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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


May-June 2010

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Editorial - Copenhagen Revisited

“Copenhagen 1” is the capital of Denmark, a delightful city that borders the North and Baltic Seas and a charming tourist haven. “Copenhagen 2” is a metaphor for the present and future of the international struggle to cope with climate change at a global level of commitment and delivery. And “Copenhagen 3” refers to the 15th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention for Climate Change, which took place in Copenhagen 1 from December 7–19, 2009.

We commissioned four groups of authors to provide a retrospective interpretation of Copenhagen 2. We thought it would be helpful to you, our readers, for measured commentary by experienced analysts composed a couple of months after Copenhagen 3. We believe we have been well served by our authors, and we thank them for their very insightful contributions.

Four major observations emerge from these essays. The first is that Copenhagen 1, in the gritty progress of Copenhagen 3, turned into a violent and turbulent city. The Danish police morphed into aggressors against all manner of protestors who are genuinely alarmed about what kind of world awaits their children. Maybe this is also a metaphor for the crushing of legitimate concern for a sustainable future.

The second observation, from Mike Hulme, is that an all-embracing deal through international consensus to mitigate and adapt to climate change may not be possible through the formal machinery of the Conferences of the Parties (CoP). The issues that have to be addressed are too diverse, controversial, politically charged, high in overambitious expectation, exaggerated by media hype, and difficult to resolve simultaneously, even though a comprehensive outcome is desired. Yet Robert N. Stavins and Robert C. Stowe express the widespread hope that some form of reconstituted UN architecture may still work.

A third observation, from Frans Berkhout, but also the others, is that the geographies of climate change mitigation and global economic markets, and hence of geopolitics, is shifting east and south, to China, India, Brazil, and Indonesia. It seems that the old order of established industrial economies, which used to dominate global politics—Russia, the European Union, and the United States—can no longer broker a deal.

The final conclusion is that the costs of adaptation are likely to be far higher than global leaders and transfer payment schemes are likely to deliver. Indeed there will be much debate over what counts as a climate change–induced “cost,” and to what extent any new energy or reforestation/forest protection scheme is actually “new.” Ultimately, we must recognize that adaptation, mitigation, and sustainable development are all one.

The outcome of Copenhagen 3 is still unclear. We greatly appreciate the different interpretations provided by our contributors. Out of exhaustion, or possibly sheer frustration, the noise of struggle and disappointment after the Copenhagen Summit has dissipated. Just when there should be concerted efforts to find novel ways to negotiate within new frameworks of analysis and debate, there

A sustainable world is still possible. But only if we maintain the life support systems of the planet …

appears to be silence, while a cacophony of dissent over the integrity of climate change science has taken the stage. Meanwhile, deep trouble lies ahead if we delay Copenhagen 2 for another decade. If there is no international agreement well under way by 2020, it is very likely that maintaining tolerable and socially fair climate conditions will lie beyond democratic politics.

We agree with our contributors, that the focus has to shift from climate change alone to means of ensuring sustainable livelihoods for all of the world's peoples. This suggests that the CoP system will have to be coordinated and integrated with other strategies, such as the “Tobin tax” on all international financial transactions, ethical trading arrangements, the peaceful use of armies in support of adaptation, and the emergence of a global ethic that enables everyone to enjoy fair political and economic treatment. A sustainable world is still possible. But only if we maintain the life support systems of the planet, and create a resilient and adaptive network of cooperative governance, piece by piece across the globe. Only then can the vision of Copenhagen 2 come to fruition, and the long-awaited transition to sustainability, so desperately sought by the bloodied campaigners in Copenhagen 1, achieved.

—Timothy O'Riordan, Anthony A. Leiserowitz, Ruth S. DeFries, Alan H. McGowan and Susan L. Cutter

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