Three Elephants in the Living Room at Copenhagen

This post was contributed by Meg Lowman, ESA Vice President for Education and Human Resources, who just recently returned from the Copenhagen climate summit.

 With good intentions, delegates arrived from 192 nations in Copenhagen, Denmark last week for the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework for Climate Change Convention). Their goal was to meet, talk, draft, edit and finalize a document to limit carbon dioxide emissions into our atmosphere, a resource that every country shares. Although the meetings were primarily political in nature, scientific underpinnings served as drivers to seek an international solution.  It was generally assumed that the major powers would dominate the conversation as they usually do, and the rest would meekly tweak the agreement as it was drafted. Following conventional diplomatic wisdom, the expected result was a piece of paper with technical language and many signatures; yet as with previous UNFCCC meetings, a piece of paper can gather dust instead of inspiring political will. Without binding language and enforcement, no agreement on paper can guarantee actions back home. America is an example of a country that not only fell short but has also altered its emissions targets midstream. A major global time-bomb exists – how can countries negotiate a binding agreement that will actually inspire action by all the signatories, and will be quick because poorer nations can not afford adaptation?

Three elephants crowded into the living room at Copenhagen, not only taking center stage but also driving the conversations. These elephants represented emotion, ethics, and ecosystems. COP15  took on a new sense of urgency as small voices told their stories; as citizens around the world become aware of the imminent losses of life posed by rising emissions into our atmosphere and oceans, and as the scientific evident becomes stronger.

Meg Lowman in front of a balloon the size of a ton of CO2. Photo: Gary Braasch.
Meg Lowman in front of a ballon the size of one ton of CO2.  Photo: Gary Braasch.


a. Emotions ran high early in week 1, when the Tuvalu delegation tearfully explained that their islands are inundated by the sea with every political delay, and that Mother Nature will not wait for paper-pushing exercises. This brought a reality check to the seriousness of COP15, and galvanized many activitist groups into action worldwide. The notion of citizens losing a homeland their ancestors had occupied for thousands of generations brought a heightened sense of emotion to COP15. Other small-nation voices joined their outcry, and the AOSIS (association of small island nations) became a large voice at the conference.

b. Ethics has escalated, especially with the understanding of imminent tolls of climate events on poorer nations. African countries, lacking funding and technology face large-scale famines, infectious diseases, droughts and desertification, and ultimate loss of millions of lives. Their continent serves as an early-warning signal to the rest of the world – many extreme impacts of climate change are already apparent, and ironically, they do not have the energy technologies to adapt or mitigate. This gives rise to the ethics of developed countries. Should the United States pay for our long history of polluting the atmosphere? Due to the longevity of carbon in our atmosphere, the carbon emissions that Americans have emitted over the past 50 years will continue to drive up temperatures for the next several hundred years, long before similar impacts will be felt by China’s relatively recent emissions. In short, who should pay? US climate change envoy Todd Sterns, says: 

Americans should not pay for those damaging pollutants released before we know their danger.

 Other nations, especially those without economies that can afford R and D for clean energy technologies, disagree. 

c. The third elephant in the room is the ecosystem science itself. The IPCC (intergovernmental panel on climate change) has released several reports over the past two decades, representing thousands of scientists, thousands of peer-reviewed technical studies, and thousands of hours of review. These reports indicate that climate change is not only serious, but that current trajectories put all species at great risk over the next 100 years. An interim report, The Copenhagen Diagnosis, claims that the IPCC reports are too conservative and that polar ice melt is occurring more rapidly, ocean and rainforest ecosystems have exceeded tipping points and are in serious decline, and millions of people face imminent death from water shortage, fires, and famine.

 Amidst the deliberations and opposing arguments, I propose one creative solution to this stalemate. A large fund is needed to develop clean energy technologies. One thing is clear from the UNFCCC discussions:  all the world’s people need and want energy. Energy is the key to rising out of poverty, and rising out of poverty is essential to insure education, health, and quality of life for all people. But, providing clean energy for 6.5 billion people is an enormous challenge. If we continue to rely on coal and fossil fuels, their emissions will destroy the very Earth that we inhabit.  As the UK leaders said to the UNFCCC: 

 We would be like a parasite that destroys its host.

 Clean energy such as wind, solar, geothermal, and hydro-power are essential to planetary health. But the challenge is time – the world needs innovative new technologies now, not later.

 Perhaps the best hope of “Hopenhagen” is to create a large, international R & D fund to create clean energy, where each country contributes dollars based on its past carbon emissions history. (Hillary Clinton touched on the idea of a climate change fund in her recent speech at UNFCCC.) An expert team of visionary scientists, diplomats, engineers, economists, and innovators should be appointed to allocate funds fairly to qualified innovative energy companies and inventors. The committee should be comprised of at least half women (because history illustrates that they will get the job done)! The development of affordable clean-energy technologies will lead to greater equity between all nations and all people, lower our current emissions, and transition the world into a clean-energy era. Let’s find solutions today, not tomorrow.

Author: Nadine Lymn

ESA Director of Public Affairs

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