Barack Obama said, minutes before racing out of the U.N. climate summit, "We will not be legally bound by anything that took place here today." These were among his remarks made to his own small White House press corps, excluding the 3,500 credentialed journalists covering the talks. It was late on Dec. 18, the last day of the summit, and reports were that the negotiations had failed. Copenhagen, which had been co-branded for the talks on billboards with Coke and Siemens as "Hopenhagen," was looking more like "Nopenhagen."
As I entered the Bella Center, the summit venue, that morning, I saw several dozen people sitting on the cold stone plaza outside the police line. Throughout the summit, people had filled this area, hoping to pick up credentials. Thousands from nongovernmental organizations and the press waited hours in the cold, only to be denied. On the final days of the summit, the area was cold and empty.
Most groups had been stripped of their credentials so the summit could meet the security and space needs for traveling heads of state, the U.N. claimed. These people sitting in the cold were engaged in a somber protest: They were shaving their heads. One woman told me, "I am shaving my head to show how really deeply touched I feel about what is happening in there. ... There are 6 billion people out there, and inside they don't seem to be talking about them." She held a white sign, with just a pair of quotation marks, but no words. "What does the sign say?" I asked her. She had tears in her eyes, "It says nothing because I don't know what to say anymore."
Obama reportedly heard Friday of a meeting taking place between the heads of state of China, India, Brazil and South Africa, and burst into the room, leading the group to consensus on "The Copenhagen Accord." One hundred ninety-three countries were represented at the summit, most of them by their head of state. Obama and his small group defied U.N. procedure, resulting in the nonbinding, take-it-or-leave-it document.
The accord at least acknowledges that countries "agree that deep cuts in global emissions are required according to science ... so as to hold the increase in global temperature below 2 degrees Celsius." For some, after eight years with President George W. Bush, just having a U.S. president who accepts science as a basis for policy might be considered a huge victory. The accord pledges "a goal of mobilizing jointly 100 billion dollars a year by 2020" for developing countries. This is less than many say is needed to solve the problem of adapting to climate change and building green economies in developing countries, and is only a nonbinding goal. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton refused to specify the U.S. share, only saying if countries didn't come to an agreement it would not be on the table anymore.
Respected climate scientist James Hansen told me, "The wealthy countries are trying to basically buy off these countries that will, in effect, disappear," adding, "based on our contribution to the carbon in the atmosphere, [the U.S. share] would be 27 percent, $27 billion per year."
I asked Bolivian President Evo Morales for his solution. He recommends "all war spending be directed towards climate change, instead of spending it on troops in Iraq, in Afghanistan or the military bases in Latin America." According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, in 2008 the 15 countries with the highest military budgets spent close to $1.2 trillion on armed forces.
Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth, one of the major NGOs stripped of credentials, criticized the outcome of the Copenhagen talks, writing: "The United States slammed through a flimsy agreement that was negotiated behind closed doors. The so-called ‘Copenhagen Accord' is full of empty pledges." But he also applauded "concerned citizens who marched, held vigils and sent messages to their leaders, [who] helped to create unstoppable momentum in the global movement for climate justice."
Many feel that Obama's disruption of the process in Copenhagen may have fatally derailed 20 years of climate talks. But Pica has it right. The Copenhagen climate summit failed to reach a fair, ambitious and binding agreement, but it inspired a new generation of activists to join what has emerged as a mature, sophisticated global movement for climate justice.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.