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!

  • Cap and trade worked for acid rain, and it could work for global warming. It is just a matter of setting an aggressive enough cap.

    It is absurd to claim that cap and trade “privatizes” the atmosphere. Privatization charges people for using a resource that used to be part of the commons. By contrast, cap and trade only charges those who pollute the atmosphere, not those who use it.

    Given how central energy is to the world economy, it is essential to use the least-cost solution, which is cap and trade.

  • pat

    You know you are really working against your agenda right? The quickest way to slow resource extraction, pollutive emissions and the destruction of forests is to price these things. The reason they are being abused so terribly right now is because they are completely free. Cap and trade attaches a price to pollution and so disincentives the production of pollution. When it shows up on the bottom line people try to find ways around it. Ways like not producing waste.

    Honestly it is eerie how well your sweeping accusations leveled at technocrats echo Stalin. It also gives me a headache the amount of generalizations in your writing.

  • patrick

    Did either of you watch the video? Or done any research. Cap and trade is an easily gamed system, that can potentially result in more pollution than doing nothing at all. It also gives control of the market to the same people who were, at least in part, responsible for the current global economic crisis: traders and speculators. It provides an opportunity for them to make tons of money by creating speculative bubbles in the trading system. Are you aware Goldman Sachs is the most likely organization to run the trading exchange? They will make billions of dollars merely by taking transaction fees. The same guys who made billions of the collapse of AIG and the recession in general.

    A simple fee or tax, with a rebate to consumers is the simplest and cheapest way to price carbon emissions.

  • I’m reluctant to debate the merits of cap and trade versus a carbon tax because the decision will not be made rationally on anything close to the merits of either. I tend to think that a carbon tax is simpler and would be more effective, and that cap and trade is a scam that will put profits into the hands of the usual suspects. However, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but just about everything passed by Congress is a scam of some sort; in fact, passing a law without pork, earmarks or lining the pocket of some lobbyist or campaign contributor is nigh impossible. So a carbon tax will not be passed precisely because a more inefficient, profiteering scheme is available. (See health care for a recent example.)

    But, at the very least, cap and trade will give energy companies an excuse to raise energy prices, even if they just pocket it all as extra profits. At this point just about anything that raises the costs of fossil fuels is valuable because higher costs are about the only thing that make Americans give some thought to using energy more wisely. We are running out of time on climate change. The permafrost is melting, releasing methane into the atmosphere. If we refuse to do the simplest, most efficient and fairest thing (carbon tax with money returned to low and middle income folks to insulate and weatherize their houses), then the more loathsome thing (cap and trade with profits for the most despicable) will have to do. We have to remember that the poorest among us on this planet are going to be a great deal poorer when the world’s agricultural productivity drops by half, and that starvation is a hard, hard death.

    On a happier note, Chris, have a great time in Copenhagen. Take lots of pictures of beautiful bicycle infrastructure.

  • “Did either of you watch the video? Or done any research. Cap and trade is an easily gamed system, that can potentially result in more pollution than doing nothing at all.”

    I have read a lot about carbon taxes and cap and trade. I prefer reading to watching videos.

    It is completely untrue that cap and trade can potentially result in more pollution than nothing at all. In a cap-and-trade system, there will only be emissions up to the level of the cap.

    If you have a cap that decreases over time, then emissions will decrease over time. If the cap for 2050 is 80% less than current emissions, then emissions in 2050 will be 80% less than current emissions.

    A carbon tax is the simplest and best method of controlling emissions. Cap-and-trade is the only politically feasible method of controlling emissions.

    To avoid the worst effects of global warming, we have to control emissions within the next few years. If cap-and-trade is stopped, action will be delayed for many years, and we will have no chance of avoiding catastrophic global warming.

    People who work against cap and trade are working for catastrophic global warming.

  • patrick

    “I prefer reading to watching videos”

    The value of information has nothing to do with the form it is presented. But here’s a copy of a written version released by the creators of the video:

    Any cap and trade system that includes offsets (such as the system proposed in congress) can, and very likely will, result in increased pollution.

    A cap and trade system can work, but the system currently proposed is nowhere near being system that can work. If only the primary producers were allowed to bid on the initial carbon allowances, no offsets, and only a small amount of secondary market trading went on, then the system can possibly work. It’s still much more complex and wasteful than a simple tax or fee, but it could work.

    If the current plan is the only politically viable option, then it’s better to wait and generate political support for a good system, than to move forward on the current horribly flawed plan.

  • ZA

    My tuppence:

    Irrespective of what method you choose, the heretofore zero-value waste of carbon dioxide (and many other GHGs, incidentally) from our human practices, needs to attain a value for our dominant commercial system to recognize and begin to emit it wisely.

    Any system needs to have: transparency (the record for government agencies and committees is as patchy as board rooms and shareholder AGMs); accountability (who did what, when); validation (how much longer are we going to delay our OCO ( ); enforcement (there is NO Chapter 11 for the global climate); and flexibility so that we can continue to experiment and evolve solutions as we invent them.

    Europe’s ETS offers BIG LESSONS for America’s attempt at cap-and-trade which unfortunately Congress seems to be ignoring. We can be certain that if climate legislation follows the American tradition of environmental law, it’s going to be flawed, protect vested interests, and maybe offer enough opportunities to change the dominant way of doing things that the protected parties become increasingly obsolete within a generation.

    Problem is: we literally don’t have much more than a generation to work with now.

    Hard-nosed reality: we privileged people of the Internet and our convenient electricity get to decide how many poor people without a voice here aren’t going live through this.

  • zsolt

    Yeah, some good points in this discussion. Cap and trade sounds like a good idea, it is admirably capitalist and free-marketist and it certainly sounds good that market forces will drive emissions down once you put a value and a cap on it. Given the current political landscape, on the policy level it is probably the most viable and workable option.

    However to me the operative phrase in what I just said is “given the current political landscape”, as I share several commenters’ deep cynicism on how this, or any other thing nations might agree upon, will work out in reality. After what we have seen just the past few years (bailouts, cash-for-clunkers, Goldman bonuses etc.) I don’t think that there can be any doubt except in those most naive/fanatic among us, that this is a fundamentally flawed and unfair system, that very little will change in the way the bullies are allowed to conduct business, and that it is easier than ever to circumvent any checks and balances, if only the money is right. Dominance and greed (quite different from profit), are the determining factors in every big business, which is exactly why everyone who’s “in” will fight transparency with all they have.

  • Jym

    =v= Chris Carlsson echoing Stalin? Now I’ve heard everything.

    It is indeed disheartening to encounter global warming denialists at Critical Mass, but then again it was Hallowe’en night and maybe “idiot teabagger” was some sort of conceptual costume.

  • Patrick writes: “here’s a copy of a written version released by the creators of the video”

    There are many errors in that article. Here are just two:

    “In Europe, cap-and-trade has failed to deliver on climate change.”
    for a response, see

    “the bill sponsored by Reps. Henry Waxman (D., Calif.) and Edward Markey (D., Mass.) has many of the same flaws and adds massive “offsets” that blow away the “cap” in “cap-and-trade.”
    for a response, see

  • patrick

    “In Europe, cap-and-trade has failed to deliver on climate change.”
    here’s a couple articles that supports the claim:

    Your second link starts with:

    “The flaw in the Waxman-Markey bill is not the too-many offsets that domestic polluters are (potentially) allowed to purchase in lieu of actually reducing their own emissions. The flaw in Waxman-Markey is the too-mild 2020 target — a 17% reduction from 2005 levels — which will be so easy to achieve with various low-cost clean energy strategies that it’s hard to see why polluters would avail themselves of the higher-cost offsets option”

    His basic argument is that the bill is so weak the inclusion of offsets is irrelevant. He also fears that the already weak bill will be further weakened. That seems to support the argument that the bill is not worth supporting.

    Providing links doesn’t prove anything, and there are just as many contradictory articles out there.

    Cap and trade is unnecessarily complex and easily watered down with loopholes, can be gamed by traders and speculators, and gives control of the system (and lots of money) to the same people who are largely responsible for the current economic crisis.

    As I said earlier, a cap and trade system can work, but a tax and rebate system is much simpler, can work at least as well, and loopholes are much more obvious and therefore easier to block.

  • “there are just as many contradictory articles out there.”

    Not true. The overwhelming majority believe that cap and trade will work. A small, extremist fringe opposes it.

    Note that your link saying that cap and trade failed in Europe was from 2008. My link saying that it worked was from 2009. In fact, they initially set too low a target, and so it looked like it failed at first. Then they strengthened the target, and it worked. The recent evidence all shows that it works.

    I think that fact also responds to your claim that WM is not worth supporting because it is too weak. Once the cap is in place, it is possible to strengthen it as new science comes in showing how serious a problem global warming is.

    It will be much harder to respond if you kill WM and we do not even have a framework in place that we can strengthen. By the time we get a different framework in place, it will be too late to avoid catastrophic global warming. Getting WM in place and then strengthening it does give us a real chance of avoiding catastrophic global warming.

  • patrick

    Actually it is true, there are just as many contradictory articles, your statement on the other hand is not true.

    The US CO2 emissions dropped from 2008 to 2009 as well, perhaps it’s the global recession that is responsible for the reduction, not cap and trade.

    It will be much harder with WM than without it for the points I provided earlier, these things tend to be weakened, not strengthened. Dems are in jeopardy of losing a number of seats, and what do you think the first thing the Republicans are going to do if that happens? Gut it further.

    If you think WM is good then refute the points I made earlier about it’s flaws.

    As I’ve said repeatedly cap and trade can work, but not WM, it is too flawed and will only delay finding a real solution. I believe WM is worse than nothing. I believe a simple fee & rebate system is better than cap and trade, and far better than WM.

    I am open minded and willing to change my opinion. If you can show me how I am wrong, then I will do so, but linking to an article is not sufficient.


Professor Henderson with his bike in Denmark.

SF Prof Studies Copenhagen’s Bike Infrastructure

Jason Henderson is a geography professor at San Francisco State, writer of the book Street Fight: The Struggle over Urban Mobility in San Francisco, co-author of Low Car(Bon) Communities: Inspiring Car-Free and Car-Lite Urban Futures, and a Streetsblog contributor. Henderson recently returned from a sabbatical in Denmark, where he studied the intersection of bicycle infrastructure, housing, […]

This Week in Livable Streets Events

This week, learn about the future of the planet, the history of transit in San Francisco, and present-day bicycle culture in Copenhagen. Here are the week’s highlights. Tuesday: SPUR Evening Forum: New residential architecture in Southern California. Sam Lubell will talk about his book, Living West: New Residential Architecture in Southern California, which book explores […]

Streetfilms: San Francisco 350 Climate Action

350 parts per million. That’s the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide beyond which many scientists warn the earth’s climate may begin to spiral out of control. At higher concentrations, they say, heat-reflecting ice sheets will disappear and permafrost will melt, releasing vast amounts of additional greenhouse gases and driving sea levels higher in a vicious […]

Today’s Headlines

Investigators Try to Pinpoint Cause of BART Train Derailment in Oakland (SF Gate, ABC7, CBS5) Overhead Wire Problem Disrupts Muni Metro Service (SF Appeal, SF Gate, KCBS) Muni’s Transit Maps Now Outdated with Service Changes (SF Examiner) MTC May Fine Bay Bridge Contractor for Delays (BCN via CBS 5) Toll Increases Recommended for All Bay […]

How Important is a United Front on the Climate Bill?

As fans of clean transportation and sustainable development join the push for a strong climate change bill to emerge from Congress, it’s worth remembering that not all environmental groups support the approach congressional Democrats have chosen. Senate Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) (Photo: AP) Friends of the Earth (FoE) joined Greenpeace in opposing the House […]