Year 2, Month 12, Day 14: Maybe It’s Because I’m A Cow

The Grey Lady analyzes why things don’t work:

DURBAN, South Africa — For 17 years, officials from nearly 200 countries have gathered under the auspices of the United Nations to try to deal with one of the most vexing questions of our era — how to slow the heating of the planet.

Every year they leave a trail of disillusion and discontent, particularly among the poorest nations and those most vulnerable to rising seas and spreading deserts. Every year they fail to significantly advance their own stated goal of keeping the average global temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius, or about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, above preindustrial levels.

There is no denying the dedication and stamina of the environment ministers and climate diplomats who conduct these talks. But maybe the task is too tall. The issues on the table are far broader than atmospheric carbon levels or forestry practices or how to devise a fund to compensate those most affected by global warming.


Effectively addressing climate change will require over the coming decades a fundamental remaking of energy production, transportation and agriculture around the world — the sinews of modern life. It is simply too big a job for the men and women who have gathered for these talks under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the 1992 treaty that began this grinding process.

There was a Gary Larson cartoon showing a jazz band in a club. Standing on the bandstand is a figure holding a saxophone, saying something like, “look fellas, it’s just not working. Maybe it’s the tempo, or maybe it’s the changes, or maybe it’s because I’m a cow.” Sent December 10:

While the task of reining in global greenhouse emissions is indeed an enormously daunting one, the alternative is inaction, which (although excellent for the oil industry’s profit margins) is unacceptable for the majority of the world’s people. The failure to achieve any substantive agreement at Durban is hardly surprising, given the degree to which American government has been so thoroughly co-opted by corporate interests.

Meaningful action on climate must be polycentric, operating on scales of size from individuals to nations; it must also be polytemporal, reflecting both long- and short-term thinking. We all have individual parts to play — but in the global arena, our wholly-owned government can no longer be presumed to have our interests at heart. The petroleum industry’s disproportionate influence on our political system has made America’s intransigence a worldwide embarrassment. In the machinery of climate negotiations, oil is not a lubricant, but a hindrance to progress.

Warren Senders

Year 2, Month 12, Day 12: Oh, To Be Twenty-One Again

I have a new hero, Ms. Abigail Borah. The Washington Post:

Todd D. Stern, the Obama administration’s special envoy for climate change, was put on the defensive by a narrative developing here that the United States opposed any further action to address global climate disruption until after 2020, when the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, a primary United Nations climate agreement, and voluntary programs negotiated more recently will have run their course.

He firmly denied that the United States was dragging its feet and, somewhat ambiguously, endorsed a proposal from the European Union to quickly start negotiating a new international climate change treaty.

Mr. Stern’s statement to delegates from more than 190 nations at the annual climate conference was disrupted by a 21-year-old Middlebury College junior, Abigail Borah, who told the assembly that she would speak for the United States because Mr. Stern had forfeited the right to do so.

“I am speaking on behalf of the United States of America because my negotiators cannot,” said Ms. Borah, who is attending the conference as a representative of the International Youth Climate Movement. “The obstructionist Congress has shackled justice and delayed ambition for far too long. I am scared for my future. 2020 is too late to wait. We need an urgent path to a fair, ambitious and legally binding treaty.”

Scores of delegates and observers gave her a sustained ovation. Then the South African authorities threw her out of the conference. “That’s O.K.,” Ms. Borah, who is from Princeton, N.J., said later by telephone. “I think I got my point across.”

Let’s hope so. The “hindsight is always 2020” line came courtesy of Sven Eberlein. Sent December 8:

If Todd Stern’s assertions about an international agreement on greenhouse emissions are to be believed, our nation’s chief climate negotiator may have had his eyes opened a bit by the opposition he’s encountering at the Durban conference. By now, the scientific evidence cannot be ignored, and the picture isn’t a pretty one: while the epiphenomena of rapidly increasing climate change imperil us all, the United States has abdicated its responsibilities to the international community and abandoned all pretense of world leadership on what is arguably the most crucial issue of our time.

Let us hope Mr. Stern’s vision has been cleared by his encounter with far-sighted protesters like Ms. Abigail Borah. If we must wait another nine years for an agreement to restrict greenhouse emissions, it will be too late, and the old saw that “hindsight is always 2020” will have taken on a newer and far more tragic meaning.

Warren Senders

Year 1, Month 1, Day 16: The Gray Lady

The New York Times has a length limit of 150 words; I managed to get it down to 149. Tomorrow I’ll be out most of the day making calls for Coakley at a local phonebank. I hate doing it, but it’s not something I feel a lot of choice about. My voice will be wrecked by the evening…with luck I’ll recover before a full day of teaching on Sunday.

Another of the Times’ stipulations is that letters have to explicitly address an issue discussed in a recent article. Fortunately, a few seconds of searching their site found me a recent piece on the possibilities of post-Copenhagen progress on climate, and I framed my letter around that. It was fun getting it trimmed to fit a 150-word maximum; I’ll try again in another week or so.

If you have suggestions for other journals, papers, magazines or forums I can write to, I will be interested in hearing them!

American climate change negotiator Todd Stern’s is cautiously optimistic (“U.S. Official Says Talks on Emissions Show Promise” – John M. Broder, January 14). Unfortunately his caution is more reality-based than his optimism. Stern’s statements are full of conditionals, as witness the end of the first sentence: “…if countries followed through on its provisions.” The dilemma lies, as do so many of our problems, in the Senate, where a significant number of lawmakers have abandoned any notion of crafting policy around scientific consensus, basing it instead on poll numbers or ideological opposition to the current administration. And because our mass media has for years downplayed the threat posed by global climate change, the public has not grasped the terrifying reality of anthropogenic climaticide for what it is: a planetary emergency of unparalleled scale. Our failure to address this crisis with the requisite urgency may be the final failure of our species.

Warren Senders