Arne Bang Mikkelsen was a happy man. And why not? The convention had gone as planned. His logistics were flawless.
During the two weeks from December 4 to 18, 2009, when world leaders met in Copenhagen and spectacularly failed to produce a global agreement on climate change, Arne found success in feeding and watering them. The enormous food production system that mankind had been perfecting over the last eight thousand years—in the process conquering nature and altering normal climatic cycles—had worked. As chief executive of the huge hangar-like Bella Conference Center where the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) conference was held, he was “really proud,” he said, that during the thirteen-day event the appetites of 45,000 people had been well served, the multitude having consumed three hundred tons of food including fish, poultry, beef, vegetables, fresh fruit and Danish hot dogs (pølse); 14,779 cakes (mostly apple strudel and chocolate squares); 350,000 glasses of water and 250,000 cups of coffee, plus thousands of bottles of beer and wine.
The only glitch was the long lineups into the convention itself, caused by a congested security system that forced some delegates to wait up to five hours in the cold of a Danish December before gaining entry. “The UN has apologized for this and has taken on the full responsibility,” Arne said. Nothing was gonna stick to Arne. From the Danish organizers’ point of view, the long queues were the only practical thing that did not function. “It has created respect throughout the world,” they said after the conference wrapped up and the world leaders and delegates had, as Greenpeace put it, fled the crime scene.
Arne’s finest hour, however, was not to be found in the simple fact of having fed so many delegates. As he stated in his final communiqué after the conference, it was the “record-time” assembly and furnishing of thirty-eight private meeting rooms, which the Americans and Chinese had ordered up with only three days left in the negotiations, that really showed his troops at their best.
Deep within the cavernous halls of Arne’s Bella Center, where 192 nations struggled to quite possibly remake the world, it was in the seclusion of these rooms that a select group of world leaders leapfrogged the whole process and created what they called the Copenhagen Accord. Then they quickly saddled up their private jets and headed home to nations where the poor are clamoring for their fair share of the world’s wealth or, in the case of President Obama, into a violent Washington snowstorm where the clamoring comes from a moneyed elite of “legal persons” with names like Goldman Sachs, Exxon, Chevron and Koch—the pillars of America’s corporate democracy.
These private meeting rooms were where the Western powers attempted crudely and very publicly to bribe a defiant developing world into submission; where they tried but failed to sideline China and in the process reinforced the Communist country’s overwhelming influence in the Third World; and where, as many scientists would conclude, the world’s climate systems inched much closer to collapse.
Soon after they had gone, Arne’s army swept away the evidence of failure in order to host another event in the annual rotation of fashion, holiday and car fairs. Within a week, the crime scene had been cleansed, erased. “Back to normal,” Arne said. As if nothing had ever happened.
I followed the climate talks from 2009 to 2011, including the meetings in Bonn, Bangkok and Barcelona that led up to the Christmas pantomime in Copenhagen and then, one year later, the sun-splashed conference in the paradise of Cancún.
Initially, I was a parachutist landing amid a conversation carried on in an unfamiliar coded English. Words such as “Lu-Lu-CFs” (meaning Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry), “Napas” (National Adaptation Programs of Action), “Redd” (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation in Developing Countries) or, my favorite, “BINGOs” (Business and Industry Non-government Organizations) were bandied about with the easy fluency of the insider. So arcane were these negotiations that I had to go to school in the language. Indeed, the United Nations supplied such a training for neophytes like me.
What was important, of course, was not so much the army of acronyms but the history behind them, something most delegates had long since forgotten. What had brought them to these meetings in the first place?
The answer was science. Relegated to trade show status, it had become a commodity you could take or leave depending on your needs. My journey through the science of climate change— particularly my trek over the Arctic glaciers to study their primal warnings—revealed the utter desperation of scientists as they pile proof upon proof only to see it disappear into the smoke of denial or crash against the excuse of political and economic expediency. Science presents us with an assessment of risk. It tells us that climate change is the “defining challenge of our times,” as UNFCCC executive secretary Christiana Figueres put it in the months leading up to the 2010 meeting in Cancún. “What is at stake here is none other than the long-term sustainable future of humanity . . . The milestone science has set . . . requires nothing less than an energy revolution both in production and in consumption.” To achieve this, she said, nations need to grasp “the politically possible at every step.”
Canada, which exhibits one of the more extreme cases of national cognitive dissonance, has turned back the clock on its greenhouse gas commitments, cranking up its tar sands production and even expanding coal-fired power plants. But the country is not unique. Australia, China, India and Brazil are all eagerly expanding their carbon footprints. These negotiations involve thousands of conflicting economic, social and political interests across individual, local, national and international levels that have so far defied a solution as each country marches along according to its greed.
Perhaps this is because the rich industrialized West is actively in denial as to what the stakes are. We act as if these negotiations are about politics as usual—Figueres’s politics of the possible. Or, as Jonathan Pershing, the tall, self-assured American negotiator, told me: “The politics of the negotiations does not speak in any way to what has to be done.” The science is overwhelming and frightening. But the reality is that the pace of political progress is a question only of achieving “milestones.” Pershing is a scientist with a doctorate in geology and geophysics and an expertise in petroleum geology. He had previously worked as a climate change negotiator in the Clinton administration and also served as an author of the International Panel on Climate Change Fourth Assessment Report. So he should know better. Yet he sticks to the political mantra. While the politics is regrettable, he says, that is the way things are. The possible is always what’s at issue.
Nations may find meaning in the politically possible, but climate change does not. It is a rising sea, a tsunami, an earthquake, a hurricane, a flood, a drought that sweeps away society’s backup plans. It is a reminder that the way we live is not at all grounded in nature. The gap between what the science is asking us to do and what most people are willing to accept—what they claim is “possible”—gives you vertigo. “When you are at the table and you are negotiating a bit more tons or a bit less, it’s insignificant compared to what you would need to do if you believe all these scientists,” Canada’s former environment minister Stéphane Dion told me.
Yet whether governments such as Canada’s believe in the dangers of climate change hardly matters. What’s important to them is economic stability so they can maintain social equilibrium and get re-elected. Laying down a carpet of deceit to calm social fears over global warming becomes a moral imperative. How can you say you believe in the science and at the same time campaign against what the science proves is necessary to reduce the risk of runaway climate change? I asked Michael Martin, Canada’s chief negotiator and ambassador for climate change, during an interview in Bonn in 2009.
“That’s what these negotiations are for,” he replied, adjusting his rimless glasses. “It’s all about what is possible.”
What about what is necessary?
“That’s up for negotiation too.”
If there is one inescapable issue in this entire affair, one question that encapsulates the whole sordid business of haggling over pollution, it is the matter of atmospheric space. How many more tons of greenhouse gases can we afford to put up there without causing catastrophic climate change, and which countries will get to emit them? Without a resolution of this issue, there may never be a deal.
The atmospheric space is the new frontier whose borders have gradually been defined over decades of scientific research. Like surveyors sent out to map new colonies and their potential to support human populations, scientists have charted the capacity of the atmosphere, the oceans and the forests—the earth’s main reservoirs of greenhouse gases—to maintain a stable climate. They have discovered natural boundaries that they define in parts per million of greenhouse gases, mostly carbon dioxide. The normal carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere is 280 ppm. Our present level: 387 ppm, which puts us in the danger zone. We reach 450 ppm and we burn.
So far, our emissions have increased the mean temperature of the globe slightly less than one degree Celsius. But a global mean can be misleading. Arctic and equatorial temperatures have risen much more than that, and Canada’s overall mean temperature has risen 1.3 degrees Celsius since 1945.1 The issue at the climate talks is whether we should aim to limit the global rise to 2 degrees Celsius or 1.5 degrees. These are the numbers, by now familiar to most people who have followed the issue, that rattle around the halls and corridors of the negotiations. Rich nations argue for 2 degrees, the poor for 1.5. The motives are self-serving.
The 2-degree figure gives the rich more elbow room to pollute; 1.5 degrees reduces the risk to poor countries who are absorbing the brunt of climate change and who have the fewest financial resources to adapt to its impacts.
The rich countries have historically and quite innocently claimed this atmospheric space for themselves. As they built their massive economies on the burning of fossil fuels, they dumped monumental amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere unknowingly, at least in the beginning, reaching the limits of excess. The question now is whether the carbon space is full. If not, the rest of the world wants what’s left. If the space is full, they want the rich countries to pull back drastically and surrender the carbon space to them. For the industrialized world, this would mean a major retreat in the face of the advancing emerging economies so that China and India and all the other countries that want our lifestyle can have their day. Alf Wills, a scientist and the chief negotiator for South Africa, said: “Until you can resolve . . . this linkage between ambition, global goal and equitable sharing of the remaining carbon space, there will be no agreement.” Unfortunately, he said, developed countries have “no ambition” to go there.
And with reason. Because what they are negotiating, whether they like it or not, is a new world order. It’s hardly something rich countries take lightly. A more egalitarian planet dictated by the carbon space reallotment means little to the Canadian tar sands worker or the American or Australian coal miner staring at unemployment. Such realignment might be far more morally and ethically defensible than our current predatory economic system, but it doesn’t help these people. Nor does it answer the nervousness over tinkering with an economic system that has produced such enormous wealth and high standards of living in a matter of a few generations, if only for a relatively small proportion of the world’s population. What would help is a willingness on the part of governments to face up to the realities of our time by preparing for a post–fossil fuel future, devoting massive resources towards technological development as well as harnessing the proven ability of society to change when change is needed. But this is not happening.
Instead, we march ahead in total denial, licking our lips at the fossil fuel reservoirs buried in the melting Arctic and hoping the invisible hand of capitalism will save us. So far we have not even seen its fingertips.
If the West accepted a carbon space allotment, it would amount to a recognition of the enormous inequality that exists between rich and poor countries. It would constitute a voluntary retreat from economic dominance and signal a readiness to re - distribute wealth. In the absence of a technology breakthrough which would replace fossil fuels with an energy system that can meet the ever-increasing demands of society and business, this is—for the next few decades at least—a zero-sum game. One country’s loss is another’s gain.
There are those who think otherwise. They believe that if industrialized nations greatly reduce their consumption and build clean-energy systems with the urgency that characterized the massive production scales of the Second World War, a quick transformation to 100 percent renewable energy is possible and everybody wins. But it’s probably too late for that now. The size of the necessary reduction in emissions has become too big and the time frame is too narrow. In a world of limited atmospheric space where carbon is king and the best you can offer to replace it is sunshine and a windmill, zero-sum is the only outcome. For many poor countries already suffering under the strain of climate change, if the rich countries have to pull back, well, tough; there appears to be no other option, at least for the short term.
But the rich countries argue that if their economies suffer, everyone suffers; that any let-up in the pursuit of wealth will bring the global economy down on our heads like a house of cards, in which case there will be chaos. They deny the possibility of an orderly retreat. In lieu of any surrender of the atmosphere, they offer the climate change equivalent of sub-prime mortgages: a bundle of cash and technology transfer promises of dubious value to help poor and developing countries convert to clean energy and mitigate the effects of climate change. In return, the rich countries get to forge ahead with business as usual and the time-honored practice of screwing the weak.
Climate change negotiations have a unique political dynamic. Power at these negotiations does not derive simply from the size of your economy; it comes out of a chimney stack or an exhaust pipe. The more you emit, the more you can bring to the table. One of the sad realities in the struggle to meet the challenges of climate change is that the countries that pollute the most—the rich countries—hold all the cards. Within this group are the elite polluters: the United States, the European Union and China.
They are the ones who have chips to deal, and so they rule the game. Countries such as Canada stand on the sidelines cheering for Team Industry. The rest of the world simply has the moral high ground, and rare is the historical moment when that has carried much weight. It is an undeniable fact that the countries who are the worst affected by climate change are too often poor countries who didn’t cause the problem in the first place. There is, however, one leveler: climate change itself. Eventually, no country can escape that reality.
There is no end to the ironies created by climate change. The most powerful of these is the rising importance of the onceforgotten Arctic. The lure of great wealth plus control of new shipping lanes that could dominate commercial transportation in the northern hemisphere has the Arctic countries dreaming of a new world order run by them. Canada, Russia, Norway, the United States and Denmark are all rubbing their hands waiting impatiently for the big melt to release its spoils of minerals, oil and gas.
Meanwhile, central Africa endures a rotation of unusual droughts and flooding depending on the time of year, but too often at the wrong time for crop planting. So populations scatter or die. Winners and losers face off at the climate change talks. The danger is the ultimate destruction of the global commonwealth.
Deniers, who constitute only a handful of ultra-conservative commentators, some political scientists and a sprinkling of scientists with dubious climate change credentials, keep repackaging debunked material and badgering legitimate scientists with irrelevant concerns. They speak to an audience of oddballs, happily angry at the world. Witness these messages sent by deniers to prominent climate scientists after the stolen emails from the climate research center at the University of East Anglia were made public:
you, sir, are a nazi. go gargle razor blades, you fucking bastard!!!!!!!! You are a fucking douchebag. You pathetic fucking Phony. I hope there is an earthquake right under your fucking house and swallows you into hell.
As a Lying worthless AGW [anthropogenic global warming] scammer, isn’t it time you resigned and swam back to New Zealand. As a US taxpayer I want a fucking refund of all the wages you have fraudulently collected you asshole. Same goes for Jim THE FUCKING RAT Hansen [the NASA climate scientist]. Considering the state of our economy, maybe the public should begin the collection process.
We live in a public cyberspace where the scientific opinions of an oil company executive, a politician or a television commentator carry as much weight for the general public as the scientific knowledge of a geophysicist. Psychologists theorize that ultimately what drives many deniers is the obsessive need to be the smartest guy in the room even when they have no idea what they’re talking about. The deniers can’t dance, but they are convinced they’re Fred Astaire. It’s a world where the only important question is this: Why do people believe things that are patently false?