Letter of Hope from Copenhagen: From the Belly of the UN Climate Talks

By Andrew K. Barnett

Dear friends,
After many sleepness nights at Copenhagen’s climate talks, I write to you with an urgent sense of hope. Not the ‘bury your head in the sand’ kind of hope. I’m talking about the ‘roll up your sleeves, put on a rally cap, batting in the bottom of the ninth’ kind of hope. Ultimately we must acknowledge that important work happens before, during, and after these talks. And it is this forward work that Minnesota can engage. If you’re following the news and wondering what you can do, here are some ideas.

First, global warming is undeniable, unforgiving, and urgent- and you can have this conversation. Distinct and multiple data sets indicate that human emissions are trapping heat in the atmosphere at unprecedented levels. This is not politics and this is not a scam- these are cold hard facts. Even if we dispose of the data set that ‘Climategate’ skeptics challenge, humanity rests on the work of 2,000+ scientists, gathering independent data and challenging each other’s conclusions. Consensus this strong is rare in science.

Sitting ten feet from Senator John Kerry yesterday, I echo his sentiments. “Those who look for excuses to continue to deny the science have a fundamental responsibility: prove us wrong or stand down. Explain why the ice is melting, the rivers drying, the dessert growing, and pony up a single peer-reviewed article that denies man-made warming. Now and forever amateur hour is over. It’s time for science fact to trump science fiction. If Dick Cheney can argue that a 1% chance of a terrorist attack deserves an $800 billion response, then we must agree that a near-100% chance of climate change deserves a global response.”

It is not possible to argue sanely in favor of increased droughts, floods, famine, disease, hurricanes and hundreds of millions of refugees due to rising seas. These are the consequences of unabated climate change, they have already begun, and they will worsen unless we act with fortitude and wisdom.

Second, U.S. senate legislation would cement a global deal next year, and you can raise political support. The Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act (S.1733) will jump start America’s next industrial revolution- one based on the efficient, carbon-neutral, and cost-effective movement of electrons. By putting a price on carbon, this legislation works with market forces to drive energy innovation.

Cap-and-trade works, and it fertilizes the economy. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, President George H.W. Bush’s cap-and-trade policy, which targeted acid rain, saw the U.S. economy grow by 5.4 percent and provided $100 billion in annual health and environmental benefits. Despite dire predictions that the policy would cost $6 billion annually, the EPA pegs the actual cost at $1.5 billion.

When we apply cap-and-trade to carbon the benefits will be substantial. According to McKinsey and Company, U.S. companies could use energy efficiency to slash energy bills 30% by 2020, at a profit. We save money when we save energy, and we create local jobs that can’t be outsourced. Here we see mutual benefits to people and planet as we reduce globe-warming emissions.

We buy insurance to protect ourselves against dangerous events. Likewise, we can insure ourselves against climate collapse by reducing emissions and launching the clean energy economy. These actions would make sense even if climate change weren’t a threat. They offer the economic opportunity of a lifetime, and national legislation . The most important thing we can do is pass this bill by contacting our Senators and raising political will in our community.

Third, climate change requires a global response, and you can support American diplomacy. While these UN talks are cumbersome and slow, they are vital because no country can solve this problem alone. I’ll be honest- many of us on the floor have been flabbergasted by China’s reluctance to deal. But Senator Kerry made it clear that no country will be able to dump high-carbon goods on the economies of countries that reduce emissions.

While China may talk tough in Copenhagen, they have an eagle-eye on U.S. legislation. I attended a press conference with China’s lead negotiator, Su Wei, and he directly referenced Kerry’s senate bill. China will deal on climate change- whether through diplomacy or economic pressure. They will not sit out the next industrial revolution.

Finally, you can reduce emissions and help people in your community. There’s no need to wait for a global deal, or even a national one. While sweeping changes to energy policy are certainly needed, emissions won’t go down until we change behavior on the ground. Around home you could: program your thermostat so the house cools down when you’re gone, use energy efficient lights, plug leaky holes in the basement, insulate the attic, close gaps around doors, close storm windows, and consider efficient heaters and air conditioners when it’s time to replace. A quick Home Depot run would provide everything you need. Consider mass transit, carpooling, local food through a community supported agriculture project, backyard vegetable garden and compost, and working with your employer to reduce energy use at work. We can only create systemic change through policy, but local actions have real impact.

As I dash to Copenhagen’s press briefings, UN plenary sessions, and side events, I am overwhelmed by the complexity of climate change. My body aches from lack of sleep, my feet swell from hours of standing, and yet, I have the profound sense that the world will deliver on climate change. We can, we will, and we must.