Failure, Yes. But Copenhagen Still a Game-Changer
Environmentalists marching for clean air in Tel Aviv in 2008. (photo by Jesse Fox)
Last month's climate change summit in Copenhagen, which inspired so much expectation, seems to have pleased no one. Asked to describe their feelings post-Copenhagen in one word, TreeHugger readers responded with words like "disappointed," "cop-out" and "fail." Many people have described COP15 as a resounding failure, and maybe it was - but maybe not...The environmental movement's struggle is an incremental one. Activists around the world fight local battles within a common, global context. You win some and you lose some, but you're always working within certain limitations: the public's awareness of the issues, the receptiveness (or lack of it) of politicians, the limits of the possible as defined by national laws.
Then, every few years, something comes along and changes the rules of the game.
In the country where I live, the last time this happened was when Al Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth came out several years ago. The film was screened extensively around the country, providing Israelis with a clear and coherent explanation of an issue that many had previously considered esoteric and controversial. Its effect was surprising and profound, and it changed the way Israeli society thought about climate change.
Something similar has happened with Copenhagen. As the summit approached, more and more politicians seemed to be getting the message. Just before the summit, a group of lawmakers proposed a package of four green bills. Two are moving forward.
In Copenhagen, Israel's President announced the country's commitment to reduce its carbon emissions by 20% by 2020. The Ministry of the Environment is already working on practical ways to make this happen. And COP15 may have tipped the scales against a new coal-fired power plant, a battle that environmentalists have been stubbornly waging for years.
Failure or not, Copenhagen has already changed the rules of the game in Israel, and I'm convinced similar things are happening in other places as well. For example in Brazil, where a new post-Copenhagen law calls for a 39% reduction in carbon emissions by 2020. We can expect to hear about a lot more of these commitments in the wake of the summit.
The reason is that the world's governments now realize that they will be required to cut their countries' emissions in the future. Even if it didn't happen in Copenhagen, it probably will in Mexico City, or after. It may take time, but now it's clear to everyone that it will happen, eventually.
And, broadly speaking, the outlines of a future agreement are there in the Copenhagen Accord. Although undoubtedly a disappointment, this document is still an enormous precedent. It will be hard to backtrack on its principles - the only way to move will be forward, especially as countries that were excluded from the discussion this time make their voices heard in the next round.
For the environmental movement, Copenhagen marked a sort of coming of age. It has emerged as a major player in the dynamics of climate politics, and no one can ignore its influence any longer. The challenge now will be to refocus its energies on taking what has already been agreed upon in principle in Copenhagen and leveraging that into a real, binding agreement that truly addresses the problem of global climate change.
That may still be a long way off, but I, for one, am optimistic.