U.N. Copenhagen Climate Change Conference: report-back from Harris School student Kyle Gracey

January 7, 2010

Having attended the U.N. Copenhagen Climate Change Conference in December, Kyle Gracey – a dual master’s student in The Harris School of Public Policy Studies and the Physical Sciences Division– reports back on the experience and offers his perspective of the conference’s outcomes.

The question of “what happened in Copenhagen?” – a question I’ve been asked a lot lately – is one with many answers, because the story of Copenhagen is really many stories. It’s a story of science and what we know today that we didn’t know before, a story of politics and what our leaders considered achievable, a story of civil society and what ordinary people did to change the process, and a story about the process itself and how the United Nations has organized the debate and the creation (or lack thereof) of a international legal agreement. While I can’t tell all of those stories, I’ve been asked to give you some insight into what it’s like to watch them unfold and to have some role in creating them.

My role in Copenhagen was threefold. First, as the Chair and Head of Delegation for SustainUS, as small, national, nonprofit sustainable development policy organization, I helped lead a group of 26 young people to use a combination of direct activism, policy analysis, and self-produced media to influence the United States’ level of action against climate change, both in the international negotiations and domestically, helping to mobilize and build support on our campuses and communities and move the Senate to pass clean energy legislation. I was also there as part of a core team of youth from around the world who have been working for almost two years to build the presence and impact of international youth at the negotiations. Lastly, I was there with the group Global Observatory to provide commentary and analysis on the science and politics of climate change and the issues surrounding it that came up at the negotiations.

Narrating the Science

Narrating the story of science for Global Observatory was the most disconnected role I played in Copenhagen, since I had to divorce myself from the process in which I normally play an advocacy role and try to talk objectively about what we know and what we don’t know. Many people are now familiar with the most recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Their work has formed the basis for what most governments in the negotiations talk about in terms of the level of action necessary to stop the worst impacts of climate change, specifically cutting our greenhouse gas pollution about 80% from 1990 levels by 2050, and 25-40% from 1990 levels by 2020. Less well-understood is the science that has come out since the IPCC’s 2007 report.

The recently released Copenhagen Diagnosis provides some good and sobering updates on this, though it’s important to note that it has not gone through the same level of scrutiny that the IPCC’s work receives. Similarly, our understanding of the economics of climate change has benefited from the hard work of scientists, specifically our understanding of how effective different policy solutions like a cap and trade system could be, how to deal with the thorny issue of intergenerational equity and how much the future should have to pay for our actions today, and how we might value our climate impacts on the natural environments we depend on and the species we are often killing. Climate scientists are one of the unsung heroes in this process, especially considering the unprecedented criticism and skepticism that some have received from some of the public, and my role with Global Observatory was to help explain their hard work and how it enters into the international process, including helping to explain where the science or economics is not clear and where much work still remains.

Affecting the Process

My role in SustainUS allowed for a very different view of the negotiations, one more focused on affecting the process than explaining it, and one of seeing how inadequate the response has been so far compared to what our reading of the science tells us is necessary. As an organization that has participated in the climate talks for several years, we play a lot of different roles, and being the manager of the organization means having some awareness and involvement in all of those. A day at the climate negotiations is hectic for anyone, even more so in Copenhagen, which was basically a circus on top of a climate negotiation. I can’t claim to have been any busier than most of the people there, but between talking to a Wall Street Journal reporter one hour, attending a policy coordination meeting with international environment and development organizations the next, working on a visual direct action with some of the 500 U.S. youth there, talking to a potential funder, staffing our exhibit booth after that while trying to call my neighbors back in Pennsylvania to get them to call their Senators, and then finding time to actually track the day’s negotiations and eat, the days went by pretty quickly.

Working with International Youth

As impressed as I was with the growing U.S. youth involvement in the negotiations, an involvement we at SustainUS worked over the last year to coordinate and expand, the growth of the international youth in general has been even more exciting. From only a handful of young people not five years ago, the youth voice in Copenhagen was of more than 1,500 young people from more than 100 countries. It is one thing to talk about how sea level rises from unchecked carbon emissions will submerge a low-lying island nation. It’s quite another to meet someone who actually lives on one (for now, at least). As part of a team of about 10 youth from places like Canada, Malaysia, Kenya, China, and the U.S. who have been working to create organizational structure and raise money for this growing youth force, I’ve seen this growth firsthand and met amazing current and future young climate leaders. International youth have succeeded in changing the text of the negotiations, both on broad principles like the goal of the survival of all nations, to narrow policy topics like the definitions used in deforestation policy. We succeeded in raising money for almost 100 more of our peers from developing countries (SustainUS fundraised for six from Latin America), broadening the inclusiveness of our work. We also, for the first year, received constituency status in the negotiations, a recognition of our growing political power and volume, and giving us the same rights and responsibilities in the negotiations as other civil society actors like businesses or environmental groups. Continuing to build this youth impact will be one of my goals for the coming year. That's needed since the outcomes in Copenhagen were far from what we think necessary.

The Outcomes

At the conference, no legally binding treaty was reached. Insufficient funding for clean technology transfer and adaptation to existing climate impacts was offered. Pollution reduction targets offered by most countries were below (way below for the U.S. and Canada) the level needed to ensure the survival of island nations and many species and avoid dangerous and deadly climate tipping points. Instead, we got the Copenhagen Accord, an inadequate but positive agreement negotiated by some of the major polluters (U.S., China, India, Brazil, etc.) outside of the formal United Nations negotiating process. The deal is positive because it avoided total collapse of the negotiations, puts quantified (if too low) pollution reduction commitments on the table, and commits countries to at least some of the necessary climate mitigation and adaptation funding. U.S. youth and other organizations focused especially on creating this partial financing success, and we were pleased to see the U.S. make at least some monetary commitments. The text of the Accord itself was updated with better language, particularly in greater protection for deforestation prevention.

Some countries objected to the low level of ambition in the Copenhagen Accord and the way that it was negotiated outside of the formal process, without the input of many countries. As a result, the countries in the negotiations voted to "take note" of the Accord instead of "adopting" it. This means its commitments will be considered as part of future negotiations, but it won't be incorporated into the text of the negotiations itself. Moving forward, countries will now try to wrap up the text and make it legally binding by the time of the Mexico City U.N. negotiations in late November 2010. While Copenhagen was mostly a failure from our perspective, it provided a solid base for future success.

There are many more stories to tell about Copenhagen, and even more left to create in the long path to achieving climate solutions. The biggest story for me has been my feelings of inspiration from the committed people I met, and motivation to prevent the dangers I reported on and realize the solutions I worked hard there to create.