environment 360 is published by the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and Yale University. It is funded in part by grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.