Beyond Copenhagen

These essays correspond to the six chapters of the film. They foreground the key ideas of each chapter and flesh out additional themes.
We offer the essays as commentary on the film, and hope they provide a springboard for further discussion and debate.

Beyond Copenhagen

My partner had a run-in with a four-wheel drive on the final day of the Copenhagen summit. She likes to say that she threw herself in front of the vehicle as an act of protest, but the truth is it was an ordinary accident. She was hurrying across the road in the rain and the driver took the corner without looking. Next thing she knew she was flat on her back in a pool of water, which made for a soft landing at least. Her first thought was: “This can’t be happening.” Someone had miscoded the sequence of events – this wasn’t how the day was supposed to go! It was only as passers-by were helping her to her feet that she got a grip on things. The driver of the vehicle, ashen-faced, was climbing down from his cab. Soaking wet, shaken but unbroken, she screamed at him: “What the fuck do you think you were doing?”

We were thinking more or less the same thing the next morning as we listened to world leaders make their exit speeches from the Copenhagen conference. Presented with clear evidence that we are facing a climate catastrophe of Biblical proportions, and after years of diplomatic negotiations, the international community has produced a fig leaf to hide its inadequacy. The whole thing had the feel of a colossal accident. Pieces of diplomatic accord lay strewn by the wayside. Bodies of diplomats excluded from the final sessions were all about. The whole world stood gaping at the scene. It couldn’t be happening. Something was broken that couldn’t be fixed. The death toll would be in the millions. It was so avoidable, so easily avoidable. But now it was done and we were left to pick up the pieces.

As I write this, forty eight hours later, I’m still struggling to get my head around the scope of the failure at Copenhagen. Politicians and the mainstream media are talking-up the outcome, pragmatically declaring the summit a success. A historic accord has been reached! The Obama team describes the accord (a two and a half page document containing no emissions reduction targets, no plans for achieving them, no commitment to a legal framework to bind nations to reduction targets, and no vision for a long-term strategy) as a “meaningful” agreement. We have only to contrast this with the ambitious statements made by world leaders early in the summit to see that it is far from the truth. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon claimed that the “future of civilization” hinged on the outcome of the Copenhagen talks. We should all hope that he is wrong. The international community has been tested on the issue of climate change. The international community has failed.

If one positive thing comes out of the Copenhagen summit, it will be a shift in public attitudes away from the idea that a government-led solution to the problem of global warming is the only way to go. Prior to Copenhagen, most of us pinned our hopes on decisive governmental action. Not without reason. After years of ambivalence and denial, governments of rich nations were finally on board flagship Copenhagen, steaming towards international accord. The iceberg appeared early in the talks – the so-called “Danish text,” drawn up in secret by the US, UK, Denmark, and others, which would trash the framework of Kyoto and leave poor nations powerless to affect future negotiations. When the Danish text was outed on day two, the talks broke down and the good ship Copenhagen motored to its doom. Without a Plan B, leaders of rich nations had nothing to offer. They shut out the NGOs and let their diplomats squabble in shame.

Now we’ve seen it happen, we’d be foolish to hope for more. The governmental-path towards a solution to the problem of global warming is blocked. International action is just not going to get us where we need to go, which is to limit the rise in global average temperatures to less than two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) compared to the start of the industrial age. Frankly, it is hard to see how human beings can achieve this without major governmental intervention. But this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. The first thing that we need to do is to identify a new path into the future. When the road is blocked, you take a detour. Human society needs a new approach to the problem of global warming as a matter of urgency. Our world and our children’s world depend on it.

This brings me to what many regard as the major stumbling block towards dealing with the problem of global warming: public apathy. Global warming may be the greatest problem of our time, but it has failed, on the whole, to fire hearts and minds. There is a discernable lack of a sense of crisis in the general community. I’ll never forget how isolated I felt the morning that the Copenhagen talks ended. My partner and I walked the streets. A neighbour called out: “Good morning!” (“Is it?” I replied). People in the mall were as happy as ever – no anxious faces, no worried parents muttering in groups. As for the media – while the Copenhagen accord got a savaging in the left-wing press, the mainstream news services, whose readers had become bored by the diplomatic kerfuffle, ran tepid, lazy articles. In some cases (such as the BBC and the liberal American blog Huffington Post), the accord didn’t even rate as the feature article. At this crucial historical moment, people were looking the other way. Perhaps they were Christmas shopping. It is hard not to get the impression that, when it comes down to it, most people simply don’t care.

Yet studies show that a majority of people do care. They may not know what to make of the science, but they accept that global warming is real and they want something done about it. What then accounts for the prevailing apathy? Apathy is a conditioned response. If people feel apathetic towards a problem, this is usually because they can’t do anything to solve it.

Such is our situation today. While government officials go on the offensive, cooking up new ways for institutions to actively intervene in the problem of global warming, ordinary people are being instructed to do less in their lives, not more – buy a smaller car, drive it less, turn off the lights as you leave each room. If you want to be a saint, live in the dark. No wonder people are apathetic. Leaders are effectively telling people to sit on their hands and wait for instructions. This is no way to inspire a swarm offensive on the greatest problem of our time.

The fact is this is the way it has always been. Political leaders do everything they can to stimulate public action once every three or four years when they want to be voted into office. But once they are in positions of power, they’d rather we returned to lives of docile consumption. “Don’t worry your heads about reforming this or that institution,” they say – “leave governance to the professionals and the political elite.” It is the same with the war on global warming: “Leave it to us – we’re the deciders.”

But governmental regulation and control is not the only way to tackle global warming. The framework for constructing an alternative pathway is in our hands. This is the new generation internet – “web 2.0.”

What is web 2.0? If the old internet, “web 1.0,” was a virtual place full of sites on which people posted content for other people to read, web 2.0 is a place of sites upon which people create the content that they want to consume. We use web 2.0 technologies when we log-on to MySpace or Facebook, share photos on Flickr, upload and exchange video clips on YouTube, or check answers on Wikipedia. Web 2.0 is the domain of the “prosumer” – the consumer who collaboratively creates the content that they then consume.

What if we used web 2.0 tools to facilitate grassroots engagement with global warming? These new generation tools could provide people all over the world with the opportunity to creatively engage the greatest problem of our time. It wouldn’t replace the need for government action and intervention. But for millions of people about the planet, it could make an important difference. Providing people with creative purchase on the problem of global warming could inspire them to action. If nothing else, it might change the way that they relate to the problem itself. This alone could transform the status quo.

Let’s give people something to aspire to. The possibilities are just waiting for us to take hold of them.

Tim Rayner

About the authorTimothy Rayner is a writer and philosopher based in Sydney, Australia. His consultancy, Philosophy for Change, teaches practical philosophical skills for everyday life. Tim has taught philosophy at the University of Sydney and the University of New South Wales, Australia. He recently completed 'Philosophy for Change' the book, and is writing a book on innovation.

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