The Failure of the Green Movement

The United Nations Climate Change Conference may technically succeed by the end of this week. On Friday - or more likely, after a theatrical all-night session lasting well into Saturday - officials representing the 192 countries gathered in Copenhagen will probably put their pens to paper, inking a new agreement calling for reductions in global CO2 emissions.

But even if the delegates achieve this outcome, it is likely that there will be little to cheer. As of today, most observers at Copenhagen are deeply pessimistic that a new agreement will prove substantive in nature.

This week, a long-feared, seemingly intractable stand-off came to the fore between the major industrialized economies of the United States and European Union, and the poorer developing nations led by India and China. At stake is who bears the financial burden for stopping CO2 emissions - and for many, the stakes and the burden are much too high. With increasingly fraught exchanges between the US and Chinese delegations, and African members of the G77 briefly storming out of the summit, a new draft text released on Tuesday was stripped of any concrete or binding emissions targets, let alone a firm date by which emissions should peak.

Noted, delegates may still pull a rabbit out of the bag. If President Obama arrives in Copenhagen armed with a more serious offer than his initial 17% emissions reduction, he may just be able to twist the arms of the Chinese and Indian leaders, particularly if his willingness to bargain also leads to another dramatic concession by his EU partners. The shape of a new financing mechanism could conceivably be bolted together, hopefully to be spelled out more fully after the summit. And if the thorny question of whether to ditch the Kyoto Treaty or start afresh with a new global legislative platform can be answered, one of the main obstacles towards a North-South agreement will be removed.

But as time ebbs away, and the mood grows increasingly grim and surreal at the Bella Center, there is growing talk that some world leaders are simply going to avoid the summit, and thus escape being tainted with failure. And so the moment for the world to come together on behalf of its own future wellbeing, appears to be receding by the hour.

How did we come to this? And where can we go from here?

Whatever chorus of criticisms is leveled against Copenhagen in its aftermath, one thing is clear - the science underpinning climate change is not on trial. Climate change skeptics have had a field day in recent weeks, first with the so-called 'Climategate', a set of leaked emails from the Climactic Research Unit at the UK's University of East Anglia apparently showing environmental data had been falsified, and then Al Gore's unlikely claim that the North Pole could be entirely ice-free within five years. But the former VP is right to state that the hysterical denunciations of conservatives are really just "a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing", and while his opponents will invariably claim that the failure of Copenhagen reveals a fracturing of the scientific consensus and the beginning of a widespread rejection of the established data, such claims should be readily dismissed. This is not why the negotiations will have failed.

But another charge which is often made by the skeptics against scientists, might just speak to the underlying reason for Copenhagen's failure - the arrogance of the climate change lobby, which translated into a failure to generate the necessary support of populations.
Over the last decade, the supporters of international climate change legislation, whether they be politicians, diplomats, academics or journalists, have increasingly taken the support of the public for granted. Of course, there was a time when environmental concerns didn't rank too high on the agenda of the American public, that dark era of George W. Bush, and for some of the 1990s and early 2000s, cheap and unlimited oil. But even during this barren period for the green movement, it was assumed that at some point the time would be ripe for a legislative advance, and that the facts would speak for themselves.

There was little genuine effort to build a mainstream societal coalition in favor of reasonable and coherent climate change solutions, which both addressed persisting and legitimate concerns about the domestic economic effects of transitioning an advanced, oil-dependent, industrialized economy to something radically cleaner and greener, and avoided becoming a front for a host of other unconnected and unpopular concerns, ranging from veganism to social justice, a cause which as recently as yesterday was still being supported in the context of Copenhagen by celebrity eco-warrior George Monbiot, writing in The Guardian. "This is a battle to redefine humanity" claims Monbiot. No it's not. It's a battle to get 192 governments to put some money into scientific innovation and robust development strategies.

And because that's what international climate change action ultimately comes down to, perhaps that's why the green lobby didn't really feel the need to get ordinary people interested or passionate about Copenhagen, or to frame the search for a global agreement as anything more than a chiefly bureaucratic exercise. But in doing so, and failing to communicate with and harness populations except in the most tokenistic and shameful ways - see the at once boring and sensationalist COP15 YouTube channel - this became a self-fulfilling prophecy. This week at Copenhagen, the eyes of the international media might have been watching, and many people dimly aware that big things were afoot. But there was never any more than a fraction of the public pressure or incentive that could have been brought to bear on self-interested, disagreeable diplomats to hammer out an agreement worthy of humanity.

The prescription for success is simple. The green movement must begin its work anew. It must not only have good science, but good communication. It is that which will make a grand political strategy and force for change. Anything else is just hot air.

Dex Torricke-Barton is a consultant for Global Expert Finder, a project of the UN Alliance of Civilizations.

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