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The Case for Copenhagen

Last Best Hope


Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Unfortunately, a magic wand isn’t an option. And, even if it were-if we could wave some sort of special planet-fixing stick, and our colossal collective carbon footprint could be put on indefinite hold-we still would be facing a world of hurt. The evidence is clear: The fossil fuel tab rung up by our post-Industrial Revolution selves is so massive that our children’s children will still be witnessing its payment, Mother Earth begrudgingly forced to deal with decades’ worth of Sox and Nox and Cox long after the last SUV rolls off an assembly line.

The realities of this destiny are important to remember as we count the final days until the long-awaited United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change kicks off in Copenhagen on December 7. Heralded by many as the biggest environmental moment of our lives, the two-week conference is the ideal time to come together as one world, reflect on just how royally screwed we all are, and, above all else, begin to move forward.

Once upon a time, back when scientists still went to war about the realness of climate change and before Al Gore was a movie star, the world suspected that the unblemished fruits of industry were too good to be true and started making moves, albeit vague ones, to curb its enthusiasm for fossil fuels. The Kyoto Protocol was created in 1997 by the United Nations explicitly to work toward the “stabilization of greenhouse gases concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” Wordy, well-intentioned, and entirely toothless, the Kyoto Protocol eventually was ratified by 186 countries. The United States, one of the biggest and baddest greenhouse gas polluters the world has ever known, refused to sign on.

Now, with most everyone on the same page about the perils of climate change-think melting ice caps, rising ocean levels, disappearing countries, drought, disease, crashing ecosystems, etc.-and the role greenhouse gases play in that process, Kyoto is set to expire.

The hope has been that Copenhagen will lay the groundwork for-or, better yet, hammer out the specific terms of-a new treaty. This treaty would bind the nations to a strict low-fossil-fuel diet, dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and create a financial scheme in which the wealthier nations of the world help bankroll the global scaling-back process. In a perfect world, when Copenhagen concludes, our planet’s action plan for reducing carbon emissions in a post-Kyoto world would be ready for ratification.

Already, the cynics among us have declared the meeting over before it has even started. They have taken the conference to task for being everything from too bold and ambitious to woefully inadequate and unimportant. There are those who are ready to call Copenhagen a failure unless a legally binding document is signed by nations big and small, from China and the United States to the Maldives and South Africa. Others say that the power politics and economic bottom lines of the bigger nations will rule the day, making meaningful dialogue and compromise nothing more than the pie-in-the-sky chatter of clueless masses.

The naysayers are missing the point. Since we already have ruled out the magic wand option, and since we all are in agreement that we have front-loaded our atmosphere with gas emissions to such a degree that our planet cannot hope to sort itself out anytime soon even if we stop polluting yesterday, the idea that Copenhagen is going to provide some instant super solution is really irrelevant. Sure, a strong commitment from big polluting countries would be a great step in the right direction, but what is most important-and what stands to serve us all in the years of uncertainly ahead-is that we take Copenhagen for what it actually is: our last best chance for the world to come together and be honest about the mess we are in.

That is the first step to fighting/living with climate change and that is exactly what Copenhagen can be. The choice is ours.

Ethan Stewart will be traveling to Copenhagen to cover the United Nations Framework Conference on Climate Change on the same day as President Barack Obama. To follow his coverage of the conference, log on to independent.com/climate starting on December 11.

Ethan Stewart is a environmental reporter for The Santa Barbara Independent.

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