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What happened at the end of COP-15?

I wish we could tell you.

The conference ended on Saturday, so you should rightly expect a wrap-up post. However, this conference went in a direction that none of us expected. We're split in our interpretations. Progress? Farce? Failure? The end of the UNFCCC?

Governments, pundits, and NGOs are selling their stories already, but we're still trying to gather all the facts. We'll post our own analyses once we get home and recollect our thoughts.

For now, check out this Grist article for summaries of editorials from major English newspapers around the world. Also, our friends posted an interesting analysis of Saturday morning's headlines.

First impressions of tonight’s “deal”

December 19, 2009

When I was young, I always lobbied my parents for the flashing, colored Christmas lights. Plain white lights just seemed too boring. But as the colored lights of Obama’s motorcade flashed across the television screen in my Danish host home, I wasn’t too excited.

Earlier today, Obama flew into Copenhagen for what was planned to be the final day of the historic Copenhagen climate summit. Last night’s negotiations didn’t provide the consensus that might have provided him an easy day of handshakes and photographs. Obama spent the day in closed-door meetings with other world leaders in a last attempt to forge an agreement.

Long-standing divisions seemed unresolvable. Press conferences were delayed and eventually cancelled.

This evening, many sources reported that a deal was close. The President’s team announced that President Obama would speak on a new climate deal at 10:30pm.

We listened, and then we tried to interpret the President’s words. What did they agree on? Who actually agreed? Was it really a deal?

Press articles with brief analyses have already been printed. We’re tired, so we’ll provide a policy analysis later. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot to analyze.

For now, we’re posting each of our first reactions to this historic event. Tonight was an experience we won’t soon forget.

Andrew: Tonight’s events confirmed a hard reality I didn’t want to accept: The United Nations climate change process cannot stop global warming. It can’t even lead the charge. The issue is too big, too pressing, too intimidating and perhaps even too unclear.

When Obama made his big announcement, I wanted to be glued to the TV. I wanted to be flabbergasted and humbled. I wanted to run my hands through my unwashed hair in astonishment. A tiny part of me was convinced that world leaders could go out on a limb and get it right.

Instead, I listened to the TV with one ear, but jumped on to ESPN to check whether Tiger Woods’ divorce was official. I thought about how good another slice of lemony apple tart sounded. Indifferent and nonplussed, I was ready to move on.

Every social strata below the UN will keep working towards 350 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere and as much funding as possible for developing nations. I’ll remember that in a low-carbon world we might move more slowly, be more social and less wasteful, and reduce inequality across economic divides.

World leaders will have to follow as civil society takes off. And they’ll have to react as the climate makes business-as-usual more difficult.

Anthony: After spending hours following Twitter rumors and trying to interpret Danish TV coverage of the COP-15, I finally heard Obama’s voice on the White House website. I sat on the floor and listened. He first pointed out that the most important part of an international treaty is parties’ sincere participation. Kyoto was “legally- binding,” but countries didn’t follow through because there was no enforcement.

By the end, I felt encouraged. I thought maybe the major emitters would now trust each other and commit together. But now there’s news that Brazil – an inner-circle member in the last-minute deal-making – may not not be on board. Maybe the trust lasted 12 minutes?

Taylor: To me, Obama seemed tired and frustrated. I sat on the Andersen’s comfy chair staring at the front window for a while after he finished his speech. Words, words, words.

He delivered a deal. A deal? The word “deal” has been plied, pounded, and pinched into something resembling the wrinkled receipts I find in my pockets at the end of the day. I put them in there thinking those dimly-printed financial records will hold meaning later. Days later, I toss crinkled wads into the trash. Even if they were legible, I don’t know what I’d do with them.

He arrived this morning, he rammed through the ‘deadlock’, he called it a “meaningful deal,” but now I can’t tell you what we have now that we didn’t before.

A signal that world power has shifted away from the US? A social movement powerful enough to jam the gears of politics-as-usual because its vision is beyond what our politicians can deliver? A social-environmental crisis shown to be insoluble for human institutions as we know them?

Tonight’s negotiations haven’t even ended yet.

On a last note, demonstrations are going late into the night in response to Obama’s announcement and the state of negotiations.

1Sky Question: What’s the next step for Indiana?

December 18, 2009

Today I got the chance meet Gillian Caldwell, the Campaign Director for 1Sky. All of the NGOs have been gathering in a drafty old building together to watch the heads of government speak and plan future actions. Between listening to an angry speech by Hugo Chavez and eating two clementines and some crackers with peanut butter, a student from Middlebury college and I began talking about climate change legislation in the Senate. He then introduced me to Gillian. She asked me what I thought the next step for the USA and Indiana was after Copenhagen. Her full post is here, and I’ve embedded the video below.

After two years, a last-minute unsatisfying compromise

December 18, 2009

Anthony, Andrew, and I are sitting at our host family’s table watching e-mails, tweets, and announcements from the UNFCCC and the White House. Actually, we’re about to dig into some homemade apple pie. In minutes, we’ll watch Obama broadcast live through the White House website, announcing the political agreement brokered just this evening on the last day of the summit.

For nearly two decades, governments have negotiated solutions to climate change. All parties agreed to the two-year timeline at Bali in 2007. For two years, government parties and NGOs have worked to get a global, legally-binding climate treaty in Copenhagen.

But the COP-15 hasn’t followed the plans at all. Tense meetings throughout the year and long nights of negotiating over the past two weeks made little progress towards consensus. When Obama arrived today, many expected him to make the necessary compromise. He didn’t. He firmly stated that the United States had presented its plans and was awaiting commitment from the rest of the world.

Throughout the evening, rumors have leaked that Obama was leaving. Others said the deal was nearly done at 6pm. Most reports now say there’s a “meaningful agreement,” but, not surprisingly, it won’t fully satisfy any country involved.

Watch now.

Suspense and Suspensions

December 18, 2009

We haven’t posted on the formal negotiations in a week. There’s a reason. It’s difficult to figure out what is happening and nearly impossible to distinguish theatre from real negotiations.

To make matters more difficult, we lost access to the Bella Center on Tuesday because of limited space–only 15,000 can be in there at a time–and heightened security measures for the heads of government and state.

Here’s a rough recap.

Last week, lack of consensus on basic procedures brought both negotiating tracks to a confused halt. On Wednesday, the LCA track was suspended indefinitely. On Thursday, the KP track was suspended after a 20-minute huddle of country bloc leaders left disputes unresolved. Both suspensions followed disagreement on proposals from Tuvalu, a small Pacific island.

China, India, and others disagreed with Tuvalu’s proposals while other small island states supported them. Tensions among developing countries meant that developed countries could remain silent. In an environment where NGOs and media tear up every statement that doesn’t fit their expectations, the delegates tend to withhold positions if they don’t have to share them.

Over the weekend, both tracks resumed, but coherence didn’t.

On Monday, I watched a subcommittee start 45 minutes late, pause to relocate to a bigger room, and then end early after a 20-minute debate on whether to proceed with the discussion or not. The Swedish delegate, representing the EU, joined other countries in stalling the subcommittee’s work on emissions reductions targets–a central piece of the negotiations–because the G-77 was refusing to participate in concurrent meetings. I don’t think this is an unusual negotiating tactic.

Tweeters galore raced to announce the next piece of news: all subcommittees under the Kyoto Protocol were suspended until the evening. OK, I may be exaggerating the number and intensity of tweeters in the Bella Center, but #cop15 and #Copenhagen have both appeared on the “Trending Topics” list over the last two weeks. Anthony tells me this is significant.

Trending topic or not, conflict over the basic form of the Copenhagen outcome has undermined work by detail-oriented subcommittees. Politically-binding? Legally-binding? One new treaty? Revise Kyoto and add a new treaty? Kyoto 2.0? A new world environmental organization? Consensus on these questions has yet to emerge and less than 24 hours remain.

With this degree of uncertainty and disagreement in the second week of the summit, the scope of possible treaties narrows. How can parties work out complex policies on forestry, technology transfer, carbon market regulation, offset rules, and adaptation funding in the last hours when negotiators finally lay down their cards? They probably can’t.

That all happened before heads of government started arriving in unprecedented numbers.

Since government heads arrived, there has been a steady stream of speeches in the plenary. Redundant, redundant speeches. Over 117 heads of government are here, and most speak longer than their allotted time. Who are they speaking to? It’s not a simple question. The room is often half-empty. I suspect their words may be intended for people at home as much as the other leaders who have gathered here.

Negotiating sessions have gone around the clock. Meetings lasted until 6am yesterday, followed by other meetings starting immediately afterward. Last night, a secret meeting started at 3am in expectation of Obama’s arrival today. Now, it appears that China has walked out of Obama-led closed-door talks.

U.S. Leaders were out in force yesterday at the conference center. Hillary announced a goal of $100 billion in combined public and private climate finance per year from developed countries by 2020. This announcement received mixed reactions, ranging from developing countries calling it insufficient and an empty promise to American environmental groups praising this as the first mention of much-needed long-term finance from the U.S.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Henry Waxman (D-CA), and Ed Markey (D-MA) joined others yesterday in a House of Representatives press conference describing the House climate bill passed in June.

I’ve been surprised to see how media coverage has affected the negotiations. Tensions within the G-77 boiled over last night on “The Greatest Debate On Earth,” a BBC and DR television show. In the middle of the show, President Nasheed of the Maldives interrupted the show host to say his country was not well-represented by the G-77 position, which he called an outdated institution. Sitting with our hosts in their living room, Anthony, Andrew, and I were stunned by Nasheed’s bold statement. His statement marks a dramatic change in alliances within the developing bloc.

Much media attention has focused on the divisions between China and the United States, but this conflict is, in part, performed to make the treaty terms appear hard fought to home governments and citizens. Today, China conceded to international verification of their emissions reductions, but it’s tough to know whether the Chinese delegation planned to concede and only waited until the last minute to appear stronger and draw attention away from other negotiating points.

Anthony asked me today whether I thought we were capable of better knowing what’s going on with the negotiations. I told him I don’t think our team is intellectually incapable, but knowledge is always linked to power. Press members, for instance, still have access to the conference center. So do some members of civil society. Many of them have personal connections with government delegates and NGO leaders, but they are still left to guess at government’s negotiating strategies just like any poker player.

From our political position as American university students, we are highly limited in what we can know about the talks, especially as they are proceeding. Delegates are professionals at guarding knowledge and trading it when it’s to their advantage.

Yet I suspect even many government delegates share our unanswered questions about how these talks will end.

A blessing in disguise

December 18, 2009

Tonight hundreds gathered and paused, worlds away from the painfully slow, potentially useless negotiations. Worlds away from misleading media and crowded hallways. Worlds away from leaders and followers stuck in an outdated lifestyle.

A candlelight vigil brought some of the world’s most dedicated climate thinkers together to set aside the policy, and reflect on what really matters. It helped me remember too.

A man kneels at the edge of a circle of candles during a vigil organized Thursday night to reflect on the blessings of climate change.

The speakers’ faces were illuminated by holiday lights and small candles distributed to everyone before the vigil began. Others working around the converted factory building  settled into seats around the single microphone, faces glowing above candles of their own.

Perspective came in waves, ebbing and flowing with each speakers’ overlapping passions. Climate change is a blessing in disguise, they said. Remember to see the good, and think about the potential for a better life.

Unity around the climate crisis is exceptional and praiseworthy. Dozens of world leaders spoke in succession on a Web stream from the Bella Center, projected before the vigil. Major polluters and organic farmers alike have united behind COP15. An indigenous Manitoban, 50-year-old white college professor and activist, and Indian and Swedish students were among the evening’s speakers.

Past battles for justice have been fought and won, an activist from Seattle said. Sure, the developed world is on pace to set targets that jeopardize the lives of millions in Africa and elsewhere. It’s on a path that will make our lives more expensive and difficult. But climate change is the latest cause in a series of justice movements over decades. Countless people have lifetimes worth of energy left to work.

They’re leaving policymakers in the dust.

A few brave souls shared a deeper energy and personal sacrifice at the vigil. Two of the climate justice fasters spoke on their 42nd day without food. Even bundled in layers of clothing their voices were strong, as was their belief in the power and beauty of this movement.

I always squirm a little at these gatherings. The dim lighting. The emotional tones. The intense commitment out there for all to see. And at the evening’s core, an issue with an uncertain and scary future.

These, however, are lofty visions I can embrace. And during a few moments in the vigil, it all felt possible. If only a glimmer, it was the most honest and optimistic conviction I’ve felt in Copenhagen. And it’s still lingering.

Everyone in the audience wrote pledges on pieces of paper, and placed them under the candles in the circle.

Of course I can live without a car. Of course I can live in a carbon-neutral house. Maybe there’ll be more time for empty afternoons, nights of conversation. And maybe, just maybe, America won’t insist on being so ridiculously wealthy and excessive.

Everyone needs an ideal to work towards, and I found part of mine tonight.

Finally, Deepa Gupta, a 21-year-old leading youth activist, reminded everybody to love.

And what better way to love this week than to think of someone who’s frustrated you, she said. Thank them for showing you what you want to be, and don’t want to be. Thank them for the love they have for others.

I did. It worked.

“What makes us happy is the people and the friends and the love we have in our life,” Gupta said. Obvious, I know. But it’s especially meaningful facing frustration on a global scale.

“My goal is to know when I have enough,” Gupta said, “and turn to what really makes me feel good.”

Youth activists reading 11 million names in sit-in

December 17, 2009

Dave Letterman recently asked climatologist James Hansen why, if climate change really were a serious issue, the youth of the world were not protesting like in Vietnam. I wish Dave could see what’s been happening here lately.

Most media networks in the U.S. only reported on the arrests at the demonstrations on Saturday. The real story? Up to 100,000 people marched demanding the world to take action on climate change. Today, and as I write this, international youth have taken more direct action in the Bella Center.

Approximately fifteen students have staged a sit-in by the central lobby. The sit-in began at 5:00 and has continued into the night. Each of them are reading the names of the 11 million people who signed a petition asking for a strong, international climate deal.

Check out live updates at the It’s Getting Hot in Here blog and a SustainUS video from the beginning of the action:

Don’t know Mohamed Nasheed? You should.

December 16, 2009

I had never heard of the Maldives until June. A small island 500 miles south of Sri Lanka, the Maldives is one of the countries most susceptible to rising seal levels from climate change. By the end of the century or sooner, there may be no more Maldives.

Last October, Mohamed Nasheed was elected to be the president of this vulnerable country. He has since become one of the world’s most vocal leaders urging greenhouse gas reductions. Nasheed would be impressive even if he didn’t address climate change. His rise from tortured political prisoner in the 1990s to president of a country is truly remarkable (see wikipedia entry). But his willingness to fight for the people of the Maldives and urge the world to action led Bill McKibben to remark yesterday that of all the elections of the fall of 2008, Nasheed’s may have been the most significant.

Check out the video I took from his talk:

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