Blog Post


On the cover of the January 4, 2010 issue of The Nation magazine, under the headline “IF WE FAIL,” is a map (found at of what western Europe will look like after a 75 meter rise in sea level due to unarrested global warming. The Italian peninsula is shriveled and eroded on both sides; Denmark is almost completely submerged, as are large chunks of western France, northern Germany, eastern England, and Ireland.  London is a seaside town, Paris is sitting on what looks like a marsh, Berlin sits atop a small island.  Amsterdam is underwater, as is Copenhagen, where the world’s leaders met this past winter in an ultimately futile attempt to secure a serious agreement to stem global warming.  While this is only one scenario, this was a gripping reminder of the stakes of the problem we are confronting.  The cover was also a reminder of the crucial power of images to shape public debate, especially on a topic like anthropogenic warming, which is both a complex scientific issue and one seemingly remote from our daily, embodied existence (particularly if you’re spending the dead of winter in central Illinois).


Copenhagen was ultimately undone by economics and old-fashioned power politics, as rapidly industrializing countries like China and India refused to see the justice in truncating their own development to prevent a catastrophe largely caused by Europe and North America, while the US and the European Union came woefully short of making the economic commitments that could enable the global South to cope with the effects of climate change that are already being felt. But despite the failure of courage and political will, a number of commentators have remarked on the incredible convergence of nonviolent demonstrators in Copenhagen, on an issue around which it is supposedly hard to organize and signaling hope for a resurgent global civil society.  The presence of leaders like Desmond Tutu not only lent the demonstrations an air of gravity and mainstream-media credibility, but also underscored the fact that global warming is not merely an “environmental” issue (as if that weren’t enough) but also arguably the single most important human rights and social justice issue we are currently facing on a global scale.  As the president of the Madlves, Mohamed Nasheed, urged the assembly, the issue is quite simply whether “people will agree not to murder others.” 


While climate change is of course an incredibly complicated technical issue, at the same time when we’re discussing climate change we’re talking about values.  To what extent are we willing to sacrifice our livelihoods and comforts for generations following us? The cruel irony of climate change is that, while everyone will likely be affected, those who have contributed the least to creating the problem—and who are least equipped to cope with it—will bear the brunt of the impacts.  And, despite the mantras of hope and change, we are still largely living in a world defined by the Washington Consensus and Margaret Thatcher’s dictum that “There is No Alternative.”  The incredibly powerful speech ( Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, which drew all these connections together, received a thunderous ovation in Copenhagen but had little impact on the negotiating posture of the major powers. Without a common vocabulary to speak about global economic justice real solutions were ruled off the table before the discussion even began.  Time will tell what the real legacy of Copenhagen will be: the shortsighted leaders of China, the U.S., and the European Union who danced around the problem, or the protestors outside the corridors of power, calling the world's attention to a problem that it can no longer ignore. 


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