Olaf Otto Becker

A remote river in Greenland, a hundred miles northeast of Ilulissat and inside the Arctic Circle, July 2007; photograph by Olaf Otto Becker, whose images of Greenland’s melting ice sheet were on view in Copenhagen during the climate change conference and

Two and a half years ago, when the Copenhagen conference on global warming was being planned, the rapid melt of sea ice in the summer Arctic convinced many scientists that global warming was advancing far more rapidly than even the gloomiest predictions had asserted. This observation, combined with others—the accelerating disappearance of high-altitude glaciers, the record intensity of both droughts and floods in many parts of the world, the rapid acidification of seawater as emissions of greenhouse gases force oceans to absorb ever-greater quantities of carbon dioxide—caused many to urge quicker and more comprehensive action than in the past.

For instance, some of the authors of the authoritative fourth report on global warming by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in the winter of 2007 soon announced that the data on which it was based were out of date. Last March they convened a meeting in Denmark that one participant dubbed the “end of the world conference” to review new papers on a wide variety of natural systems, and concluded that “the climate system is already moving beyond the patterns of natural variability within which our society and economy have developed and thrived.” A NASA team headed by James Hansen, one of the world’s foremost climatologists, put a number on this new apprehension: if we wished “to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted,” we would need to reduce the level of CO2 in the atmosphere from its current 390 parts per million to no more than 350, and do it as soon as possible. That figure still exceeds the pre–industrial revolution concentration of 275 parts per million, but Hansen’s team calculated that it might be sufficient to stave off a number of catastrophic changes including the final melt of glaciers, further seawater acidification, and shifts in monsoon and other rain patterns.

Before long, Rajendra Pachauri, the UN’s chief climate scientist, endorsed the goal of reducing carbon levels to 350 parts per million, even though it went far beyond what his IPCC colleagues had concluded just two years earlier. “What is happening, and what is likely to happen, convinces me that the world must be really ambitious and very determined at moving toward a 350 target,” he said.1

Faced with this alarming new data, the long-planned Copenhagen conference in December seemed providentially timed. Originally seen as a venue for modest adjustments of existing policies—a place to update the 1997 Kyoto accords to include more countries and tougher emissions targets—it assumed greater import in many minds, especially once the election of Barack Obama seemed to remove one of the most powerful obstacles to concerted international action on fighting climate change. Though they knew the odds remained long, many environmental groups and activists were hopeful that the conference would produce a major breakthrough.

In September a coalition of groups under the ominous “TckTckTck” banner held rallies around the world at which many protesters brandished alarm clocks to show that time was running out for governments to act. On a Saturday in late October, a campaign that I helped organize,, managed to coordinate more than 5,200 protests in 181 countries, an effort that Foreign Policy called the “largest ever coordinated global rally of any kind.” Each made the same point: leaders should enact policies that, instead of merely slowing the increase in CO2, would work to bring emissions down so sharply that natural forces—trees and oceans and soil—would actually be able to reduce atmospheric concentrations by absorbing carbon.

Some of the biggest demonstrations took place in cities like Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and Bujumbura, Burundi; there were three hundred rallies across mainland China, and a similar number in India. In some of these places, the demonstrators ran serious risks in daring to take independent action. A cursory glance at the more than 23,000 pictures posted of the events makes it clear that environmentalists have expanded their ranks beyond well-to-do citizens of advanced nations to include large numbers of burqa-clad women, Latin American peasants, even Masai tribesmen. (Many in these communities have always worked on local environmental issues, of course, but it was novel to see them join in a global campaign.)

The momentum continued right through the Copenhagen meetings. On the middle weekend of the conference, following a giant protest march through the city sponsored by a wide variety of international environmental groups, there was a church service at the city’s main cathedral conducted by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu. As it came to a close, the great bell pealed 350 times—a sound echoed by thousands of churches around the world the same afternoon. You could feel the same collective sense of urgency inside the cavernous conference hall where the meetings were taking place. Numerous delegations from poor nations pressed much harder than in the past for what environmental groups were calling a “fair, ambitious, and binding treaty,” and by the time the meeting entered its final days at least 112 countries had formally endorsed the 350 target and an effort to hold global temperature increases below 1.5 degrees centigrade.


Unfortunately, they were the wrong countries—they included mostly the small, poor countries who have little economic or political clout (for example, the member nations of the Association of Small Island States and some of the sub-Saharan African countries). These countries will be the first victims of climate change, and many of them already face rising seas or spreading drought as a result of global warming. They remained largely unimpressed by Western promises, even when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared on the final Thursday of the conference to offer them $100 billion in annual aid by 2020.

Partly they were unimpressed because the money is considerably less—by a factor of three or four—than some recent estimates of the cost both of the damage they will suffer from climate change and of their transition to more renewable energy sources. And partly they were resistant because much was left vague—Clinton spoke of an unspecified mix of public, private, and “alternative” revenues to be raised jointly by all rich countries. But mostly it was because they’d come to realize that there’s not enough money in the world to save your nation if the waves come over the seawalls, as may happen in island nations like Kiribati or delta regions like Bangladesh, or if the drought grows so severe that your pastures turn to desert, as has occurred in parts of Kenya. “Development,” long the main demand of the poor nations, simply isn’t possible if their rivers are drying up. At this point, one African delegate told me, “any development is going to have to be green development.” And so—for much longer than expected—these poor nations continued to press the case for dramatic emissions reductions from the rich world as the only guarantee of their survival. For example, tiny Tuvalu was able to shut down talks and command global attention for several hours in the middle of the conference with a demand for tighter caps on emissions.

The last possible hope for some dramatic turn came at midday on the Friday that was supposed to close the conference, when Barack Obama spoke. By that time all but a token few members of the environmental groups had been barred from the convention center, ostensibly to prevent overcrowding—they gathered instead in a converted warehouse about five miles away, where the UN erected a giant screen to let them watch the proceedings. And almost from the moment Obama began to speak, it was clear that there would be no dramatic surprise agreement emerging from the conference. Instead of the generous and open Obama of the campaign, there was a pinched and stern Obama, lecturing the assembled heads of state.

With a cursory nod to the fact that America is “the world’s largest economy and the world’s second largest emitter,” he dispensed with apologies and instead assailed “developing countries that want aid with no strings attached.” Since Obama is clearly more interested in action on climate than his predecessors were, it’s easy to fix blame for his chary rhetoric, and America’s inaction, on Congress and to say that the President’s hands were tied. We can’t know for sure whether he could have made more progress on Capitol Hill if he’d pushed harder, though that’s what many environmentalists have contended.

All we can say with certainty is that in Copenhagen he offered no new targets beyond the quite weak ones his congressional majority had put in the first drafts of the legislation now working its way through Congress. He proposes a 17 percent reduction from 2005 levels by 2020, the equivalent of cutting the US emissions of 1990 by a scant 4 percent (1990 being the baseline used by other nations). If anyone had been secretly hoping for some plan like the one FDR used to retool our economy for World War II, they were disappointed—there was no call to Congress to, say, require our newly rescued automobile factories to build rail cars, or our bailed-out banks to make clean-energy lending a high priority. Instead, as Obama had told the UN earlier in the fall in what hindsight shows was a self-fulfilling prophecy, there was only the insistence that the fight against climate change “will require each of us to persevere through setbacks, and fight for every inch of progress, even when it comes in fits and starts.”


This was a position enshrined in a document Obama helped negotiate a few hours later with China, India, South Africa, and Brazil that he called “The Copenhagen Accord.” Three pages long, it had few targets or timetables—though some inside-the- Beltway environmental leaders hailed it as a “breakthrough” because for the first time it committed China to doing something, even if that something wasn’t very clear. Obama himself said a few days later that “I think that people are justified in being disappointed about the outcome.” He told a PBS interviewer, “At least we kind of held ground and there wasn’t too much backsliding from where we were.” Most other nations formally “took note” of the Copenhagen accord to stay at least peripherally involved in the process, but around the world the verdict was that the conference had failed spectacularly. This was not a great surprise to anyone who had been watching the process play out, and yet at the same time it was a huge disappointment.

For several days observers fought about who to blame. In the last few hours of the conference it was Chinese unwillingness to endorse particular reduction targets that kept the commitments in the accord so minimal—according to insider accounts, Beijing kept saying no to any attempt to assign a date for when its emissions would peak. In the year before the gathering, it was Obama, unwilling to increase pressure on Congress, who had insisted on not making any kind of dramatic leaps: he’d funded some green projects—including initiatives ranging from weatherizing homes to research in advanced battery design—as part of his stimulus package, and his EPA has pushed car companies to produce higher-mileage vehicles. But as he put it at his press conference before jetting out of Denmark, “It would be unrealistic for us to think that we can turn on a dime and that suddenly a clean-energy economy is going to emerge overnight, given the fact that it’s going to require significant effort.”


Contact Press Images

A migrant worker washing in a polluted pond in the Chinese city of Guiyu, which has been called the electronic waste capital of the world, November 25, 2005; photograph by Lu Guang, who was awarded the 2009 W. Eugene Smith grant in humanistic photography

Both the American and Chinese positions were deeply rooted in political realism, and the situation in Washington has only become more challenging in the two months since the conference. Obama requires sixty votes in the Senate to pass any kind of energy or climate bill, and—now that the Democrats have lost a Senate seat in Massachusetts, depriving them of a sixty-vote majority—the task will probably be at least as hard as the imperiled effort to get health care legislation.

The Chinese face even more daunting pressures—they still have hundreds of millions of people living in very poor conditions, and burning large amounts of coal is the simplest and cheapest way to provide them with the electricity they need (and not coincidentally to keep them from rebelling against Communist rule). The Chinese face the deep challenge of defining a modern society largely from scratch: Will they embrace private cars (they just moved past the US as the world’s biggest auto market) or public transit (they are installing bus rapid transit, or BRT, systems in a number of cities, as well as fast trains)? Will they turn decisively to renewable sources of energy or merely make them one part of an ongoing, mostly coal-fired, power rush? That they seem ambivalent about attacking climate change is probably natural, even inevitable.

In some ironic sense, the unhappy ending was also the fault of the poorest nations and their allies in the environmental movement. These countries, some of which—for example, Tuvalu or the Maldives—say they literally face extinction, were pushing hardest for the 350 target. Their future, they said, would depend on deep cuts in emissions from the great powers.

As a result of their audacity, these vulnerable nations may find themselves more isolated from the discussion: from now on, their powerlessness will be more evident and major decisions about climate will be made by the largest emitters talking among themselves. As the lead US negotiator, Todd Stern, said in mid-January, the UN might not be the best forum in which to negotiate an accord on climate change because “a lot of attention to detail can be focused on ideas that are not really tethered to reality.” Instead of small angry nations going on about their survival, the direction of climate policy will be determined at what amounts to an AA meeting for still-active coal and oil drunks—chief among them the US and China—who at the moment are making very vague promises about reducing their consumption a decade or two down the road.

This clash between political realism and scientific realism will be at the center of climate policy for many years to come. Campaigners had hoped that science might trump politics at Copenhagen, and instead the opposite happened. Obama, and the Chinese leadership, won’t try to force the pace for their political systems, at least in dramatic ways.

In Beijing that will likely mean the continued push for more green energy —the Chinese are quickly emerging as the biggest players in the development of new renewable technologies, putting up wind farms almost as fast as they build coal-fired power plants and selling wind turbines abroad. The Chinese government will probably try to avoid any serious legal restrictions on China’s carbon output; but the pressure from world public opinion will quite likely continue to increase.

The Chinese leadership, long used to working in tandem with poor nations on the international scene, found themselves exposed at Copenhagen as a new kind of rich-poor hybrid. China, at least when it comes to energy, isn’t really a developing country anymore. Its interests increasingly diverge from those of poor nations that gain little from the use of fossil fuel yet suffer the consequences of warming. To a lesser extent India and South Africa are in the same position. It does not seem fair to the Chinese government that it should have to rein in its nation’s carbon output at an early stage of its growth, but that may prove to its longterm advantage, as Chinese firms pioneer the rapid deployment of the green technologies that will be at the center of this century’s industrial promise.

In Washington, attention will now turn to Congress. The House passed a bill late last summer; coauthored by Henry Waxman (D-California) and Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts), it sets in place a complicated cap-and-trade system that gradually (very gradually) limits the amount of CO2 Americans can pour into the air. A similar bill was making its way through the Senate, but its fate has been put into increasing doubt by the Democrats’ loss of their sixty-vote majority. Scott Brown, the Republican who won the special Senate election in Massachusetts, campaigned against cap and trade and has vowed to vote against the bill. Reflecting the new situation, Obama avoided mentioning cap and trade in his State of the Union speech in late January, saying only that he hoped Congress would pass “a comprehensive energy and climate bill with incentives that will finally make clean energy the profitable kind of energy in America.”

Indeed, the changing political situation in Washington provides opportunities for other approaches to gain a hearing. The Breakthrough Institute and others have been pushing for a large investment in basic technology, arguing that our political system simply won’t adopt solar and other technologies on a broad scale until they’ve become clearly cheaper than their alternatives. The only way to do that, they say, is through subsidizing research in the hopes it will produce discoveries.

Taking another economic tack, Senators Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) have introduced a bill that would put a limit on carbon and require oil and coal giants to pay the federal government for the right to sell carbon-emitting fuels; the government would then rebate the payments directly to taxpayers. This could allow quick increases in the price of fossil fuel while reducing political backlash, since families would be getting an ever-larger monthly check to help make them make up for the higher costs of energy. Both proposals are getting new consideration in Congress (and perhaps in the White House, though it’s harder to tell) following the chaos in Copenhagen and the Massachusetts Senate election. Meanwhile, other environmentalists are noting the success of their efforts to block the construction of new coal-fired power plants—not a single one opened in the US in 2009 because of tenacious resistance, leading some to call for extending that fight to existing power plants. Threats of civil disobedience convinced Congress to switch the coal-fired power station it owns, which provides power for the Capitol, to natural gas last year.

Malini Mehra, the Indian writer and environmentalist, called the outcome of Copenhagen a modern-day Munich, and that may be a useful analogy. Recent analysis indicates that the old picture of Chamberlain as a naive appeaser is in some ways outdated; at least in part, he was buying some time for Britain to rearm against the new German threat. His hope was that he had bought “peace for our time,” but he miscalculated—“our time” lasted less than a year, until the Nazis invaded Poland.

Similarly, Obama and the Chinese appear to believe that they have the margin they need to make a graceful and relatively easy transition to a clean-energy economy, and that relatively small steps will ward off climate change. But that’s a calculation too, and it’s not so far from the one Chamberlain made. It’s a gamble. If environmentalists tossed up their hope-and-a-prayer against the powerful force of political reality, our political leaders are taking on the even more implacable forces of physics and chemistry.

In early December, Britain’s meteorological office released its predictions for 2010. A resurgent El Niño combined with ongoing global warming, the office said, made the odds better than even that this year will be the warmest in recorded history, an estimate that Hansen’s NASA team seconded a few days later. If that is so, the pressure on China and the US to do far more than they did at Copenhagen will increase, not abate. Each typhoon, each drought, each summer of shrinking ice makes it clearer that this is by far the biggest problem humans have ever faced. And until now we’ve taken next to no real action.

Eventually, pressed by disaster, we will act. The problem is that eventually it will be too late for those new steps to matter. If we allow the temperature to rise far enough to induce widespread melting of permafrost, for instance, the methane gas trapped under it will seep into the atmosphere. Since methane is a potent greenhouse gas itself, that could mean that the warming we’ve unleashed will become more or less unstoppable, even if we shut down every factory and parked every car. A study published in January showed that the amount of methane gas released from the Arctic may have increased by a third in the last five years.2 At a certain point presidents and central committees will be powerless to stop it. That’s why it would have been so useful if our leaders had set aside at least some political considerations and acted more decisively in Copenhagen. Doubtless it was too much to ask, and doubtless we’ll have to ask again.

—February 9, 2010

(For more on climate change, see the NYR blog,, which has recently featured posts by Tim Flannery on the Copenhagen accord and on cap and trade, Alma Guillermoprieto and Jeremy Bernstein on melting glaciers in Bolivia and the Himalayas, and Perry Link on China’s industrial pollution. The blog also includes posts by Eve Bowen and Orville Schell on the photographers whose images are featured in this article.)

This Issue

March 11, 2010