Skunks at Copenhagen’s Garden Party

Memo to climate negotiators: Global warming isn’t just a PR problem.

<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/350org/4048265251/in/set-72157622456884287/">350.org</a> (<a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/deed.en">CC</a>).

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Nearly two decades after writing a book that popularized the term “global warming,” MoJo contributing writer Bill McKibben founded 350.org. He is chronicling his journey into organizing with a series of columns about the global climate summit in Copenhagen. You can find the others hereCheck out MoJo‘s live stream of collaborative Copenhagen coverage here.

From the distance, you could hear a little noise and rhythmic chanting cutting through the train-station drone that is the normal soundtrack here in the Bella Center, the aircraft carrier of a convention hall on the outskirts of Copenhagen where climate talks are now fully underway.

The chanting grew louder as I rounded a corner. It wasn’t an unruly demonstration, but it was insistent. A knot of people—mostly young—were chanting “Tuvalu is the real deal.” Tuvalu is a group of islands in the South Pacific—it has a population just over 12,000, making it the one of the least-populated nations in the world. It’s not the kind of place that carries much weight in world geopolitics.

But on this day, in this meeting that is supposedly devoted to “saving the world” or “protecting the planet” or “safeguarding future generations” or whatever grandiose phrase occurs to some head of state standing in front of a microphone, Tuvalu was the country standing up for sense. In the morning negotiations they’d demanded that the treaty pledge to hold the rise in global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius. That would be almost impossible—the temperature is already up .8 of a degree, with quite a bit more heat already in the pipeline from carbon we’ve already emitted. But it wouldn’t be as impossible as Tuvalu surviving temperature increases of any greater magnitude. They’re low to the water, which makes them close to the heart of the problem.

Their efforts had been ruled invalid by the officials running the negotiations, which prompted some of the bigger groups, including folks from 350.org which I’ve helped run, Oxfam, and World Wildlife Fund, to join the impromptu demonstration out in the hall by the plenary. A couple of impassioned speeches, a little noise, some chants of 3-5-0. Just enough to make the security guards nervous—they shoved a few demonstrators, and threatened to “de-badge” others, taking away the credentials that let activists enter the summit complex. The conference organizers don’t want any fuss.

And the big economies don’t seem to want anyone talking about tough targets. Many developing nations report increasing pressure from the US to shut up and take a deal. And in the last few days it’s been clear that China, India, Brazil, and South Africa are beginning to apply some muscle of their own. If US negotiator Jonathan Pershing’s most recent off-the-record remarks are any indication, the big players want some kind of symbolic pact that solves their public relations problems without anyone being unduly disruptive.

But your country disappearing beneath the waves is kind of disruptive. Your country turning so arid that you can’t grow crops is kind of disruptive. Your future—if you’re 25, and looking at six decades of a heating world—is being disrupted. So for the moment, it’s up to small island nations and poor African countries and incredibly earnest young people with twitter feeds to play the skunk at the garden party. They’re actually speaking truth to power. Power has ten days left to shut them up, and quite possibly they’ll succeed—but it’s encouraging to see a bit of pre-emptive disruption underway.

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