Tuesday, December 29, 2009

That Was Copenhagen

Posted By on Tue, Dec 29, 2009 at 10:52 AM

Throughout most of December, the Journal carried weekly reports from the COP15 Climate Change summit in Copenhagen. (See here and here and here.) These had been sent to us by local residents David Simpson, Jane Lapiner and Dan Ihara, each of whom had dealt with the topic of global climate change in their work -- Simpson and Lapiner as playwrights, Ihara as an economist. The three were going to Copenhagen anyway, but the Journal helped finagle press passes for them in exchange for some coverage.

We ran Ihara's wrap-up of the proceedings last week. His take was that the accord that the conference produced wasn't great, but was probably the best that could be expected. Now Simpson files his much more gloomy final thoughts, which, alas, we don't have space for in the paper this week.

Take it away, David Simpson.


The Great Climate Circus is over, the giant tents struck. The clowns have wiped off their greasepaint and the elephant manure, no longer steaming, has been swept into neat piles. (Six Republican Congressman and one Senator had made cameo performances that might just as well have been in whiteface.)

The halls of Copenhagen's Bella Center have been cleared of the enormous detritus that this effort at climate salvation left behind, incalculable reams of paper now strewn about that had been the thick schedules of events handed out each morning still warm from the machines as fast as thousands of hands reached for them. There, too, were the voluminous stacks of leftover literature; newsletter, brochures, founding papers, the studies, the handsomely tricked out propaganda of hundreds of civil society and NGO groups and region-specific efforts at adaptation and sustainability that had graced these halls offering the passersby their wildly diverse experiences, their concepts and missions that collectively, with sufficient support, might add up to the possibility of a better world.

Endless faux plastic coffee cups and dinnerware that had been so proudly vaunted by their hosts as...voila!...recyclable, but then thrown into inadequately marked sorting containers, have by now been gathered together by the cleanup staff and sent off, one fears, to the landfill--illusions of sustainability like games of three card monte out on the midway, a small diversion for the now-vanished rubes along the course of their larger fool's errand.

Right after the holidays, the Home Furnishing and Design Exhibit is scheduled to move into the Bella and a little later, the semi-annual International Fashion Fair will fill the hall. Apparently, in a relative world, these events are of equal social importance to the climate change event and perhaps draw as many people. They are likely fated, though, for greater success.

Oh that our mission had been so fashionable, our goals so simple and comfortable as a Danish sectional sofa! Is selling furniture intrinsically different or easier, really, than selling the perpetuation of the biosphere? Perhaps next year in Mexico survival will once more be in fashion. It is tempting to just stretch out on that sofa and watch the ship go down almost as if one weren't on it. Sometimes it seems that this is what we are all doing.

It would all be forgivable, the dragging of the feet of the great powers, some of them newly minted as such. This deep-seated resistance by nations to forgo even the smallest advantage and prerogative would be tolerable were it not so damnably delusional, so shallowly rooted. Yes, yes, this is a vastly complex job, this business of realigning our human systems, our so-called civilizations, with the biosphere out of whose womb we have come. Yes, yes, we don't want to upset the applecart more than we have to. After all, let's be realistic. Our ships of State bristle with interests like little bands of buccaneers on the same boat waiting to grapple onto fresh targets filled with delicious cargo. It is indeed unreasonable to stand between privateers and their prey.

Okay, let's be truly realistic then. Science says-loudly and clearly above even the newly contrived din of the skeptics--20 foot sea level rises are not only possible but likely were we to accept the Copenhagen Accords as the upper limit of our accomplishment. Glaciers will melt, leaving the vast Indian subcontinent to the south and the rich Chinese paddies to the east beneath the Tibetan Plateau devoid of snowmelt water that sustains agriculture and thus life itself for billions. Northern polar ice will thin out and then disappear altogether in the summer-and on and on and God knows how many other tipping points will have by then been tipped. This is reality. It is hard to imagine that anyone, fully grasping it, could tolerate the tragically laughable half-measures we as a species are currently taking.

As this COP 15 and its tepid, patched-together agreement retreat rapidly in our rear view mirrors how should we, mindful ever of our tailpipe emissions and their impact on our future, think about what transpired. For some, our President included, it was an "unprecedented breakthrough". For others, many in small island nations or in drought-ridden reaches of Africa, the very word Copenhagen itself might come to resonate like 'Munich', a metaphor for betrayal and the weakness of good intentions freed of specific commitment.

I questioned many African delegates in the Bella Center after the last press conference and out into the airports. They were long on D words--"Disaster", "disgrace", "disilusionment". These unwilling victims of our unwitting emissions feel that the so-called Copenhagen Accord and its three pages of vapid text, it's two pages of empty commitment lists, expose them to a potential anshlus of unmediated disasters spewing out of a warmed and wounded biosphere.

Flying homeward a little toy airplane-like figure with a long white tail played over a roughly outlined map on the TV screens above us in the cabin of our actual aircraft prior to commencement of the flight's scheduled movies. Just before the playing of Julia and Julia, the little plane had us perched above Greenland and showed us on a trajectory that would take it and us over Baffin Island and then down over upper Hudson Bay and west and south toward the Canadian Rockies.

Below us, cloud clover obstructed our view of the land and sea. Way off on the south- eastern horizon, a wan sun raced us westward. Across the airplane's isle, the view north was of half darkness all day. We were skirting the Arctic Circle and it was, magically, the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year when the northern hemisphere was tipped as far back and away from our sun as it would get.

I turned away for a moment and when I turned back, the sky had miraculously opened and I saw revealed below me a seascape I could not understand or interpret. The sea seemed to in a great horizontal gyre, a semi-cyclonic vortex of churning water and churned ice that seemed from 35,000 feet to be some kind of massive stately processional.

Ignorant of what I was really seeing, I let myself imagine for a moment that I was witnessing a major engine of the biosphere, the exchange of warm and cold, where the great Atlantic current had brought from far lower latitudes water that still contained heat from the tropic sun to be churned, submerged, chilled and ultimately forced back the way the waters had come but purged of its load of cloying biotic impurities that southern climes, and civilization, could breed, the Arctic cold performing its essential cleansing role.

COP 16 is scheduled for Mexico City late in 2010. There needs to be preparation for it on a grand scale. The so-celled world leaders need to march toward it with a new imperative jabbing their ribs like a sharp stick and we who have accepted the reality of living in the biosphere need to wield the stick. It is our job, simple as that. Let us not, in the name of our grandchildren and the planet's ongoing engines, shirk it.

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Hank Sims

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