The Council of Parties 15 (COP15) UN Climate Change Conference was reminiscent in many ways of past “alphabet soup” economic summits: World heads of state came together in a mid-sized city to discuss pressing issues of the day, while marginalized civil society organizations clamored for louder voices at the proceedings (or were barred entry altogether) and mass demonstrations from diverse perspectives clogged streets around the city. Like recent WTO meetings, the COP15 also exposed the same tension between powerful interests of the Global North and demands from countries of the Global South. Yet a major difference from economic summits of the past was the common goal (at least theoretically) of those in Copenhagen to tackle the climate crisis and our endangered planet, regardless of whether you were carrying a protest sign or an all-access pass. This time around, tens of thousands of people in the streets challenged our world leaders to go further in their commitments. They asked for more from the deliberations, while also demanding a seat at the table, rather than attempting to break up the talks à la WTO, World Bank, or IMF meetings.
People’s cautious hope for a global, binding agreement and commitment to cooling the warming planet was justified, but unfulfilled. Negotiations early in the talks went nowhere fast. A late scramble by presidents and prime ministers to at least agree to something with mutually acceptable benchmark came up empty. No binding agreement was reached, delaying any enforceable or standardized way to address climate change and emission reductions until later talks (though President Obama and other US lawmakers took the chance to laud a “good first step” towards an agreement). Some of the biggest polluters, such as China and India, were looked at as culprits by some Global North countries, especially as China refused to open up to any external oversight.
Yet as these countries continue to develop and increase their carbon footprints through growth of both population and industrial technology, the climate debt owed to the developing countries for decades of carbon emissions, and the worst per capita carbon emitters‘ (Australia, the U.S., and Britain) resistance to regulations, contributed to a WTO-reminiscent rift between First and Third worlds. The main notable commitment negotiators could agree upon was that the science requires us to (somehow) prevent a global temperature rise of more than 2 degrees, which representatives from island nations still said could almost completely destroy them. No common action plan for preventing this temperature rise was given, leaving countries to self-regulate and again without any binding commitment to ending or curbing the emissions from specific industries, businesses, or technologies. World leaders jockeyed for an economic advantage by trying to ensure that the agreement wouldn’t hurt their bottom line, largely avoiding the question of who would be picking up the tab for potential cleaner climate projects worldwide – putting us and the earth at an extreme disadvantage. Though some funding was committed to help developing countries install clean energy and cut emissions, those countries also say it’s nowhere near enough.
Some reactions from environmental NGOs and activists such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, World Development Movement, Bill McKibben, and climate scientest Jim Hansen saw the talks as a failure, while World Wildlife Fund, National Resources Defense Council, and the Sierra Club were glad to see one step in the right direction. Out in the streets, some of the largest demonstrations of the decade took place, along with an alternate Klimaforum09 featuring 50,000 activists and speakers such as Vandana Shiva and Naomi Klein. The Yes Men were in action as well, highlighting Canada’s dangerous environmental policies. “Climate Justice” was certainly the rallying cry outside the talks, perhaps emboldening negotiators and activists from developing nations on the inside, and marking the “emergence” of the Climate Justice Movement. North-South coalitions engaged in non-violent direct action in a Reclaim Power! demonstration, and many different actions took place during the weeks of the talks. On some days, specific issues such as agriculture, borders, farmers’ rights, and reparations for climate debt became the focus. Police reaction also became a problem, with raids on activist houses before demonstrations, violent suppression of marches and rallies, and 968 people detained at one December 12th action. For continued coverage, information on the Climate Justice Movement coming together outside the talks, and support of the demonstrations, check out http://www.climate-justice-action.org/.