Copenhagen Failed Us; What Do We Do Next?

Almost everyone knows the severe and imminent consequences of failure to act promptly and decisively to control emissions of greenhouse gases – drowned coastal cities, unprecedented loss of biodiversity, agricultural lands turned to desert, destruction of water supplies dependent upon mountain snowmelt, starvation of hundreds of millions of humans, destruction of many of the world’s remaining forests, death by acidification of the oceans, etc., etc., etc. We know the litany.

The United States, the prime offender, through Barack Obama, who had promised to be the world leader for adoption of an effective treaty, belatedly offered a goal for the United States of reducing its emissions by 2020 from the 1990 baseline year by approximately one tenth the amount the scientists and the UN are agreed is necessary to stave off disaster. In addition, the US placed a non-negotiable demand on its involvement – that no country’s goals for emissions reductions would be enforceable under the treaty. In other words, the treaty would be meaningless as law.

In short, the silver-tongued Obama flipped the bird to the enormous majority of U.S. voters, who had voted for him because he promised “change;” to the countless young idealists who’d worked for him, to the United Nations and to the overwhelming majority of climate researchers, who said action to reduce GHG emissions was critical. And his place in history — which a year ago seemed to belong with the likes of Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR and Martin Luther King — took on a whole new meaning.

In a similar vein, members of the United States Congress, demonstrated on issue after issue during the last year that they are gridlocked by corruption. Consequently, they produced, at the request of the corporations, not only a global warming program that would not abate global warming, but a health care program that would not improve health care, a jobs program that would not generate jobs, and a program to reduce home foreclosures that would not reduce foreclosures. Then to assist the corporations in maintaining their hegemony, the US Supreme Court recently gave them a blank check for exercise of “First Amendment rights.”

So we are left with the two largest GHG emitters, the United States and China, unwilling to commit to binding goals for reduction. All the while, there’s little hope that the public can introduce any sort of meaningful change in this situation. At the same time, the rest, the signers of the Kyoto accords, increased their emissions when the protocols called for decreases. So much for governments.

All considered, we have lost twenty years for bringing about meaningful climate change mitigation and we have little time left because every year that the atmospheric CO2 load increases, there is even a lesser chance that the dangerous processes can be reversed. Meanwhile, we, clearly, face governments in the hands of corporations and corporations blind to any need that could adversely affect the next quarterly report. Are these conditions going to change in the few years we have? It is unlikely. The concerned public has thus far proved incapable of accomplishing meaningful governmental and corporate programs to halt global warming, so how can we have confidence except in more of the same until time runs out?

Is it hopeless? Apparently so if we are going to be dependent on the governments and the corporations. Yet in taking that position, we are putting aside an “inconvenient truth” – inconvenient because we might rather put responsibility on irresistible forces out there in the universe than on ourselves.

The inconvenient truth is that there are few if any human CO2 emissions not the result of our own individual and collective consumer decisions. There are our direct uses of fossil fuels for transportation and home heating, there is the electricity we consume that is generated by burning fossil fuels or, more recently, biofuels and biomass. There is the energy consumed in production and transport of our food and consumer products. Why – the catalogue is in fact the same catalogue that would have to be dealt with under a global treaty!

So, in fact, we the people, in the United States and all over the world, have no need to wait until we are forced by government programs to take the steps necessary to reduce CO2 emissions. We can do what we’ve been waiting for the governments and corporations to do, and because they are doing nothing, we no longer have any alternative except to make the changes, ourselves.

Are we so childish that we can do nothing except whine that we haven’t been told what to do, when the future of the earth, the future of humanity, depends upon action? Maybe the answer is yes – I don’t know what you will do, and I don’t know what I will do. Yet if we do not want to be responsible, individually and collectively, for the horrors to come, then we must, individually and collectively, say no to any more greenhouse emissions than the scientists say are safe.

Henry Thoreau and Mohandas Gandhi taught us that our needs are much less than our wants and that we can peacefully bring down governments and corporations by refusing to accept their measures of our needs. It is time to stop waiting for governments to act as we expected them to act at Kyoto long ago and at Copenhagen weeks ago.

At this point, exclusively focussing on government action is little more than avoidance of the inconvenient truth of our individual and collective responsibility. So we must get on with the show – convincing and helping ourselves, convincing and helping our neighbors, convincing and helping humanity to reduce CO2 emissions by all means within our power, to reach the goals and timelines the scientists are telling us we must meet. We must do it with the good will and generosity so lacking in Copenhagen because our “leaders” showed us in Copenhagen that the needed changes, assuredly, will not happen otherwise.

There is a little catch. The fundamental rule of social behavior, raised to a pinnacle by “free-market” economics, has been for generations, in the words of 1952 U.S. Progressive Party Presidential nominee Vincent Hallinan, “Fuck you Jack, I got mine!” That is unnatural and unsustainable.

Every major religious text, back at least as far as the Egyptian Book of the Dead, has taught us in substance, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” There are reasons why that rule has been taught for four millennia, and there are reasons why the free market rule has repeatedly brought down the US economy, destroyed the Copenhagen and Kyoto efforts and will make our efforts to stop global warming, with or without the aid of the governments, an impossibility. No other rule than that taught by universal religion, will work to leave a world to future living beings in which they can, actually, survive and thrive.

We certainly have our work cut out for us, but we have no choice. And the governments and corporations are welcome to join us all if they see fit. If the offenders find themselves boycotted, they should not be surprised. So think about this message, start saying no to carbon, along with unnecessary consumption of goods and services. Instead, share the vision for a low carbon footprint with your neighbors, friends, other associates, congregations, nonprofit organizations, everyone. Then ever so nicely, ask them to get with the program post haste, because the responsibility is now with us.

Nicholas C. Arguimbau

Nick Arguimbau is a lawyer with a BA in physics from Harvard, who spent 35 years defending California air and water, the Constitution, and denizens of California’s Death Row. He now presides over 49 acres, two dogs and a cat in western Massachusetts, and serves on the select board of one of the purest democracies in the United States. He can be contacted at


  1. says

    One easy market based solution is what I call Clean Energy Reverse Mortgages which would make it as easy as handling out free beers at a baseball game in the Berkshires, Anyway the elected officials and oil companies don’t like it because it would disrupt prices.
    I saw a new concept last week “negative equity”, home equity which is now at an all time high of 22 percent . This also means that 78 percent of people have neutral or positive equity. If home ownership is the American Dream , than home equity is the Climate Change Dream.

  2. says

    Yes, Nicholas is so right. It does come down in essence to what we, ordinary folk of earth, will do and how we will live, so as to save our descendants (and our longer-lived selves) from the worst of the catastrophe that the profligate carbon exploiters and burners are still actively permitted and encouraged to feel entitled to visit upon us and indeed upon themselves and everybody and everything.

    So I fully agree with Nicholas so far as he goes. The do-as-you-would-be-done-by Golden Rule ethic (in feasible form) is a necessary first step.

    But it is only a first step. It never has sufficed in a complex society which contains not merely other would-be nice (if diverse and idiosyncratic) folk but indeed active evil-doers who operatively reject the Golden Rule. Their evil has to be opposed actively.

    And now the ‘they’ clearly includes, at the top of the list, ‘our’ governments: the entities that tax us in order to fly greenhouse-gas emitting jets and drive polluting limos to climate shindigs – to non-coping cop-outs in Copenhagen and elsewhere.

    Today’s governments [including for many purposes in this term all structures for guidance and control of large group efforts, notably large corporations] are all built on an at-least-two-centuries- obsolete notion of oligarchic and unreasoning policy-making, where a few people are elevated and perked, simply so that they can ‘rule’ -that is, make all public decisions according to their whims. These elevated folk don’t even have to give consistent rationale for their decisions, or be trained in (let alone use) modern decision analysis.

    Their small numbers and long terms of office and control over many decisions promotes their corruption, but even when somehow uncorrupted they serve no purpose that wouldn’t better and more deliberately be served by citizen juries that – in independent steps – would agendize proposals, make decisions, and precautionarily review decisions (with power of veto).

    In short, the insanity of governments’ current climate policies (and much else) ultimately rests upon the utter inadequacy of their current (and long-standing) unreasoning and oligarchic approach to government policy-making. Our work for a saner and more sustainable future must include ever more vocal rejection of this approach as illegitimate, and ever more insistent demands for reason and democracy in its place.

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