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Copenhagen Closeups: An Interview with Bill McKibben

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Author Bill McKibben, founder of the worldwide 350.org movement, says the group’s core message is now getting through to about half of the countries at the Copenhagen climate summit.

Brian Beauchamp: Nearly halfway through the Copenhagen climate negotiations there’s been a lot of drama-leaking the Danish texts, Tuvalu criticizing the negotiating process, a split in the G-77.  Did you expect such rifts?  Are you feeling hopeful or do you still feel, as you wrote in Grist, that the outcome will be politics as usual and will not deal with the climate threat?

Bill McKibben: Just yesterday a consortium of four groups running computer models of the different proposals, or texts, that have been formally introduced and are now up for discussion in the negotiations show that we’re now talking about a scenario that does very little to get us to 350 ppm CO2, where the science tells us we need to get to.  In fact the models show that we are likely negotiating around a target more closely aligned with 650 ppm CO2, given all of the different proposals.  Not a very good outcome. This is a little less then ideal, given that where we are currently at-387 ppm CO2-is melting the polar icecaps.

However, the good news is that the process is becoming more real. The stakes are higher and that’s why some of this drama is happening. New coalitions are forming and new rifts are being created. The conflict is shifting away from the old debate between developed vs. underdeveloped.  Rather, we’re seeing the challenges now between the countries who emit more CO2 into the atmosphere and those that don’t. There is less of a debate now between the historical climate debt of the U.S. and the future emissions from China, and more focus on how countries like Sweden is reducing its carbon output, while countries like India are increasing theirs.

This is a shift in the debate. But so far there is not enough of a shift according to what we know needs to be done from the science.

Beauchamp: Worldwide, so many people are still demanding a binding agreement, although it’s more and more apparent that we’re not going to get that-what do you say to the folks back home who don’t want anything less?

McKibben: We’re not going to get that. Demand for real action is still working its way through the system right now. In certain ways there’s been huge paradigm shifts in how the talks are going and where they are leading, and there’s something to be said for the continuation of this process. We need to keep building movements that are stronger and bigger in order to really change the outcome of these types of global talks in the future.

People’s work this year has changed the dynamic of this fight in huge ways. We now have numbers on the table that reflect the science. Half of the countries in the world have adopted and supported 350 as a target. These are mostly smaller countries that are lesser developed and have not contributed to the climate problem, but as this number grows, we’ll see more progress.

There was a fascinating side event held here yesterday by a group on Worldwide Views on Global Warming.  The report they presented showed overwhelmingly that people around the world are endlessly more ambitious than the negotiators here are. People who are taught the science want to do more. Instead of locking into the ‘how little can we do’ mode-everyday people are into the ‘how much can we do’ mode.

Possibly the biggest violator of the global grassroots support is President Obama and his negotiating team, whose political realism seems to outweigh their scientific understanding of the problem the world is facing.

Beauchamp: 350.org’s presence here is definitely felt very strongly, along with many other powerful grassroots and NGO operations.  Do you think it’s being felt inside the negotiating rooms, and if so, to what effect?

McKibben: Yesterday was Youth Day here in Copenhagen. Over 5,000 youth from around the world are organizing events, staging protests, planning press conferences and demanding real action. They are disciplined, focused, and willing to sacrifice. This conference would be a lot better if they were running the show. 350.org has the largest accredited delegation, more than any other group here, and has amassed the largest global network of activist working to solve climate change. If it’s not getting through today, there’s certainly hope for the future.

Beauchamp: There are hundreds candlelight vigils being planned for this weekend in the US and around the world. And tomorrow there is a massive march planned for the streets of Copenhagen. With so much positive action on the outside of the Bella Center’s negotiating rooms, and so much frustration on the inside, do you hold out hope that we’ll get to a point where we can actually get to 350?

McKibben: The important action this week is what’s happening outside of Copenhagen. These vigils are what’s important. By Monday we’ll have photos of the vigils and marches and we’ll be holding them up inside the conference as delegates come in every morning on the way to their meetings. There will be no way for any negotiator to avoid us and they will know the rest of the world is watching as they come down to crunch time next week.

Beauchamp: Are you having a good time in Copenhagen?

McKibben: This is not my thing.  I’m having a good time because I’m with my crew, and they’re great. These big events can be pretty depressing because you see how the big powers in the world flex their muscles and assert their influence in ways that keeps us from truly progressing. Also, part of me feels depressed and feels guilty because I should have been doing this work for the past ten years-building a global climate change movement. The science has been clear for at least that long, and yet we’ve waited until the last two years to really mobilize for change. We’ve got a lot of road ahead to get this done.

And, Vermont, my home, just got the first big snowfall of the year and I’m missing the first good skiing of the season.

Beauchamp: Anything else you might like to say to the good people in Michigan and Traverse City?

McKibben: I’ve been fortunate to travel to Michigan a few times in the past year and a half and have fond memories of all the people I’ve met there. I’ve traveled and seen many parts of the world in the past year and there are two places that really stand out to me: Adis Abbaba, Ethiopia where over 20,000 people marched in the streets on October 24, and Traverse City, Mich., where, by far, you guys punched above your weight with TC350 and all the good work you have done there.

No place in the world was as organized as Traverse City, and when the strain of this work gets tough we fire up Seth and May’s 350 tunes and listen to the sounds of northern Michigan and think very good thoughts.

And while we’re here in Copenhagen we’re wishing we had some of the TC-350 beer from Right Brain on hand instead of the god awful Tubor they serve here.

Brian Beauchamp is a policy specialist for the Michigan Land Use Institute and a coordinator of TC350, the Traverse City chapter of Mr. McKibben’s worldwide organization, 350.org. Reach Brian at brian@mlui.org.

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