April 22 2010
First let me say that I honored to be here because quite frankly I happen to think you are at this moment probably the most important people on the planet earth. In fact you might even be the most important people in the history of the planet but more on that later.
Well, I am told my task tonight is to look back at last year in the context of the planetary environment and what happened at Copenhagen last December. Well, it easy to be discouraged. We all know that the international Copenhagen climate talks turned out to be a big disappointment. In fact, for a while there the talks looked like a complete fiasco. One hundred and ninety two countries, over 100 national leaders all showed up and tried to come an agreement about converting the entire world fossil fuel based energy economy into a system dominated by safer green energy sources. All of course with the goal of staving off the worst of man made climate change. And while there to produce legally binding international agreements to ensure that end . But of course that unprecedented international meeting eventually saw the world walk away largely empty handed.
And frankly from my perspective as a professor of modern international history and politics it was not really very surprising. It was after all well known long before the conference began that it was very unlikely that a major legally binding agreement would emerge from Copenhagen. Since then commentators have focused on a wide ranging of issues from continuing tensions between the developed world and the developing world as the primary cause.
A not unsurprising tension given that the developing world—unlike the far more guilty developed world — is in large measure not responsible for the impending challenge of man made climate change. And yet much of the developing world is on the front lines of the most immediate challenges climate change will bring.
Others have focused on the simple absurdity of trying to get almost two hundred countries to agree on anything!
By from my perspective I believe the issue was more basic than that. At the most fundamental level the simple reality was that the two biggest players — China and the US — were not ready to cut a deal and set a global path. And that fact is absolutely critical. Because while the entire world is threatened by climate change and of course some regions more than others. The solution to confronting climate change largely lies in what the United States and China do or do not do.
After all the United States is far and away the major cause of the world’s current climate change crisis. Let me repeat that. We are the single most important cause of man made climate change. To be blunt, while we did not know we were doing it. A good chunk of the problem as it exists lands at our doorstep simply because of how extraordinarily developed we are. What enormous users of fossil fuels we have been. How large we are and for how long we have been emitting greenhouse gases –especially gases like CO2 and the fact that CO2 stays in the atmosphere for more than a hundred years. No other country can match that guilty record.
No, what we do now — what example we will set will in large part determine the future of the planet for good or bad. But it’s not enough for us to act alone. No we have to have a parallel effort going on in China. Because China’s 1.4 billion people have just emerged not only as the biggest current emitter of green house gases but as the economy that is already pulling out of the global recession and returning to its decade long effort to bring Chinese live styles closer to western standards of living. And unfortunately doing so in large measure exactly as we did. By ravenously burning climate transforming fossil fuels.
So what the two of us do is absolutely critical. Sure China, is not even close to being as responsible for this looming catastrophe as we are. And Yes its true that China is showing an increasingly serious commitment to converting to cleaner energy sources and to avoid our addiction to fossil fuels. But it is also absolutely unwilling to commit itself to really meaningful international commitments until the United States does so.
Which brings us to our little problem. The role of the United States in the struggle. Sure before President Bush took office and in the last months of the Bush administration the president acted like he sort of got it. But for most of his term in office the Bush administration used its international clout to stymie the world’s efforts to confront this greatest of all challenges the global community has ever faced.
And it’s just great that when the Obama administration arrived in power in January of 2009 it was committed to getting American policies more in line with the broader international scientific consensus about the need to stave off the worst of man made climate change. But as we have all seen, the new administration was just a tad busy as the world economy made a noise dive in the last stages of the presidential campaign.
And then of course Obama was dragged deeper into the struggle over health care that lasted a lot longer than he had hoped. And so taking on the energy challenge came too late and was not even close to being complete before he arrived in Copenhagen with a very weak negotiating position. Avery modest only “tentative” 17% decrease in carbon emissions that had not even passed the full congress let alone been signed into law. Certainly a far weaker hand than the president needed to signal the world that the biggest single and most wasteful global energy user and the country most responsible for the build up of CO 2 in the atmosphere was ready to act big time.
No, without that biggest piece in place, the United States — at Copenhagen with its sleeves rolled up and ready to roll. There was no way China would get on board or would the international momentum necessary to really confront climate change be possible.
No, as I said it’s all quite depressing. Sure one could argue that lots of progress has been made. One could argue that the Copenhagen process was saved by the last minute Copenhagen Accord that eventually saw more than 100 countries on board. O.k. it’s not even close to being the legally binding agreement the world had been looking for and desperately needs.
But still a lot has been accomplished. The plan now is to try to make the accord legally binding at the next meeting in Mexico or at the one after that in South Africa in 2011.
And there were other real accomplishments. The Kyoto process had largely excluded the emissions of the developing world even countries as large as India and China which have become ever more prolific in their green house gas emissions. Sure in the early nineties there was logic to the exclusion of the less developed nations. They were still developing and had not created the problem in the first place and most of them had a carbon footprint that was largely irrelevant.
But as we all know that exclusion made the entire Kyoto process an especially hard sell — particularly in the United States. But as part of the run up to Copenhagen both world giants, China and India, are increasingly coming on board as partners in the effort to deal with their carbon emissions as well. Not as some would like, with real caps but with promises of significantly more energy efficient practices.
Meanwhile in the run up to Copenhagen real progress was made in dealing with the destruction of the world’s tropical forests that play such an important role as a carbon sink for all co2 we have been emitting. We are even getting closer to the point when not cutting down a forest might be as economically worthwhile as doing so.
And many individual countries from China to the United States, from Iceland to Indonesia and South Korea are starting to act nationally to accomplish a great deal. Within the United States regional cap and trade programs like the REGI program in the north eastern states are stating to take in real monies and distribute them toward the new green energy economy. California as is so often the case is also leading the way and is already enormously more energy efficient than the American average. And countries from China to South Korea and the United States turned those Keynesian economic stimulus packages into efforts to create a green recovery with impressive investments in Green energy technologies.
But truth is that the physical realities of the chemistry and physics of climate change do not care how much progress we hope to make. The fact is that we are not moving fast enough. In fact, nothing that has been internationally proposed or that might have been accomplished at a successful Copenhagen meeting that would have been ambitious enough to meet the demands of the threat itself. Despite the goal of keeping the average world temperatures rise to around 2 degrees Celsius or the ppm of C02 in the atmosphere to around 450. Not forgetting that until the industrial revolution those figures were around 280 and are now at 390. Or that many of our best scientists think we have to get back to 350.
Not forgetting all those folks who remain either more committed to their profits then their families’ future or remain in denial trying to convince people there is some sort of conspiracy of global climatologists trying to hoodwink the world. Or barring the conspiracy theory — those that claim that the enormous consensus of climatologists who express increasing concern are simply making a colossal scientific blunder. (I wish)
But credit where credit is due. A lot of climate science has been wrong. We have all heard about the so called climate gate fiasco which turned out to be a great publicity coup for those who have put their corporate profits ahead of the sustainability of the planet. But the issue is not that in the end nothing was ever found in the so called hacked e-mails that challenged the science behind the threat of man made climate change.
No, the real problem is that the critics have been partly right in their challenges of the accuracy of the climate change community. The scientist of the earlier IPCC reports have often been wrong but in the other direction. It has turned out that the earlier international reports have been too optimistic. Or in the words of the best recent popular discussion of the topic from Cambridge University press.
the evidence so far suggests that the Intergovernmal Panel of Climate Change in the past may have underestimated rather than exaggerated climate change. Many features of the challenge are moving faster than anticipated. Including the reality of rising waters and fast shrinking arctic sea ice cover.
No the reality is really quite simple. That even though we have been around basically as ourselves for perhaps 50 to 100,00 years We largely built human civilization only during the last 12 thousand years of so during an environmental sweet spot of warming—that some call the long summer – a relatively stable environment which has featured largely the same the same sea levels for the last five thousand years. And that we are now pushing ourselves outside that familiar climatic balance within which we built human civilization as we know it.
Which brings me to my primary conclusion.
You have been failed. Everyone one is this room likely to be alive twenty years from now and beyond has been failed.
Failed by the media so often staffed by people without the scientific background to understand or evaluate the findings of climate scientists and lacking those skills usually insist on reverting to what they know; politics. That is turning every topic into a policy battle they can cover by doing counter points with opposing talking heads.
And worse yet and missing some of the real controversies around the topic. Not between those who represent the enormous international consensus that the threat is real and those still in denial. But a debate between those who think it’s too late for us to make a difference. Too late to stave off disaster and those who retain hope that we can –as they say pull our irons out of the fire. Now that is the t.v. talking heads debate you probably won’t see
And you have been failed by the media that allowed its enthusiasm for drama and controversy to be manipulated by the fossil fuel energy lobby’s well documented and successful effort to supply the media with speakers well trained in confusing the issue so humanity would not act against their corporate profits
You have been failed by most of the scientific establishment because for too long the bulk of the scientific community has disdained any significant responsibility for disseminating their findings to the larger public Even when those findings –like the impact of anthropogenic –man made climate change requires immediate action at the highest levels of government and society
You have been failed by ideologues who think that one’s attitude about man made climate change should be defined by what one thinks of the solution.
People who think their opinion on the role of government in the economy should determine what they think of the science of climate change. People who deny climate change because they are uncomfortable with the necessity of having government create the regulatory environment necessary to make it profitable for businesses to use energy efficiently and safely.
You have been failed by people who think our attitude toward the validity of climate change science should be defined by what we think of Al Gore the person
You have been failed by a government that seems incapable of standing up the economic status quo of the fossil fuel industry and failed by the educational establishment that has produced too few people capable of understanding the science of climate change enough to appreciate the challenge it faces us.
And you have been failed by climate change itself because in its earlier stages it just does not look like the smoke stack industries, nasty black smoke and coughing victims, the polluted rivers that inspired the first Earth Day forty years ago.
So I am afraid we are back to square one. The key to real progress in dealing with the climate crisis is action by the United States and China. And China is waiting on us to make the really big move. And we are not going to do that unless you the people in this room ignoring the status quo media — use all the powers of the new social media from Face book to twitter to take on the status quo establishment as vigorously and hopefully more successfully as the Iranian democratic movement took on their leadership last year. And demand that our leaders get a real energy and climate bill to the president’s desk right now.
The entire world is waiting for the US to act and America is tottering on the brink of accomplishment or failure. And it has to be America’s young people —those at the most risk anyway that have to take on this task. And frankly my friends it’s not going to be students from Arkansas , Alabama or Kentucky that will do that. It’s going to be young people in California, in Connecticut, and yes in New York and you need to do it right now
And a good way to start is by joining organizations from 350.org to 1sky to the Climate Project and at this moment finding a way to get yourself to Washington DC this Sunday for what is expected to be the largest climate rally ever.
The way is see it. This is the place, this is the moment and if we are to have a chance to stave off the worse. The solution is right in this room