“Waiting for politicians to negotiate a flimsy cap-and-trade agreement is like listening to firemen argue over who's going to turn on the water hose as your house burns down."
Those were the words of a Buddhist monk speaking in Copenhagen days before the U.N. climate talks failed miserably to come to any sort of real deal on halting global warming. Public attention shifted to airline security in the wake of the failed terrorist attack on Christmas Day, but the blown opportunity by world leaders remains monumentally disappointing to people who were hoping for a true nick-of-time agreement from the summit. But it comes as no surprise to those who have become accustomed to the lack of official progress and political will on addressing the climate crisis.
Of course, the monk was not speaking in the Bella Center, where frustrated delegates and nongovernmental organizations banged their heads together for 12 days in December trying to come up with a binding international agreement on CO2 emissions. He, along with thousands of other activists, farmers, scientists and workers from around the world, were not allowed inside the official talks. Instead, they convened their own meetings in Copenhagen to run counter to COP15. The largest of these was billed as Klimaforum09: The People's Climate Summit.
Unsurprisingly, the most robust discussions on climate change took place at this alternative summit, where thousands of people from six continents held workshops on everything from sustainable agriculture and alternative transportation to food and water security and why carbon markets won't work.
There was a lot of debate as well, particularly on how to get world leaders to listen and whether or not protesters should attempt to shut down the U.N. conference (they tried, and were met with unprecedented violent repression by Danish police). But there was also remarkable democratic consensus on how to confront the climate crisis immediately and effectively.
Among the ideas was refocusing the climate debate on the dire reality of the scientific evidence and not on what is seen as feel-good, market-based measures like "cap-and-trade" that have proven unsuccessful in lowering carbon emissions. Representatives from Africa, Asia and South America gave impassioned accounts of how these "false solutions" have had intensely negative impacts on their regions and communities.
To counter the U.N. climate agreement, several hundred nongovernmental groups participating at the Klimaforum drafted their own Declaration on Climate Change that outlines specific steps needed to make a global transition away from a fossil fuel-based economy. Among these measures: an immediate cut in the greenhouse gas emissions of First World nations of at least 40 percent by 2020. This "People's Declaration" was distributed inside the Bella Center even as President Barack Obama defended his nonbinding, no-timetable Copenhagen Accord as an "important breakthrough."
But it's difficult to have a true breakthrough when real solutions to climate change were never on the table to begin with. Obama came and went in Copenhagen knowing that nothing that happened there would legally bind the United States, or any other country, to do anything.
Yet, to those for whom climate change is a bitter reality rather than some abstract debate, the deal Obama struck in Copenhagen is worse than nothing. It postpones any true commitment on carbon reductions and further marginalizes the developing world by excluding the countries that are feeling the most intense effects of climate change.
From the Bolivians in the Andes who are losing the glaciers they depend on for water to the islanders in the South Pacific who see their lands disappearing at an alarming rate, the countries of the world that have done the least to harm the environment are shouldering the worst effects of global warming.
For the millions living in these places, anything less than a fundamental change in direction is a total disaster. This was the message of the thousands of activists who came to Copenhagen to add their voices to the climate dialogue with talk of climate debt, climate refugees and "System Change not Climate Change."
That may sound radical for those of us trying to make heads or tails of the hacked e-mails of "Climategate," but for much of the world that was never a debate.
The Klimaforum's Declaration on Climate Change can be viewed on the Web at: www. klimaforum09.org/Declaration.
Kelly Benjamin reported for WMNF and Indymedia from Copenhagen. He lives in Tampa.