After Copenhagen: moving forward

IssueMarch 2010
Feature by Patrick Nicholson

The UN COP15 climate conference in Copenhagen in December was a shambles. The little that was agreed reads like a paltry preamble to a treaty that never was – global average temperature rises should be held below 2oC; carbon emissions must be cut, but in a way that does not hinder economic progress of the developing world; a fund should be established to help poorer countries adapt to the threat of climate change (with an initial annual outlay of only $8bn, or about a third of what Shell earns each year). Beneath this gloss lies the reality that the leaders failed to agree any concrete mechanisms to bind the rich countries into effective emissions cuts.

In addition there was no progress on the issue of climate debt to the global south – the compensation owed for the climate damage caused by the harmful development paths adopted by the rich countries.

Blaming China

Western media and governments successfully shifted the blame onto China and the developing nations. But the reality was that the rich countries scuppered the process by refusing to cut their emissions. China would not sign up to a global target for 2020 when the rich countries had not agreed to do their part in meeting it.

Their rationale was that to do so would have meant that China and the developing countries would have to do more than their fair share. China is no angel on climate change, but blaming China is hypocritical spin on the part of the rich countries. After all, China’s per capita emissions are a quarter of UK levels, and an eighth of US levels.

The UN process is scheduled to continue with meetings in Bonn in May/June and then Mexico in November. We can expect the rich countries to continue undermining the process by setting up their own meetings to push their line, and bluster and bully the rest of the world, just as happened with the WTO.

Actually, the bullying and manipulation has already started. The UK wants to channel its climate change aid to Bangladesh through the World Bank, to the consternation of the Bangladeshi government who point out that this would entail unacceptable strings and conditions. Clearly the World Bank’s fine reputation precedes it.

Climate scepticism

Like bottom feeders picking over the disenchantment of Copenhagen, climate sceptics succeeded in provoking a media frenzy based on a series of “revelations” supposedly undermining the consensus on climate science.

Emails from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit (CRU) were seized on as the “smoking gun” that evidence was being falsified. An error concerning Himalayan glacier melt was found in the most recent (3,000-page) Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) report. Personal attacks were made on the heads of the IPCC and the Met Office. Even the fact of a cold winter was wheeled out by those wanting to wish away the reality of global warming.

The sceptics’ nit-picking would be risible were it not for enthusiasm and lack of perspective with which a compliant media have been trumpeting their claims, and the resulting effects on public opinion. The idea that these accusations invalidate decades of peer-reviewed research is absurd, but real damage is being done.

A recent poll for the BBC found that the percentage of people who thought climate change was not happening increased from 15% in November 2009 to 25% in February 2010.

Where now?

Where does all this leave UK climate activists? Despite the damp squib of Copenhagen, energy appears high in the grassroots climate movement, not least because there were few false hopes around COP15.

The Camp for Climate Action held an extended three-day gathering in Bristol from 19-21 February to consider its next steps. With around 40 proposals circulated in advance of the weekend, there is clearly no shortage of ideas and enthusiasm.

The sort of things being put forward range from establishing a rapid-response network capable of mobilising resources and people at short notice, ideas for spectacular international actions, and developing an effective emissions reduction plan for the UK with the accompanying direct actions needed to put it into practice.

Elsewhere, further green shoots of a radical spring are emerging: a cycle caravan is planning to ride to Ireland in May for the Rossport solidarity camp, Greenpeace plans to build an activist base on their Airplot at Heathrow, and residents fighting expansion at Manchester and Heathrow airports announced they were joining forces. At Copenhagen, our governments showed their abject lack of courage and imagination. Now, once again, it’s our duty to speak and act for ourselves and for the future of our planet.

Looks like there will be plenty of opportunities to do that in the year ahead.

Topics: Climate change