Live in Copenhagen: Climate talks in rough waters

This blog was written by Jennifer Rennicks, former Senior Director of Policy & Communications at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Guest Blog | December 17, 2009 | Climate Change

Over the past two days, climate negotiations have entered some very rough waters with violent protests outside and simmering tensions within.  The snowy, colder weather has done little to cool tensions among the delegates and between UN organizers and disenfranchised attendees.  As world leaders begin arriving here in Copenhagen during the next 24 hours, thousands attending these negotiations and millions around the world wonder if these leaders will break through gridlock and negotiate a worthwhile agreement accepted by developing nations and supported by the developed countries.

On Monday, UN officials announced that larger-than-expected crowds were prompting them to restrict access in order to comply with fire codes at the Bella Center limiting attendance to 15,000.  A curious development when you consider that it was the UN itself that approved the applications for the more than 45,000 people who were officially accredited before the registration process was closed entirely on Tuesday afternoon.  Over the next few days, ever-tightening restrictions were leaving people – literally – out in the cold, standing in lines for hours, unsure whether they would even get in.  On Wednesday, things turned violent, and Danish media capture video of police in riot gear beating protesters who were trying to gain access to the Bella Center as credentialed, legitimate observers. Southern Alliance for Clean Energy’s attendees are among those with credentials but now without access to the negotiating center, and so we are tracking the proceedings online and in hastily-opened forums/centers with big-screen tvs and weblinks to the Bella Center.

Without the engagement and oversight of civil society, the legitimacy and transparency of these talks is certainly drawn into question.  And, amidst this confusion, the president of the conference – Denmark’s Climate Minster Connie Hedegaard – formally stepped aside on Wednesday morning and now Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen is nominally chairing the proceedings.  Some portray this as mere formality (a head of state to convene the proceedings with the anticipated arrival of other heads of states) others question whether or not this foreshadows even more problems ahead.  To further confuse the situation, reporters within the Bella Center suggested early this morning that Danish PM Rasmussen will officially ask Connie Hedegaard to step back into leading the negotiations. I’m sure that the Danish government and the UN organizers did not intend for the storyline of these talks to read like a sit-com’s script, but as the hours and days click by, the truth sometimes feels stranger than fiction.

Meanwhile, in the actual negotiations themselves, parties have been working around the clock to try and bridge the widening gap that threaten to derail the negotiations altogether.  The two primary areas of disagreement are the reduction goals being offered and international finance support that will be necessary.  All eyes are now on the United States and China as these two nations – out of 192 attending – clearly hold the keys to a fair, ambitious and binding final agreement.

These two nations account for nearly half (approximately 42%) of the world’s CO2 emissions: the U.S. claims responsibility for the largest share of past emissions and China will almost certainly have the largest share of future emissions.  However, in a move that won the U.S. one of its multiple Fossil of the Day awards, U.S. negotiators continue to offer paltry reduction levels in the range of 17 % by 2020 from 2005 levels. This offer only corresponds to a 3% reduction from 1990 levels, the baseline used by the European Union and all others, and is nowhere near the reductions urged by science to remain safely below the threshold of 350 ppm of greenhouse gases.

With paltry reduction levels pushed forward, perhaps the more critical issue is international finance options.  On Wednesday, SACE joined with dozens of organizations and businesses in a letter calling on President Obama to raise U.S. investment in global efforts to protect tropical forests, provide humanitarian assistance to protect vulnerable communities from climate impacts, and speed the deployment of clean energy technologies in order to legitimately remain in the negotiations.  On Thursday morning, Secretary of State Clinton announced that US is committed to its share of $100 billion by 2020 through a combination of public/private funding sources in a proactive measure to bolster these faltering negotiations.

Ahead of President Obama’s much-anticipated arrival tomorrow, a Congressional Delegation arrived including three congresspeople from the Southeast:  Reps. Gordon (D) and Blackburn (R) from Tennessee and Butterfield (D) from North Carolina.  They follow the brief appearance by Sens. Kerry (D-MA) and Inhofe (R-OK) who played their predictable roles – the former a champion for action and the latter a denier dismissing the ‘climate hoax.’  One line of Kerry’s speech was particularly memorable and worth repeating again and again:

“If (former Vice-president) Dick Cheney can argue that even a 1% chance of a terrorist attack is 100% justification for preemptive action—then surely, when scientists tell us that climate change is nearly a 100% certainty, we ought to be able to stand together, all of us, and join in an all out effort to combat a mortal threat to the life of this planet. “

The time for action grows very short and the stakes have never been higher.  With less than 48 hours to go until the conference is scheduled to conclude, most everything still remains on the table.  SACE’s national ally, 1Sky, makes it easy to call the White House and place pressure on the United States to stop foot-dragging and start leading.

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