Copenhagen climate summit will fail due to poor U.S. commitment


A tugboat on London’s Thames River pulls an ice floe with a polar bear stuck on it to illustrate the effects of climate change.

From December 7 to 18, the representatives of 192 nations will gather in Copenhagen, Denmark, to decide the fate of the human race. Will we continue to live in a world with a stable climate, or will we condemn ours and future generations to a world with steadily decreasing amounts of food and water as the population is set to dramatically increase? 

Among the attendees will be President Barack Obama ’91 and the heads of state of close to 100 nations, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, and the UK.

The original goals of the summit was to try to reach an agreement to keep temperature increases to less than two degrees Celsius; thereby forestalling what scientists said would be the worst consequences of global warming.  This two degree goal was based on a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Nobel-winning body charged with summarizing all of the available scientific literature on global climatic disruption.

This body was not empowered to make recommendations, but their analysis revealed that to have a 50% chance of avoiding two degrees, we would need to stabilize emissions at 450 parts per million (ppm) of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere.

In order to earn that 50% chance, developed nations like the US would need to reduce their emissions between 25-40% below 1990 levels of emissions by the year 2020, and by 80-95% by 2050.  Since most heads of state will not be in office in 2050, the 2020 goals are much more telling of the current state of affairs:

The European Union has pledged to reduce emissions across the block by 20% below 1990 levels by 2020, and increase that pledge to 30% if other nations similarly follow suit.  Some European nations have pledged even more:  Norway has pledged to reduce its emissions a full 40% by 2020 (what most developing nations are now calling for); and our strong ally the UK has pledged to reduce its emissions 34% below 1990 levels by 2020.  Japan, too has stepped up, with a 25% below 1990 levels pledge by 2020.

So how is Obama ‘reclaiming’ American leadership and returning us to good-standing in the international community?  He is going with a pledge of 17% below 2005 levels by 2020.  While this sounds fairly close to what other nations are doing, it is indeed a national embarrassment.  In 1990 levels, when most of our rich peers are in the 20-40% range, Obama is going to Copenhagen with a pledge to reduce emissions by only 3% below 1990 levels by 2020.

Canada and Australia are using U.S. intransigence as an excuse to refuse to be less aggressive, but they would quickly fall into line if we stepped up to the plate.  But more frustrating and damning is that developing nations can also use our failure to lead as an excuse.

All observers recognize that China, India, and other major developing nations will have to agree to binding emissions reductions if we to avert catastrophe.  Yet with Obama coming to the table with such a measly pledge, it is hard for those nations to go back to their people having made any substantial commitments themselves.  So, despite the courageous leadership of developing nations like the Maldives, Brazil, Mexico, Ghana, and others, which are willing to make significant emissions reduction pledges, China and India are looking to only pledge to reduce the rate of growth of their emissions.

To make things even worse, leading scientists now believe that the 450 target that countries are failing to even have a 50% chance of hitting is outdated and overly conservative.  NASA’s leading climate scientist, Dr. James Hansen, Director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, has determined that the highest safe level of CO2 in the atmosphere is 350 parts per million (ppm).  We are now at 390ppm and climbing quickly, on pace to hit over 900 by the end of the century.  The world has not had CO2 levels stabilize at 400ppm for some 13 million years, long before human beings walked the planet, much less rode on it in carts or cars.  This goal has even been endorsed by the chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

So, basically, the world is screwed.  Almost every major environmental organizations in the United States is so excited to have President Obama actually doing something, after decades of inaction in the hands of Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and another Bush, that they forget that science actually does care about the numbers.  We are not negotiating with Republicans, we are negotiating with Physics and Chemistry, and they do not handle negotiations well.  We get no credit for recessions, for filibusters, or for good intentions.

Copenhagen will fail to reach a deal that will safeguard your future.  If you are planning to have children, you might want to reconsider.  Some scientists estimate that we may have enough food and water left on the planet for less than one billion people by 2100.  A recent report funded by the United States Army, the World Bank, and UNESCO stated that, without dramatic action “billions of people will be condemned to poverty, and much of civilization will collapse.”  Scientists estimate that as early as 2035, melting glaciers in the Himalayas would see the water supply of over 400 million people (more than the entire populations of American and Canada combined) completely dry up, leaving the nuclear-armed nations of China, India, and Pakistan scrambling to find, buy, or steal enough water to quench a thirst the size of North America.

Here in Massachusetts, the Leadership Campaign is leaning on the state government to embrace the goal of 350 parts per million by committing to repower Massachusetts with 100% Clean Electricity in ten Years.  The campaign is led by students at over twenty schools across the state, but is conducted in partnership with the Massachusetts Council of Churches, the Massachusetts Climate Action Network, and the Sustainable Business Network.  Twenty-five legislators (representing 1/8 of the entire state legislature) have already pledged their support. 

Craig Altemose is a 3L pursuing a joint degree with the Kennedy School. He is also a statewide coordinator of the Leadership Campaign, a Massachusetts-based organization dedicated to “protecting humanity from the unprecedented threat of global destablization as a result of rapid climate disruption,” which is online at Anyone with a desire to assist their efforts can contact Craig directly at