Is the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen over before it has even begun? President Barack Obama seems to think so. On Sunday, Obama and other world leaders’including Lars Lokke Rasmussen, Prime Minister of Denmark and chair of the climate conference’announced that the objective of the upcoming COP-15 would no longer be an international climate treaty; rather, leaders are hoping to settle on a broader “politically binding agreement” and leave legal specifications for a later date. The conference is rapidly approaching; it begins on December 7th, only 21 days from now. World leaders state that we have not made enough progress towards a global climate change policy to expect a treaty from Copenhagen. Arguably, the inability of the United States Congress to decide upon admissible national levels of greenhouse gas emissions is a major obstacle to climate talks; without the commitment of the United States, ratification of a replacement for the Kyoto Protocol is unlikely.
Although his campaign was peppered with buzz words like global warming, carbon emissions, and clean energy, Obama’s administration has prioritized the war in Afghanistan and health care reform over the building climate crisis. He announced in October that he will only attend the conference personally if he feels that a “meaningful agreement” can be reached, so his presence in Copenhagen in December is uncertain. Many environmental leaders’such as the new Executive Director of Greenpeace, Kumi Naidoo of South Africa’are “disappointed” by Obama’s efforts to stop climate change since his election. Naidoo says, “Anything short of a binding treaty in Copenhagen must be read as a failure of leadership on the part of the political class…If we can’t change the politics, then we have to put our energies into changing the politicians.” In order to do so, Naidoo must be placing his faith elsewhere, in tactics that may come from the bottom-up rather than the top-down.
One such tactic is the alternative civil society conference that will be taking place in Copenhagen during COP-15, the KlimaForum09. This event features “international guest speakers, over 150 open debates, 60 exhibitions, music, film, and art” and focuses on establishing “an open space where people, movements, and organizations can develop constructive solutions to the climate crisis.” Although the UN conference has received a great deal of press, this alternative forum has been virtually invisible in the media, despite expecting 10,000 visitors each day. When climate negotiations in Copenhagen reach a seemingly inevitable stalemate, will grassroots efforts be strong enough to breach it? Probably not. Obama’s lackluster enthusiasm has already cast doubt over the outcome of COP-15; it’s unlikely that civil society leaders will be able to mobilize an international agreement without definitive cooperation from the United States. Unfortunately, the outdated Kyoto Protocol will likely remain in place for the near future, potentially until the next climate summit planned for late 2010 in Mexico City.