Stockholm Syndrome in Copenhagen

It’s cold in Vermont. Our long autumn has given way to the winter weather that always beats the calendar winter by a few weeks here. Frank Capra snowflakes fall past my window as I type.

On Saturday evening, in the company of a 14-year-old girl, I walked to a park in the south end of town, where we met fellow citizens. We all had candles. The idea was to spell out the digits 3-5-0 in light, as a message to the negotiators in Stockholm, to tell them to take action to bring the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere down to below 350 parts per million.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is currently around 385-390 ppm and rising. If we stop producing greenhouse gases right now, levels of CO2 will keep rising for several decades. Neither the 14-year-old nor I will see CO2 drop below 350 ppm in our lives, but perhaps – if we act decisively and swiftly – her children may see it.

Even that is doubtful. The talks, which have less than 24 hours to go, look hopelessly stalemated. The biggest news seems to be a call to move the date of the next meeting – in Mexico City – forward from December to June 2010. Which means we’re kicking the can down the road, just not as far. Progress, they call it.

Part of the problem lies with the nations. Non-industrialized ones want economic development, but for that development to bypass carbon technologies and move straight to clean technologies will require money they don’t have. They want industrialized nations – which, let’s face it, have caused most of the global warming – to pay for their leapfrog over fossil fuels.

We should and by “we” I mean the US and EU and Canada and Australia and Russia, China, Japan and OPEC. But that same “we” has a million excuses, obfuscations and lies. Yes, lies. And the people who drive the lies are the corporations.

Just like the health care debate, what we’re seeing play out in Copenhagen is that people – average people – want action taken to stop climate change. The experts tell us we need to act now to head off the worst effects of global warming. But the outcome of the international conference, just as the outcome of health care, bank regulation and climate change debates in Congress is not about what people want (that would be democracy) or what experts recommend (that would be meritocracy) but what the corporations will allow (that’s oligarchy, or perhaps kleptocracy).

For all the great speeches he gave about hope and change last year, Barack Obama’s hands are shackled by what the oil and coal lobbies are willing to let him do and the same goes for Gordon Brown, Stephen Harper and Kevin Rudd. The fossil fuel lobby holds them hostage. It’s up to us to set them free.

In the summer of 2006, James Hansen – who knows more about global warming than anyone – said we have, at most, ten years. Ten years to act, not to think, not to negotiate. Now the can’s getting kicked down the road to Mexico City and the summer of 2010. Four of Dr. Hansen’s ten years will be gone and no action.

We can still make a difference, but we – average people – will have to do it.

Saturday night, we did not have enough people to spell out “350” in candlelight, so we made a 3, then a 5, then a 0 and photoshopped them together. It is said to be better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness. If ever a metaphor was lived out, that was it. There were not enough of us to do what we wanted, but by improvising, we managed to find a way.

The 14-year-old girl had not wanted to go. It was cold, it was dark. There were many strangers and she’s shy. Walking home, I asked her, “What’d you think of that?”

“I liked it,” she said. “It felt good to do something instead of just worry about it.”

It was still cold, still dark. She is still shy. She pushed beyond the disagreeable aspects, stretched herself and grew a little. That’s what will take from all of us.

© Mark Floegel, 2009

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