The Copenhagen Moment

IMG_2393.JPGOctober 24, 2009, Bay Street in San Francisco: Riders traverse one potential future shoreline

I'll be leaving in ten days for Scandinavia, and will be sending reports to sf.streetsblog on the upcoming Climate Change conference (known as COP15) and the massive demonstrations that are expected to surround it. I've been to Copenhagen (my mother was born there) so I'm excited to return to a place where bicycles reign and the political culture is surprisingly reasonable compared to anything here in the U.S. COP15 will be joined by most of the world's nations, while outside its perimeter, a range of political organizations and ad-hoc political cultures will also converge, bringing memories of Seattle a decade ago, and the half dozen other dramatic confrontations between protesters and police at G8 or IMF summits since then.

Anthropogenic climate change is well underway, with polar ice caps, glaciers, and arctic tundra all melting at unprecedented rates. In San Francisco's mild climate, where we still enjoy abundant fresh food, water, and easy transportation and communications, it's hard to feel climate change as an imminent disaster. In fact, according to recent polls, U.S. residents are increasingly skeptical about climate change and more resistant to remedial actions. (On a local note, I was distributing my new red global warming bicycle license plates at the last Critical Mass and had two unrelated young men go off on me, each claiming that global warming is a government hoax! Apparently we get some Glen Beck fans on bikes even at Critical Mass!)

license_plates_global_warming.gifGlobal warming license plates! No bike should be without one!

But the know-nothing approach will not sustain itself. Droughts and desertification are increasing in some areas, torrential rains and floods in others. Oceans are sure to rise, some say as much as 10-15 feet in the next few decades, inundating coastal regions where a large percentage of the world's population lives in large cities. As glaciers that supply most of the world's fresh water continue to shrink at alarming rates, a future with diminishing supplies of fresh water seems certain. Biodiversity is another casualty, as one of the great extinctions in Earth's history continues to gather momentum, worsened considerably by the destruction of habitat that the aforementioned consequences of climate change are causing.

It's all too easy to despair at the accumulating news. Let's face it, the facts are very very bad. But all is not lost. Human beings are resilient, and it's not impossible for us to reorient our lives towards a more harmonious and integrated approach with the logic of nature. But it's difficult to reconcile the enormity of the crisis with the individual choices we can make, which are important but seem so small. After several decades in which "the personal is political" got turned into a series of marketing slogans, we have the opportunity to make this tired old cliche something profound. Our individual behaviors are the starting point, and a necessary piece of the puzzle. But it's when they start merging with one another, when new communities emerge in our practices, when we can start envisioning a different way of life based on these different choices, that we start getting somewhere. (Ultimately the work we do every day has to be redirected to a completely different way of life, an argument I make at length in my book Nowtopia.)

Still, even if thousands of people start cycling, recycling, eating less, using less water and energy, living better, etc., the real power in this world still sits outside and above us. Corporations and governments collude in reinforcing a system that focuses narrowly on profits and accumulation of wealth in a tiny few's hands. Their power is what impedes a thorough-going reinvention of life. Copenhagen is one of those moments when the global culture comes face to face with itself, with the institutions that are actually running things, and the cavernous gap between their agenda and one that might actually address the planet's predicament.

One fraction of the population that has perhaps greater responsibility than most are the technicians, professionals, and bureaucrats whose labor reinforces the ideological and political power of these moribund institutions. All too often scientists and technical professionals abdicate any responsibility for the consequences of their work, basically doing what they're told to do to keep their cushy lives intact. But occasionally social movements benefit from those who refuse to quietly go along to get along. A couple of days ago a Berkeley couple who work as attorneys at the San Francisco office of the U.S. EPA, Laurie Williams and Allan Zabel, appeared on Democracy Now!. They have been told by the EPA to take down a 10-minute video they made called "The Huge Mistake," in which they take on the current climate change legislation in the U.S. Congress that promotes a scam called Cap-and-Trade. They got to tell their story quickly on Democracy Now!, and it's well worth checking out the original video too.


I don't agree with them on a lot of things, but I'm glad they've taken the trouble to put together a blistering critique of the Cap-and-Trade scam, from the point of view of folks who believe there are policies the government can pursue that WOULD make a real difference. They favor a plan, similar to one floated in 2001 by Peter Barnes, for a strict falling carbon cap and tax system with the revenues generated by taxing carbon production mostly returned to the population in the form of monthly trust payments (like Alaskans who get an individual check each year from the Alaska Oil Trust). They also think carbon sequestration (burying CO2 deep in the ground) and some mythical new-and-improved nuclear power can help. I think both ideas are crazy.

But what I love is that these professionals stepped outside of their "professionalism" to engage in the political debates of our time, using their expertise and credibility to rebut the arguments being put forward by the unrealistic "realists" in Congress, who insist that this giant cap-and-trade giveaway is the best we can do. (If that's true, we might as well not bother!) By modeling a style of dissent, Laurie Williams and Allan Zabel show the way to our local friends in the SF Dept. of Planning, DPW, MUNI, and many other bureaucracies. I've met a lot of folks over the years on Critical Mass and in various other cycling venues who later get jobs in local planning or transit agencies. I've been waiting for a long time to hear their dissident voices, their counter-agendas, their principled opposition to the ongoing build-out of a highrise San Francisco with only cosmetic open and green spaces, and nary a peep in favor of wildlife corridors or daylighting creeks or bike boulevards or anything!

Author of the Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein, has a good piece in the UK Guardian summarizing the Copenhagen Moment:

The movement converging on Copenhagen, in contrast, is about a single issue – climate change – but it weaves a coherent narrative about its causes, and its cures, that incorporates virtually every issue on the planet.

In this narrative, the climate is changing not only because of particular polluting practices but because of the underlying logic of capitalism, which values short-term profit and perpetual growth above all else. Our governments would have us believe the same logic can be harnessed to solve the climate crisis – by creating a tradable commodity called "carbon" and by transforming forests and farmland into "sinks" that will supposedly offset runaway emissions.

Activists in Copenhagen will argue that, far from solving the climate crisis, carbon trading represents an unprecedented privatisation of the atmosphere, and that offsets and sinks threaten to become a resource grab of colonial proportions. Not only will these "market-based solutions" fail to solve the climate crisis, but this failure will dramatically deepen poverty and inequality because the poorest and most vulnerable are the primary victims of climate change – as well as the primary guinea pigs for these emissions trading schemes.

But activists in Copenhagen won't just say no to all this. They will aggressively advance solutions that simultaneously reduce emissions and narrow inequality. Unlike at previous summits, where alternatives seemed like an afterthought, in Copenhagen the alternatives will take centre stage.

I'll be running around in Copenhagen in a few weeks, trying to get a handle on the numerous initiatives, ideas, and movements that converge there to reshape a global agenda. Stay tuned for more reports!