Terminator 2009: Judgment Days in Copenhagen

For Isaac Francisco Solnit, born December 17, 2009

It's clear now that, from her immoveable titanium bangs to her
chaotic approximation of human speech, Sarah Palin is a Terminator
cyborg sent from the future to destroy something -- but what? It could
be the Republican Party she'll ravage
by herding the fundamentalists and extremists into a place where sane
fiscal conservatives and swing voters can't follow. Or maybe she was
sent to destroy civilization at this crucial moment by preaching the
gospel of climate-change denial, abetted by tools like the Washington Post, which ran a factually outrageous editorial
by her on the subject earlier this month. No one (even her,
undoubtedly) knows, but we do know that this month we all hover on the

I've had the great Hollywood epic Terminator 2: Judgment Day
on my mind ever since I watched it in a hotel room in New Orleans a few
weeks ago with the Superdome visible out the window. In 1991, at the
time of its release, T2 was supposedly about a terrible future; now, it seems situated in an oddly comfortable past.

What apocalypses are you nostalgic for? The premise of the movie
was that the machines we needed to worry about had not yet been
invented, no less put to use: intelligent machines that would rebel
against their human masters in 1997, setting off an all-out nuclear war
that would get rid of the first three billion of us and lead to a
campaign of extermination against the remnant of the human race
scrabbling in the rubble of what had once been civilization.

By the time the film was released, the news of climate change was already filtering out. Reports like Bill McKibben's 1989 book The End of Nature
had told us that the machines that could destroy us and our world had,
in fact, been invented -- a long, long time ago. Almost all of us had
been using them almost all the time, from the era of the steam engine
and the rise of the British coal economy through the age of railroads
and the dawn of petroleum extraction to the birth of the
internal-combustion engine and the spread of industrial civilization
across the planet. They weren't "intelligent" and they weren't in
revolt, nor were they led by any one super-machine. It was the
cumulative effect of all those devices pumping back into the atmosphere
the carbon that plants had so kindly buried in the Earth over the last
few hundred million years.

The Superdome is, of course, where thousands of New Orleanians were
stranded when Katrina, the hurricane that hit the Gulf Coast on August
29, 2005, broke the city's levees and flooded the place. A maelstrom of
institutional failures left people trapped in the scalding cauldron of
a drowned city for five days while the world looked on aghast. It was a
disaster that had been long foretold, and no one had done much to
forestall it. No one had repaired those crummy levees or bothered to
create a real evacuation plan for the city -- and, unlike the revolt of
the machines in T2, the future actually arrived. Like climate change.

For many, it was a foretaste of our new era. It may not be clear
what role, if any, climate change played in the generation of that
particular hurricane, but it is clear that, in this era, there will be,
and indeed already have been, many more such calamities: the deadly
freak rainstorms in Sicily, Britain, and the Philippines this fall, the
increase in the number and intensity of hurricanes in the North
Atlantic in recent years, as well as in the intensity of droughts,
floods, heat waves, crop failures, and the displacement of populations,
as well as the massive melting of glaciers and sea ice in the cold
places, rising waters in the coastal ones, and oceans going acidic with
devastating effects on marine life.

This is the actual nightmarish "movie" of our times. This is what
our less-than-intelligent machines have actually wrought. The World
Health Organization estimates that climate change is already responsible
for 150,000 deaths annually. Unchecked it will kill far more, and no
one's measuring the despair in the island nations that may disappear
and among those who live in, and off of, the melting arctic. Looking at
the Superdome during the commercial breaks in T2, I wondered about the apocalypses already under our belts and the bumpy road ahead.

The Governor of the State with the Uncertain Shoreline

The plot of the movie, as most of you undoubtedly recall, is that
the Terminator, also played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the low-budget 1984 original,
shows up again, sent back from the future 10 years after in the first
epic. This time around, he's not action-heroine Sarah Connor's nemesis;
he's on the side of humanity, specifically of her son John Connor, the
boy with the unambiguous initials who will grow up to lead the
resistance to our extermination by machines.

Another more advanced Terminator is, in the meantime, also sent back
from the future to destroy the messianic boy and his foulmouthed
commando mom. The rest of the movie is a feast of shootouts, chases,
explosions, and brilliantly plotted action. It was all surpassingly
strange and compelling when I watched it, while wiped out with what was
probably swine flu, a fever dream of the past's nightmares that somehow
didn't manage to anticipate our waking hells.

Now, of course, the movie's cyborg star is a major force in the real
world. He's my governor, more powerful but less charismatic than in
his Terminator incarnation. Recently, he traveled to Treasure Island
in San Francisco Bay to release the state's 2009 Climate Adaptation Strategy,
a 200-page document about the array of devastations the state faces and
what countermeasures we can take. Early on, that document states:

"Climate change is
already affecting California. Sea levels have risen by as much as seven
inches along the California coast over the last century, increasing
erosion and pressure on the state's infrastructure, water supplies, and
natural resources. The state has also seen increased average
temperatures, more extreme hot days, fewer cold nights, a lengthening
of the growing season, shifts in the water cycle with less winter
precipitation falling as snow, and both snowmelt and rainwater running
off sooner in the year."

Looking to the future, the report predicted that there would be more
fires, less water, loss of coastal lands, and up to $2.5 trillion of
real estate put at risk by global warming. The Terminator, or governor,
was on the island because, with even modest further rises in sea-level,
it will disappear entirely. Hasta la vista, baby.

During the years the Bush Administration refused to do anything at
all about climate change, Schwarzenegger arrived at the helm of a state
that had already developed major innovations in energy efficiency and
in creative price-structuring that took away power-company motives to
push higher energy consumption. California had also sought to set new
standards for carbon-dioxide emissions from vehicles. The bill to do
the last of these was crafted in 2002 by Fran Pavley, a newly elected
state assemblywoman from Ventura County. When Obama came into office,
the roadblocks were finally removed and the bill became the basis for
national regulations that will make vehicles 40% more fuel-efficient by
2016. Pavley and Schwarzenegger were there at the Rose Garden signing
of the regulations last May.

As Ronald Brownstein reported in the Atlantic this October:

"Ambitious new
initiatives have cascaded out of Schwarzenegger's office -- including
the two measures raising the renewable-power requirement on utilities,
a state subsidy program to encourage the installation of
electricity-generating solar panels on 1 million California roofs, and
in January 2007, an executive order establishing the nation's first
'low-carbon fuel standard,' which requires a reduction of at least 10
percent in the carbon emissions from transportation fuels by 2020.
Schwarzenegger signed a Pavley-sponsored bill imposing the nation's
first mandatory statewide reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions. The
bill required the state by 2020 to roll back its emissions to the 1990
level -- a reduction of about 15 percent from the current level. (By
separate executive order, Schwarzenegger also committed the state to an
80 percent reduction by 2050.)"

It'd be easy to go with the Atlantic and frame the governor
as a hero, but he landed in office by promising to cut vehicle taxes
and has been in bed ever since with the state's biggest greenhouse gas
emitter and the world's fifth biggest corporation, Chevron. Even the
organization that sent him to Copenhagen, Climate Action Reserve, is
backed by Chevron and Shell -- and the oil and coal industries have
been the biggest domestic roadblocks to real climate-change measures.
Nonetheless, at the Copenhagen climate conference he talked about R20,
the alliance of states and provinces he's co-founded to implement
climate change measures at sub-national levels. And he has suggested that climate-change deniers like Palin are "still living in the Stone Age."

A Magnitude Shy of What Physics Demands

Think of Schwarzenegger as the hinge between the fantasy of Terminator 2 and the reality of our predicament. Think of Obama...

Well, in T2,
there's Miles Dyson, a slender, well-spoken African-American family man
who will engineer the computer technology that will create the
intelligent machines that will annihilate practically everything. Sarah
-- Connor, not Palin -- sets out to kill him, but her son shows up with
his Terminator-Schwarzenegger sidekick, and they instead convince the
not-so-mad scientist he's about to do something terribly, terribly
wrong. He then leads them to his workplace to destroy everything he's
ever done. When their violent erasure program sets off alarms that
bring in squadrons of cops, Dyson ends up gravely wounded and holding
the trigger to set off the explosion that will wipe out the
technologies endangering future humanity -- and himself.

Seeing this movie with its acts of self-sacrifice, now offers an
occasion to ask: when's the last time you've even seen a major
politician who'll put his finger to that trigger with humanity in mind,
no less simply do anything that's bad for reelection?

What if Obama would say what he has to know, what they all have to
know, that saving the planet from our slo-mo, unevenly distributed
version of Judgment Day requires destroying the status quo
and maybe changing everything? What if he'd just learn from
Schwarzenegger that you can do quite a lot and still survive

As a disgusted Bill McKibben recently put it,
"Obama will propose 4% reductions in [U.S. greenhouse gas] emissions by
2020, compared with 20% for the Europeans (a number the EU said they'd
raise to 30% if the U.S. would go along). Scientists, meanwhile, have
made it clear that a serious offer would mean about 40% cuts by 2020.
So -- we're exactly an order of magnitude shy of what the physics

Bill, a normally mild-mannered guy who was overjoyed at Obama's election, called the president's position "a lie inside a fib coated with spin."

Thanks to a sudden decision
earlier this month by the Environmental Protection Agency allowing the
executive branch to address the issue of climate-change gases under the
Clean Air Act, Obama has apparently been given superpowers to act
without being completely hamstrung by a reluctant Congress. Or as the
Center for Biological Diversity put it,
"President Obama can lead, rather than follow, by using his power under
the Clean Air Act and other laws to achieve deep and rapid greenhouse
emissions reductions from major polluters."

Will he? Probably not. After all, he's the man who stood up in
Prague last April and said: "I state clearly and with conviction
America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without
nuclear weapons." For a moment, it almost sounded
as if he was going to be the action hero of our antinuclear dreams,
wiping out one apocalypse that has hung over us for sixty years. And
then he added that he didn't actually expect to see the abolition of
such weaponry in his lifetime, though he didn't say why.

Now, we're in an action movie in which the fate of the Earth is
truly at stake, and the most powerful man on the planet has allowed
himself to be hedged in by timidities, compromises, refusals, denials,
and the murderous pressure of corporations. Those too-big-to-die
corporations are the reason why the Senate is unlikely to ratify any
climate-change treaty that threatens to do much of anything. Really,
corporations -- half-fictitious, semi-immortal behemoths endowed with
human rights in the U.S. and possessed of corrosive global power --
already are the ruthless cyborgs of our time. They are, after all,
actively seeking a world in which they imagine that, somehow, they will
survive, even if many of us and much that we love does not. Sorry poor
people, young people, Africa, sorry Arctic summer ice, you're not too
big to fail.

100,000 in the Streets Vs. Three Degrees of Heat

I wish life on this planet really were like an action movie. I wish
that a handful of heroic individuals could do battle with the mightiest
of forces and decisively alter the fate of the world -- and then we
could all go home to a planet that's safe. As we know, however, it's
going to be a lot more intricate and complicated than that. There are
millions, maybe billions, of players in this one, and its running time
is a lot longer than the two weeks of Copenhagen or the two hours of a
movie. For our heroines, we get not the commando-siren Sarah Connor,
but the sturdy, ex-middle-school American government teacher and now
California state senator Fran Pavley, 61.

Really, though, if there's going to be a superhero in our world, a
friendly Terminator to go up against the villains in suits and ties, it
will be civil society. Even for the betterment of humankind, civil
society won't get to shoot anyone or drive a truck through a wall.
Instead, it'll organize, educate, build, and pressure, while working to
create models and alternatives. It'll reelect Pavley and shut down

There have already been some moments of great drama with this superhero leading the way -- the civil disobedience
of the Climate Ground Zero mountaintop coal campaign in Appalachia, the
Climate Camps in Britain, the Kingsnorth Six climbers who blocked a
coal-power-plant's smokestack in England last October (and were exonerated by a British jury), the underwater cabinet meeting
held in the Maldives this October to protest that low-lying island
nation's possible fate. All this was done in part to get people to take
an interest in the fate of their planet, which is not so readily
reducible to a blockbuster's plot as we might like.

The pivotal moment just came -- and went. This week in Copenhagen,
the Bella Center conference, in which a new climate treaty was supposed
to be negotiated, stagnated while repression around it grew furiously.
It stagnated because the rich countries were unwilling to either reduce
their own emissions significantly or pledge meaningful funding to help
poor nations transition to greener economies. Or it stagnated because
the poor countries didn't consent to be crucified for crumbs. The
United States, which just spent nearly a trillion dollars bailing out
its floundering financial corporations and spends about $700 billion
annually on the military, offered an obscenely inadequate $1.2 billion in aid. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged $100 billion way down the road, but only if an unlikely quantity of factors and conditions were to align beforehand.

Outside the center, the Danish police became increasingly brutal as
activists from everywhere, representing the poor, developing, and most
affected nations, the Arctic, small farmers, indigenous nations, and
the environment demonstrated. Inside nongovernmental groups were
increasingly excluded from the discussions and then from the actual
space itself. None of this prevented the conference from stalling.

On Monday, negotiators from the African nations shut down the
climate talks in fury at attempts to undermine the Kyoto accords -- a
move designed to make the global situation worse at a meeting that was
supposed to make it better. On Wednesday, hundreds of delegates inside
the Bella Center protested, walking out to join the thousands already
in the streets. By all reports the atmosphere was increasingly tense
and repressive.

Everyone whose opinion I respect deplores what just went down in
Copenhagen. There's an agreement of sorts, but it was achieved by
Obama and a few powerful nations over the objections of the rest in
violation of the way the process should have unfolded. Worse, it
contains no binding agreements to limit climate change. The so-called
agreement acknowledges that we should limit warming to two degrees Celsius, but the actual commitments, if honored, would bring the world to 3.9 degrees Celsius
(seven degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100. Even two degrees, African
negotiator Lumumba Stanislaus Di-Aping had said, "would condemn Africa
to death." Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed pointed out that three
degrees would "spell death for the Maldives and a billion people in
low-lying areas." Three degrees, said Joss Garman of the British
branch of Greenpeace, "would lead to the collapse of the Amazon
rainforest, droughts across South America and Australia, and the
depletion of ocean habitats."

All that was achieved was consensus that there's a problem and
clarity about what that problem is: the refusal of the wealthy
corporations and nations to do what benefits humanity and all other
species. Money won. Life lost. Copenhagen is over, a battle lost
despite valiant efforts, but the war continues.

The crazy thing about this moment in history is that it isn't at all like Terminator 2, except that the Earth and our species are in terrible danger, and ruthless superhuman forces push us toward our doom.
In the movie, Sarah Connor is the only human being who knows what's
coming, and she's in an Abu Ghraib-like mental hospital for saying and
doing something about it. In our reality, anyone who cares to know
what the dangers are should have no problem finding out. Most of us
have known, or should have known, for quite a long time. Because we've
done so little, what a decade ago was imagined as the terrible future
has actually, like the Terminator, made it here ahead of time.

The learning curve for so many of us, for so many people and even
nations, has been speeding up impressively. If we had 40 years to
figure it all out, we might be headed toward just the sort of victory
that civil society has, in fact, achieved on so many other
environmental and human-rights ideas. But there aren't decades to
spare. It needs to happen now. It should have happened even before
the last century ended.

Even in my fever dream, with the Superdome just out the window, I couldn't help noting the key axiom repeated in Terminator 2: "The future is not set. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves."

So here's the lesson: There are no superheroes but us.

And here's the question: What are you going to do about it?

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!

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.