The Common Good
April 2010

Copenhagen's 'Hail Mary'

by Bill McKibben | April 2010

Reason wasn't enough. Power will decide, as power usually does.

Sometimes, trailing in the final seconds, a football team will try a “Hail Mary” pass. Basically, the quarterback will loft the ball in the general direction of the end zone, hoping someone catches it. These gridiron prayers are rarely answered—but if you’re behind and time is running out, it may be both a bad bet and your best bet.

The climate movement found itself in roughly this position last year. Convinced by new scientific data that global warming was happening faster, and on a larger scale, than the political system had bargained for, campaigners tried to turn up the pressure. The approach of the long-scheduled Copenhagen climate summit seemed providential, especially when the election of Barack Obama removed the single largest obstacle to progress.
The administration cautioned from the start that it wasn’t going to try anything dramatic—it made health care its chief priority, and worked with Congress to put forward a very modest climate bill whose chief asset was its lack of ambition, which made it more likely to pass. Still, activists around the world tried to seize the opening, running coordinated campaigns to push for a much tougher international agreement. In October, for instance, some of us worked to pull off a coordinated series of international rallies behind the dramatic target of 350 parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere, a goal that would require the wholesale and rapid transformation of our technologies and habits. And it succeeded—with 5,200 demonstrations in 181 countries, Foreign Policy magazine termed it the “largest ever coordinated global rally of any kind,” one that dominated the international news cycle for an entire weekend.
It worked in Copenhagen, too—where most of the small and vulnerable countries of the world signed on to the 350 target, and pressed hard for an agreement that would have dramatically limited the carbon emissions of the most powerful nations. These countries argued that their very survival was at risk from rising seas and spreading drought—they were powerfully militant.
Maybe too powerfully. Because in the end the U.S., China, and a handful of other major emitters essentially shut the conference down, putting forward their own accord and then walking away from the talks. In the future, one of the chief U.S. negotiators said in January, small pesky nations won’t have any real input. “We are not really worried about what Chad does,” explained Jonathan Pershing.
Which means that the climate movement will have to adapt. No one caught the Hail Mary we threw. That doesn’t mean it was in vain—we changed the way most of the world thinks about the issue—but we didn’t change the power structures in the U.S. and China. Now we need to figure out how to concentrate that global movement not on the U.N. process, which has been sidelined, but on the power brokers in Washington, Beijing, and a handful of other crucial capitals. We need to figure out how to expose the global flow of coal and the flow of finance that underwrites fossil fuel.
In one sense, the failure of the Copenhagen talks clarifies the issue. China and the U.S. shut down the talks because they couldn’t control them—having broken the process, they’ve also now bought it. Reason—the clear appeals of scientists the world around—clearly wasn’t enough to sway the day. Power will decide, as power usually does. But here the real power lies in the hands of physics and chemistry—since scientific reality is unlikely to shift, civil society will need to figure out how to make political reality bend. Expect civil disobedience, expect boycotts, expect pressure on particular members of Congress—just don’t expect us to shut up because that would be more convenient for the powers that be.
Bill McKibben, scholar in residence for environmental studies at Middlebury College in Vermont and the author of The End of Nature, is co-founder of 350.org.
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