Well, it depends on who you ask? While the United Nations climate talks are officially over, the world does not have the fair, ambitious, and binding treaty that science demands of us to protect all global citizens, rich and poor, from the perils of accelerating climate change. This is a fact, and there is no way to spin or greenwash the fact that world leaders failed to deliver what we need. But if that is the only narrative to come out of Copenhagen, then I think it does not tell the whole story. Some very significant tectonic shifts happened leading up to and during the meetings.
First, world expectation and awareness of the need for action continues to expand. You could see this very clearly from the thousands of youth who observed the talks and from the high level of international participation both by nations and businesses. It would be wrong to underestimate the significance of having the world’s top emitters – China, the United States, India and Brazil – now engaged on this issue in new ways.
The failure of the U.S. to play a constructive role during the past decade will be an infamous page in our country’s historic record. It was obvious the U.S. negotiators came to the talks hamstrung by the partisan gridlock in our Congress that has thus far failed to pass comprehensive climate legislation. Fortunately, President Obama’s intense discussion with China in the 11th hour did play a key role in salvaging the talks and set the stage for what could lead to a comprehensive agreement in 2010. The very fact that the leaders of two superpowers engaged and have made commitments of their counties, albeit ones that need strengthening, represents significant movement.
The Obama Administration fell short of what was needed to move the climate talks forward to produce an ambitious and legally binding climate treaty, but when compared to past efforts, these actions were like night and day. See Obama’s closing statement here. If we want more ambitious actions, then we must turn the political heat up at home, so that our elected representatives will understand they must turn down the heat of our planet or risk being replaced by those who will.
In the end, after two weeks of intense – and at times contentious – climate negotiations, delegates from more than 185 nations ‘noted the existence’ of the Copenhagen Accord as the talks wrapped up on Saturday, December 19th. While the Accord includes a global agreement to keep global warming below two degrees Celsius, it does fail to include concrete measures to reach that target, leading scientists to say the world may be on a path to 3.5 degrees of warming by 2100. For the first time, the U.S., China and India each offered a national reduction target. While the targets are not ambitious enough, they are evidence of movement from where we were six months ago.
A critical piece of this Accord was the financial commitment from developed nations to provide at least $100 billion per year in assistance to developing nations by 2020. Had such an important component been on the table earlier so that the details could have been worked out ahead of time, more progress may have been made.
We’re Not Done Yet
More ambitious reductions, greater financial assistance and legally binding agreements are needed to secure the collective future of the planet, so the Copenhagen Accord will be viewed as a step along the path but not the end of the journey.
Meanwhile, China and India are already moving ahead of the U.S. in the development and production of clean energy technology. Unless the U.S. can pass a comprehensive climate and clean energy bill that will significantly boost U.S. investment in clean energy technology, we risk losing our competitive edge worldwide in the newly emerging low-carbon marketplace. More importantly, we risk losing our standing in the world as a functioning society capable of responding to the challenges of our world. If we continue to allow the corrupting influence of fossil fuel dollars pouring into Washington from the carbon-intensive companies that desperately want to hold on to the status quo, our beacon of democracy will be dimmed at home and around the world.