After the Catastrophe in Copenhagen, It's Up To Us

Every coal train should be ringed with people refusing to let it pass

Buried deep in our subconscious, there still lays
the belief that our political leaders are collective Daddies and
Mummies who will - in the last instance - guarantee our safety. Sure,
they might screw us over when it comes to hospital waiting lists, or
public transport, or taxing the rich, but when it comes to resisting a
raw existential threat, they will keep us from harm. Last week in
Copenhagen, the conviction was disproved. Every leader there had been
told by their scientists - plainly, bluntly, and for years - that there
is a bare minimum we must all do now if we are going to prevent a
catastrophe. And they all refused to do it.

To understand the gravity of what just happened, you need to know a few facts
about global warming that, at first, sound odd. The world's climate
scientists have shown that man-made global warming must not exceed 2C. When
you hear this, a natural reaction is - that's not much; how bad can it be if
we overshoot? If I go out for a picnic and the temperature rises or falls by
2C, I don't much notice. But this is the wrong analogy. If your body
temperature rises by 2C, you become feverish and feeble. If it doesn't go
back down again, you die. The climate isn't like a picnic; it's more like
your body.

Two degrees is bad: 2C means we lose much of the world's low-lying land, from
the island-states of the South Pacific to much of Bangladesh to swathes of
Florida. But at every step up to and including 2C, if we reduce our
emissions, we can stabilise the climate at this new higher level. If we go
beyond 2C, though, the situation changes. The earth's natural processes
begin to break down - and cause more warming. There are massive amounts of
warming gases stored in the Siberian permafrost; at 2C, they melt and are
released into the atmosphere. The world's humid rainforests store huge
amounts of warming gases in their trees. Beyond C, they lose their humidity
and begin to burn down - releasing them too into the atmosphere.

These are called "tipping points". Because of them, the world gets
warmer and warmer beyond 2C. They stand at the climate's Point of No Return,
beyond which there lies only warming. We are only 6C away from the last ice
age; we are setting ourselves on course to go that far in the opposite

So what do we need to do to stay this side of 2C? There is a very broad,
rock-solid scientific consensus that we need a cut of 40 per cent in the
most polluting countries' emissions by 2020 if we are going to have even a
50-50 chance of doing so. Then, by 2050 we need an 80 per cent cut from
everyone. The fact we are only aiming for a 50 per cent goal of avoiding
calamity is a sign of how far we have already made a terrible compromise
with fossil fuels - but our leaders are refusing to aim even for those odds.

There was plenty of disgrace to go around in Copenhagen. The world's worst per
capita warmer is the US, yet its President turned up offering a pathetic 4
per cent cut by 2020 - and once you factor in all the loopholes his
negotiators demanded, he was actually demanding the right to a significant
increase in US emissions. He caved to the oil and gas lobbies who virtually
own the Senate. It was - apart from anything else - a terrible betrayal of
his own country's national security. In 2004, a leaked Pentagon report
warned that unchecked global warming would ensure "disruption and
conflict will be endemic ... [and] once again, warfare would define human

Similarly, the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao behaved appallingly. His country is
the single largest overall emitter of gases, albeit with a far larger
population, and much more need for development. Yet he vetoed the 80 per
cent target by 2050, and refused to allow other countries to carry out basic
checks to ensure China was carrying out the smaller cuts they were committed
to. Again, he is betraying his own people: most of China's population depend
on rivers that flow down from the Himalayan glaciers, yet they are rapidly
disappearing. His name will be cursed in the Chinese history books.

The European Union was hardly better. They sat inert, refusing to make any
larger offer to get the ball rolling. Only President Lula da Silva of Brazil
came out boldly with an ahead-of-the-curve offer - but his heroism was met
with awkward silence and avoided glances from the other leaders.

So here's the situation. There is no deal. The world's leaders refused to
agree to limit our emissions of warming gases. The most they could agree was
to officially "note" the scientific evidence about 2C - with no
roadmap to keep us this side of it. You get a sense of how valuable this "noting"
is when you look at the things the conference also "noted": the
hard work of the airport security staff, and the quality of the catering in
the Bella Centre. It seems impossible, but our leaders really did give the
stability of our climate the same status as their praise for Danish

I am normally somebody who supports incremental change. Most progress happens
by inches. But with this problem, we can't wait patiently knowing we'll
prevail in the next generation. The tipping points will make that too late.
You can't defuse a ticking bomb slowly year after year. You either defuse it
fast, or it blows up in your face.

Our leaders were given the scientific facts, and they have responded by trying
to haggle with the facts about the atmosphere. Imagine a 50-a-day smoker who
goes to his doctor and is told he must stop immediately or he will develop
lung cancer. He says: "I'll tell you what, doc - I'll cut down to
40-a-day, I'll eat a salad every lunchtime, and I'll slap on a few nicotine
patches. How does that sound?" That's the official response to global

Where does this leave us all? At least we know now: scientific evidence and
rationality are not going to be enough to persuade our leaders. The Good
Daddy isn't in charge. Nobody is going to sort this out - unless we, the
populations of the warming-gas countries, make them. Politicians respond to
the pressure put on them, and every single politician at Copenhagen knew
they would get more flak at home - from their corporate paymasters and their
petrol-hungry populations - for signing a deal than for walking away.

There is only one way to change that dynamic: a mass movement of ordinary
democratic citizens. They have made the impossible happen before. Our
economies used to be built on slave labour, just as surely as they are built
on fossil fuels today. It seemed permanent and unchangeable, and its critics
were regarded as deranged - until ordinary citizens refused to tolerate it
any more, and they organised to demand its abolition.

The time for changing your light-bulbs and hoping for the best is over. It is
time to take collective action. For some people, that will mean joining
Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth or the Campaign Against Climate Change
and helping them pile on the pressure. But those who can go further - by
taking non-violent direct action - should do so. Every coal train should be
ringed with people refusing to let it pass. Every new runway should be
blockaded. The cost of trashing the climate needs to be raised.

It works. Look at Britain. Three years ago, eight new coal power stations were
being planned, and the third runway at Heathrow was all but inevitable. A
few thousand heroic young people took direct action against them. Now all
the new coal power stations have been cancelled, and the third runway is
dead in the water. Here in the fifth largest economy in the world, they have
stopped coal and airport expansion. Politicians felt the heat. That was done
by a few thousand people. Imagine what tens or hundreds of thousands could

There need to be parallel movements to this in every country on earth (and a
much bigger one in Britain). Copenhagen had one value, and one value alone.
It has shown us that if we don't act in our own self-defence now, nobody
else will.

Join Us: News for people demanding a better world

Common Dreams is powered by optimists who believe in the power of informed and engaged citizens to ignite and enact change to make the world a better place.

We're hundreds of thousands strong, but every single supporter makes the difference.

Your contribution supports this bold media model—free, independent, and dedicated to reporting the facts every day. Stand with us in the fight for economic equality, social justice, human rights, and a more sustainable future. As a people-powered nonprofit news outlet, we cover the issues the corporate media never will. Join with us today!

© 2023 The Independent