Copenhagen Was a BIG Deal, Here’s Why

By Joshua Wiese

The most profound difference between my experience here in Bonn and my experience at all the other negotiations I’ve attended in the last year is the massive downward shift in people’s ambition and sense of possibility. I find it difficult to understand how we’ve gone from an unrelenting and furious global push for a fair, ambitious, binding international climate change treaty, in December, to what’s being described, only four months later, as a minimum of two additional years of negotiations to achieve the same outcome.

What changed?

Did we realize, after fighting so hard and only achieving the anemic Copenhagen Accord, that we didn’t and don’t actually have enough fight left in us to unlock the rest of the solutions that our future demands?

No. I actually think the prevailing view is that the Accord was a substantive first step toward a solution for countries like the US who haven’t engaged constructively on climate at an international level in nearly a decade. We built up enough momentum to bring 144 heads of state together to take action on climate change. They fell short of our expectations, but nothing like what we did last December has ever happened before. Even in comparison to recent action on health care reform back home, Copenhagen was a “BIG deal.”

Did all the bright-eyed folks, fighting for a better future, get so crushed by Copenhagen that they just threw in their hats?

No. I’m in the company of bright-eyed folks in Bonn right now, and we have plenty of fight left. If anything, I’m even more driven. My country’s inability to pass an energy bill last year was a big part of the reason our Copenhagen hopes were dashed–or at least delayed. It was our negotiators at the table, so I own at least a piece of whatever failure we’ve suffered. Because of it, I intend to push smarter and harder toward an outcome deserving of our best aspirations, and I know I’m not alone.

So what changed? Why did negotiators spend most of Friday and Saturday talking about how many meetings they’ll need just to make progress toward realizing our delayed Copenhagen hopes by the end this year. Why the lowered ambitions?

First of all, it’s important to note that some countries, especially the most vulnerable developing countries, are calling for all parties to reach an ambitious and legally binding deal by the end of this year. They can’t afford to wait, and have a moral obligation to push as hard as possible to ensure their people’s security in the face of the threats that climate instability brings.

The rest of us, while not escaping any moral implications of inaction, seem to have taken note of a new political reality. America isn’t ready… or, if we are, the rest of the world isn’t convinced.

The better known “BIG deal” in recent months, health care reform, postponed energy legislation that could have given us enough credibility to negotiate an agreement that matched our COP15 hopes and expectations. Unfortunately, we didn’t get it in time.

Now, with a Kerry-Graham-Lieberman Energy Reform Bill just weeks from dropping in the Senate, the rest of the world still isn’t sure we’ll get it signed and delivered anytime soon. Even if the bill quickly finds the support needed to work through Senate committees and make its way to a vote on the floor, that vote won’t likely come until the end of the year, or later.

What’s worse, there are rumors floating through the halls of the Bonn Climate Change Talks that the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman Bill will skip the international finance provisions that make or break our clout in these negotiations. All of this is a “big f*cking deal,” and it has fundamentally changed both countries’ and activists’ sense of what’s possible in our work together over the coming year.

As our US Delegation negotiates with their skeptical peers from other countries to agree next steps and lay the framework for future progress, I’m feeling that fight inside me and I know where to take it.

It’s time we turn our attention toward making the US a credible partner in this process. We need a bill with the right tools to fuel these negotiations (those key international finance provisions); a bill that helps elevate America to her leadership role in the new clean energy economy; and we need that bill damn fast. This is a BIG deal.


Joshua Robert Wiese comes from San Francisco. He coordinates the Adopt a Negotiator project, and is tracking the US Delegation in Bonn in April. Josh studied anthropology and the environment at university in Minnesota; and has since spent his professional life trying to understand where sustainability and security best meet life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

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