Category Archives: Government, Policy, Politics

How I Created (Not) a UN Campaign

This article is about how I became obsessed with trying to create, or catalyze into being, an international campaign to dramatically increase renewable energy investment in the developing world — and why I now feel ready to let go of that obsession. The short version is this:  The campaign is happening, and the UN is doing it.

I have a hard time letting go of my ideas for initiatives, once they are hatched. And the UN campaign is not exactly what I imagined for the initiative we were calling “Big Push.” But it’s certainly close enough for me to say, okay, this is one project I can take off my plate. Here’s the link:

http://sustainableenergyforall.org

This campaign is about as high level as such a thing can get. The initiative comes straight from the Secretary-General’s office. The campaign was created by an act of the UN General Assembly, which has declared 2012 “The Year of Sustainable Energy for All.” (See Resolution 65/151)

What did I have to do with all this? Not much. But anyone who has been watching this space will recall the work I did in 2009 for UNDESA’s Division for Sustainable Development. The vision for the Big Push was not mine (it was Tariq Banuri’s, former director of DSD) nor were most of the ideas and analyses that went into it (I was building on the work of many people, inside and outside the UN, and especially the World Economic and Social Survey 2009). My job was to help assemble a coherent strategy document to take to the Copenhagen CoP-15 climate summit, in December 2009. Working with a number of colleagues, we pieced together something that I still think of as being beautiful and elegant in design:  a high-leverage, large-scale program for spreading renewables quickly in the world’s poor countries, with the effect of improving people’s lives, while also accelerating the renewables market in the rich countries and speeding the transition to a renewable energy future.

The “Big Push” strategy paper was well-received:  we quickly won the endorsement of many leading climate/energy researchers, plus WWF International and other NGOs. You can download that strategy document by clicking here.

Copenhagen did not work out as anyone hoped, of course, and the strategy paper just lay there for awhile. But I could not let it go. The vision and ideas may have originated from others (the “Innovators” in this specific case), but in classic “Change Agent” fashion, I had become thoroughly convinced that this was an idea that had to happen, if we were to achieve the transformation to a sustainable world in reasonable time.

So I began to make some noise about creating an independent, international “Big Push Campaign,” outside the UN system. I talked to friends in leadership positions, recruited the excellent help of an astrophysicist-turned-energy-researcher at Harvard (Achim Tappe, thank you!), networked with other experts, and even had the marvelous opportunity to present the Big Push concept as an opening speech to this year’s World Renewable Energy Congress (Anders Wijkman, thank you!). You can access the text of my speech to the Congress by clicking here.

At the heart of the original strategy is the idea of spreading, and globally subsidizing, the pricing mechanism called a “Feed-in Tariff,” or “FiT”. This involves guaranteeing that if you build a renewable energy installation, you can sell the resulting electricity to the grid, at a subsidized price. The mechanism works incredibly well, and has driven the explosion of wind and solar development in Denmark, Germany, Spain and other countries. New countries keep adding it (Japan just did), but others are also drawing in the brakes (as the UK just did), because it works too well (think some people).

There were many other technical, policy, and outreach aspects to this plan, which you can read about in the original paper, and in the more advanced technical ones that followed, such as Deutsche Bank’s studies for the Secretary-General’s advisory group 2010 and 2011, focusing on how to create a global “FiT” mechanism while managing the risks etc. How did all of this, and many other streams of activity, work together to become the new UN Sustainable Energy for All initiative? To be honest, I really have no idea; I moved on to other projects at the UN (like this one), and no longer have a direct window into that process. Did my work in 2009 have any impact in 2010 and 2011? I’d like to think so — I know UNDESA really spread that paper around, both inside the UN system and outside — but I really don’t know, one way or the other. That’s the consulting life:  you engage with a system, you do something, the system changes … and you never really know if those changes happened (even just in part, even just a tiny little bit) because you engaged with the system … or if the system would have changed anyway, with or without you. Understanding this basic truth keeps one feeling very humble about consulting work, even when it feels “important”. Perhaps especially then.

The most important question, however, is certainly not whether my work had any impact. Not even the technical side of renewable energy scale-up is much of a question at this point:  it’s well established now that the technologies work, the policy mechanisms work, the market works. There are exciting breakthroughs on sustainable energy happening, and being reported, nearly every day. (My current favorite is this one:  indoor solar lighting using only a plastic bottle, water, and a piece of tin or aluminum. It’s spreading like wildfire in the Philippines, where it was invented. Check it out on this short BBC video.)

The really big question is, will these strategies actually work? What clearly isn’t working yet is marshaling the political will to actually transform the global energy system, as the UK government’s recent pull-back on their highly successful FiT program illustrates all too dismally. What isn’t working yet is the serious mobilization of capital, at the scale we really need, and in the right direction. What isn’t working yet is the removal of fossil fuel subsidies that push the whole planet in the wrong direction, while helping the world’s richest energy companies get richer. Etc. etc. etc. There is certainly a lot to do … and there are a lot of powerful interests at play.

So at this point, it no longer makes much sense for me to try to recruit others into a new and separate global campaign, as one among a dozen projects on my plate. Instead, I’ve started putting my shoulder to the wheel of the UN’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative, promoting it through every channel I have access to. It’s not enough, as we all know, even to have a UN General Assembly resolution and the UN Secretary-General pushing an agenda like this.

It’s going to take a Big Push from all of us.

Labeling Sustainability: Is Certification Working?

The answer from this small seminar group of world experts on assessing the impact of sustainability standards — gathered by IVL, IISD, RFF and others to review the work of a big international research program called Entwined — is a qualified yes.

The “Yes” is interesting (and thanks to Erika Svensson of IVL for inviting me, so I could hear it) … but the qualifications are even more interesting.

For example, isn’t it amazing that it takes an independent, rigorous set of research programs just to find out whether these various voluntary standards are actually working? One of the findings of the State of Sustainability Initiatives annual assessment is that most of these standards — things like Forestry Stewardship Council certification, or Rainforest Alliance’s coffee labeling program — have no clue about the actual impact of what they are doing.

Or rather, the transparency of that impact is low (“red” on a slide displayed by Jason Potts of IISD). Standards organizations don’t have good numbers, and/or don’t publish them. So teams of researchers have been combing the market data, interviewing farmers, etc. to figure this out. Data is scarce. The data that does exist is fascinating (see my Twitter posts from this same seminar), such as the fact that Peru, with only 2 or 3% of the global coffee market, has 20% of the “sustainability certified” coffee market.

So, what are the findings? Researchers and data geeks will want to dig into the actual studies, but the executive summary is:  it’s an imperfect world, but standards and labeling does work. Environmental performance (comparing, for example, farmers that are certified to those that are not) improves.  It’s not that use of agro-chemicals drops to zero, of course, but — in one study for example, focused on coffee — that there was a 38% difference in the application of such chemicals between certified and non-certified farms. That’s actually a good result. (See the study, by Allen Blackman et al. at Resources for the Future)

Question time at the Entwined Seminar

Not only does it work environmentally, it works socially as well:  training programs work, capacity improves, even agricultural yields appear to go up as a result of that capacity building. Kids of sustainability-trained farmers in Vietnam, for example, appear to do better at school! (That tidbit from Daniele Giovannucci of COSA.)

That’s good news … because there are literally hundreds of these voluntary standards and certification systems in use around the world (600+ by one count), many at the producer level, many more at the consumer product level. It’s not about a fixed set of criteria, or setting up a label and then relaxing. “We see eco-labeling as a process,” says Caroline Hopkins of the Swedish Nature Conservation Society. She describes how that process works:  they move a voluntary standard into the market (say, removal of chlorine from paper production), and when critical mass is achieved and the technical/economic feasibility of this improved environmental behavior is proven, then they want to move the voluntary label into national legislation and regulation — and get out of the labeling business for that product. “So that we can move on to more urgent matters.”

What’s really happening here? In a quiet way, I think these standards and certification systems are a quiet way of practicing global governance. Phrases like “world government” usually get certain groups, especially in the United States, extremely upset. But we do have world government, of course, or at least “world governance”:  the UN, WTO, the vast body of international treaty law, etc. etc. But these globalized, voluntary standards for “greener” product development are also a form of global governance. What’s more, it is truly multi-stakeholder global governance:  data from IISD showed how the governing boards of these standard-setting groups are very nice mixtures of NGO and private sector, developed and developing country representatives, producers and consumers. This is “soft” stuff, in purely legal terms, because nobody actually has to do it. But as these labeling schemes reach critical mass, companies feel more or less required to participate.

Right now, there are protesters in the streets of many world cities demanding more democracy in the way the world’s economy is run. Ironically, it seems there might be a relatively new, inclusive, democratic, transparent process of economic global governance emerging right now, at least in a specific instance, and right under our noses:  on all those green labels in the supermarket.

“San-ten-ichi-ichi” — what March 11 means to Japan (so far)

I was on UN business in Korea this week, but on Friday, I took a day off to fly to Osaka and meet with friends Junko Edahiro and Riichiro Oda, at a hotel near Osaka’s Kansai airport. I wanted to find out how they were doing, and how the country was doing, since the last time I visited — which was the week before the earthquake. Both Junko and Rich are marathon runners; they looked the picture of health, and made me think once again about diversifying my exercise routine, which usually consists of pulling suitcases around in airports.

Junko is a well-known environmental advocate, writer, and translator. She wears many hats in her nation’s sustainability movement, including founder of the NGO Japan for Sustainability. Sometimes Junko is teaching classes on how to combine three e’s:  learning English, empowering oneself, and doing environmental work (one of her companies is actually called “e’s”). Sometimes she is advising the prime minister on options for climate change policy — among many other activities. Riichiro, or “Rich,” is a systems expert and consultant who teaches corporations and agencies how to apply systems thinking; he also manages the administration of Junko’s various enterprises and initiatives, which she seems to create at the rate of about one per year.

Most recently, Junko founded a new Institute for the Study of Happiness, Economy, and Society. A few days before the multi-disaster comprised of a mega-earthquake, a giant tsunami, and a nuclear meltdown, I had been in Japan to help her launch that Institute. Now, to say the least, the context within which that new institute is working has been utterly changed. I also went to Japan to find out how it has been changed, from Junko and Rich’s perspective.

*

First, the language:  most Japanese now refer to the disaster in the same way that most Americans (and indeed, most of the world) refer to the events of September 11, 2001.  It is just called “San-ten-ichi-ichi,” or literally, “three-dot-one-one.” And the region where the disaster struck, and where it is in fact still striking in the form of uncontrollable nuclear reactor failures, is called “the Affected Area.”

“March 11 marked the true end of the post-War period in Japan,” says Junko. “Before that point, the country believed that we could eventually get back to the kind of economic growth we had experienced before. March 11 crushed any hope of return to growth, and has forced the country to face the harsh reality.” A society-wide process of deep consideration is under way, among government and corporate leaders as well as the general public.

If anything, the disaster has increased interest in sustainability, resilience, systems thinking, and any possible avenue to new insight about how to reorient economy and society in the post-“San-ten-ichi-ichi” period. The highly efficient “just-in-time” inventory and production system proved fragile. There were no stocks or buffers of materials and parts on which to draw when production was disrupted. Recent cost-cutting of staff also eliminated much of the Japanese “playable force” staffing system, in which companies always had a spare team of people who could be deployed to reinforce those functions that needed extra help. This new awareness of “system effects” is helping Rich’s business return to his normal, overloaded state of busy-ness.

March 11 has also had a number of unexpected social effects:  marriages are on the rise, as couples move to cement their relationships quickly to increase a feeling of security about the future. Community-based activity is also increasing. But at the same time, the Tokyo area has also experienced a wave of divorce and strained relationships, as families split over the question of whether to remain there, or move farther away, to Osaka or the west of Japan. When it comes to radiation exposure and young children, “mothers want to lower their risk to zero.” Many are moving away from Tokyo with their children, leaving behind their husbands, who are attached to jobs and other social roles. In doing this, Japanese mothers are following the example of foreign embassies such as France, which sent some people home and moved everyone else to Osaka. (The irony of Junko’s choosing France as an example, given how defiantly reliant France is on nuclear power, is worth considering.)

It was shocking to hear Junko’s descriptions about how much — or rather, how little — information was being given to the Japanese people through the official channels. Because she is a professional translator, she had access to multiple English-language sources on the internet that explained far more about the nuclear disaster itself, the radiation leaks and risks, etc. than was ever available in the Japanese press.  Junko took it on herself to explain this information in everyday Japanese, and recruited a radiation expert from a research hospital (i.e., someone not tainted by TEPCO, the fully discredited electricity company that owned the Fukushima nuclear plant) to check what she wrote. This information she broadcast on her already popular e-newsletter, the readership of which grew significantly.

As a result of both the mismanagement of the crisis and the authorities’ poor handling of information about what had actually happened, the traditionally submissive relationship between the people and the national leadership has become deeply frayed. The crisis revealed, said Junko, that the government did not really trust the public.  Authorities controlled the release of information in order not to “create panic,” but in doing so created more nervousness and panic, which created more distrust, more information control, and more nervousness and panic, in a vicious circle. “It is easy to make a systems diagram of this,” she notes with a hint of irony, “and I have drawn many of them.”

Why was it so difficult for people to get information on radioactivity and other nuclear power issues in Japan, in the midst of a nuclear meltdown crisis? And why does Junko — whose bridge-building work usually attracts positive attention from groups as diverse as deep-green environmentalists and big-industry representatives — start getting attacked her efforts to publish more of the facts on what was actually happening at Fukushima?

“Nuclear power is an emotional or ideological issue here,” said Junko, whose academic training was in psychology. “People, especially men, tend to equate nuclear power with power generally.” I note recent psychological research showing that when people have strong ideological commitments, fact-based counter-arguments often just harden their positions. This explains how even in the face of a meltdown — one that will make a large area sited only 150 km north of Tokyo uninhabitable for generations — nuclear power still has rabid defenders in Japan.

The electricity shortages themselves, common in Tokyo but not in Osaka or elsewhere, act as a continuous reminder of the situation. The lighting in train stations and other public locations is noticeably dimmer, Junko tells me. But this “dark side” has a “bright side,” because “people are realizing that they did not need all that light in the place. The dimmer light is more comfortable.” The directives to reduce energy are causing a kind of social transformation, in everything from direct energy usage (turning off Tokyo’s ubiquitous vending machines) to the way people dress at work (men are encouraged to ditch their suits in favor of a “super-cool,” tie-less look that requires less air conditioning).

“People are rediscovering the meaning of ‘enough’, and remembering that ‘enough’ is also comfortable,” says Junko.  This reminds me of the concept of a “teachable moment,” which I learned practicing social work years ago:  the moment when defenses come down and the person can actually learn something that changes their view of themselves and the context of their lives. Junko grabbed onto that term immediately. “This is such a moment,” she says, “so I am doing a lot of teaching.”

But she is also doing a lot of learning. In March and April, her usual busy speaking schedule was largely canceled, and Junko suddenly had a lot of time on her hands. So she used it to pursue a ten-year-old dream:  to study the Chinese classics (such as the “Analects of Confucius”). She found a teacher, signed up for classes, and started studying … which, among other things, involves learning 52,800 Chinese characters. “In the Edo period,” Junko tells me, “children would learn these characters. The saying was, 100 characters, 100 times a day.” That is, they would repeat each character a hundred times, until they had memorized it, and they would do that with a hundred characters, every day — usually before even learning what those characters meant. After one and a half years, they knew them all, and could start reading. “I think it will take me a bit longer,” she says with an impish smile.

In dialogues, Junko and her teacher learned that they share a common sense of purpose, even though they are promoting different things. Both are teaching in order to change and improve Japanese society.

And if ever any society was faced with a “teachable moment,” it is Japan, now.

Watching Egypt 1 – Private Worries, Public Hopes

It was a relief to finally hear my client’s voice on the phone. She was a bit breathless, but not sounding in distress. She had been out food shopping by taxi just that afternoon (this was Monday, 31 January), able to find what she needed, “though many people are just buying up whatever they can get, and hoarding it,” she noted. She was surprisingly worried about work, and about the project we’re working on, a major strategy document for economic competitiveness and Green Transformation in Egypt:  “No one is going to the office, because there is no point, the internet is shut down.”

And of course, there was the fire.

The first four floors of the office building had been damaged by a fire set in the shops on the ground floor, probably in connection with looting. Fortunately, the offices of the Egyptian National Council on Competitiveness (ENCC) are on the fifth floor. So the home of one of Egypt’s most important small think-tanks, a place where a true transition to sustainability was being mapped out in careful detail, is still intact.

Whatever happens in Egypt, the country is going to need that Council, and that new Green Transformation strategy, more than ever in the coming years. One of the many documents I had absorbed in trying to learn about the situation there (as part of my work as a strategic advisor to the ENCC) was the most recent national Human Development Report. The numbers on youth unemployment alone, and the accompanying quotes from young, educated people (whose needs for a meaningful life had clearly not been met), were enough to make the events that are happening now in Egypt all too easy to understand.

Not to mention the many comments I had heard from many people when I visited there, on three occasions last year. These comments were usually whispered, or voiced only after a quick look to the left and the right to see who might be listening (if one were in a public place). It reminded me of being in China in 1982, when people I met on the street literally dragged me behind bushes to have conversations about freedom in some European language they were studying. Egypt was not that extreme, but the feeling of caution, bordering on fear, about saying what one really thought was something I encountered regularly on my visits there.

Suddenly, the whispers have grown to a roar.

Hindsight is 20/20, they say. But in this case, many Egyptian experts had 20/20 foresight as well. No one could have predicted an uprising of this kind, of course; and no one I have met while working there predicted it to happen now. But almost everyone said, either subtly or directly, that something like this — a “phase shift” or “nonlinear event,” an encounter with unsustainable trends, building up to a breaking point — was inevitable if Egypt did not make major, transformative changes, and quickly.

The world, watching Egypt, now sees the demands for political openness and justice that are visibly driving the protesters. What is not so obvious is the array of other issues that have contributed to this enormous, tsunami-like outburst of “We’re not going to take it anymore” public emotion.

For example, Cairo was experiencing water shortages as well as sporadic blackouts when I visited last year. These are not usual; they were practically a first. Egypt has prided itself on its provision of energy and especially water to its people in modern times; they are serious matters of national security. But one man I met was embarrassed to be photographed, because newly imposed water restrictions had prevented him from shaving for a few days:  “The Quality Control Director of a food processing factory [his job] should not appear in a photograph unshaven,” he told me.

Meanwhile, prices of some common foodstuffs and other consumer goods were also suddenly skyrocketing, some friends said, and those price increases were not being reported publicly. They were just being felt, and they were so significant that even my wealthier friends were feeling it.

And these were just the pressures visible to anyone.  While energy prices were still heavily subsidized, Egypt had recently changed over from being a net oil exporter to being a net oil importer. It was meeting the deficit — and the needs of its fast-growing population of over 80 million — by pumping out natural gas faster than ever. The production curves literally turned almost straight up.

Were these the indicators of a sustainable future?  Not a chance.

I am convinced these and other pressures, both visible and less visible (but widely known), helped to create a general feeling of unease, and that this feeling combined with the much more visible calls for democracy and openness that are now playing out so very publicly on the world stage. All of it taken together created a pile of very dry social kindling. The dozens of self-immolations that followed on Tunisia’s example were literally the spark that lit a conflagration.

Today, the hopes regarding Egypt are many. Indeed the hopes of the people there, and the hopes of the world on their behalf, have already become highly documented history. World leaders are speaking out in support of the protesters demands in almost unprecedented ways — or at least, in ways not seen since 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall. The public statements of Egypt’s military are no less remarkable in their embrace of transition.

But I have private hopes, as we all do. First and foremost, as an outside observer with clients and friends in Egypt, I hope for their safety and security. (I could easily have been in Egypt the week the protests began, as I had been invited to the country for a work engagement, but felt the need to stay home for family reasons.)

And I also have private worries, more than I care to express in a public blog — worries for the safety of specific individuals I know and their family members. I join my voice to the prayers for safety that my client mentioned so many times, when I finally reached her on her mobile phone on Monday.

When it comes to the Egyptian transformation — for that is what we are witnessing — I think most engaged observers have both high hopes and big worries for its outcome. The opportunity for change is enormous now, and Egypt truly needs enormous changes:  this was a core message of the materials that had been presented to ministers and senior business and society leaders in May of last year. These Egyptian-born ideas about purusing a Green Transformation strategy — renewable energy, water consevation, sustainable agriculture, jobs and capacity development, innovation, education — were due to be presented in an even more strategic and practical way this year.  These were urgent matters before (they were being increasingly framed as national security issues) and they remain urgent, perhaps “super-urgent”, matters for the foreseeable future.

And now, one can add a phrase to the list of “super-urgent” matters, a topic that was essentially taboo just two weeks ago, a topic that numerous people essentially only whispered to me previously, a topic than anyone with access to a global news source can now plainly attest to as being the desperate longing of the Egyptian people, a topic that may even become the source of the accelerated sustainability transformation that Egypt desperately needs:

Democratic participation.

Wailing on the Road to Cancún

“It’s so bleak, it’s very depressing. But we are activists. When things are bleak, we don’t give up. We get busy.”

So said Meena Raman of the Malaysia-based activist group Third World Network at a small seminar on climate change held in Stockholm this week.  For me, it was an excellent opportunity to get updated on “The Road to Cancun” — the current state of climate negotiations, leading up to the next big UN conference on the matter next month in Mexico.

Per Holmgren explaining how global warming + global dimming = serious global problem

Last year, I was “in the game” in a small way (see “Reflections on CoP-15 and its Aftermath“). This year, I am just a distant spectator. Frankly, I have not felt very motivated to follow the action. While my assessment of last year’s CoP-15 was a bit more positive than most people’s, I have to confess that my mood has also turned gloomier when it comes to climate change. The recent power switch in the US congress — which effectively ties down the Obama administration, a critical actor in this drama — didn’t help. The climate news gets worse, while the resolve to take action at the highest levels has become, if anything, weaker and weaker.

My mood was hardly improved by listening to Per Holmgren’s quick summary of current climate science. Per is a well-known TV meteorologist in Sweden who just stepped off his TV platform to work on climate issues full time. He confirmed what we have already known, for years and years:  it’s bad, getting worse — likely to get a lot worse. “Are people understanding the situation better?” I asked. Yes, especially younger people, said Per. I meet 12 and 13-year-olds who discuss peak oil and all the rest of it. What about geo-engineering? I’m afraid we’ll have no choice but to do some of that, said Per, at the least “lighter” varieties, like carbon capture and storage.

After that gloomy review of the physical situation, Niclas Hälström then mind-mapped the crowd through the political situation, from Kyoto to today. It was no less complex, and no less gloomy. Niclas’s diagrams showed swirling tendrils of connections … the Bali Action Plan … REDD … Annex 2 Countries … the Copenhagen Accord … this is the vocabulary one must learn to follow climate negotiations as a spectator sport. Even when you understand the concepts, it’s still confusing. (I am reminded of watching cricket as an American university student studying in the UK. No matter how hard my friends tried to explain what was going on, I never really understood, and still don’t.)

After Meena Raman’s talk (I’ll report on her talk in a minute, I’m building up to the high point of the afternoon), an official from the Swedish government provided a “balanced” perspective — meaning that he sometimes spoke positively, sometimes gloomily. Sweden is “more than meeting” its Kyoto targets; but the EU targets, not to mention the world’s, are another matter. His talk was informative, but amounted to reading a press release from PowerPoint slides. I had to leave in the middle to pick up my kids from school, and I had the feeling that I would not miss very much in the way of news. (I will refrain from commentary at this time on Swedish climate policy per se.)

Which brings me to Meena Raman …

Continue reading Wailing on the Road to Cancún

The Earthquake in Copenhagen: Reflections on CoP-15 and its Aftermath

After attending CoP-15 (as a UN Observer, on temporary assignment to the Division for Sustainable Development, though of course I write entirely in my individual capacity), talking to numerous delegates and observers and NGO activists during the event, and reading over a hundred articles on the process and the outcome, I have come to an unsurprising conclusion.

The world will never be the same.

But it’s the way that the world will never be the same that interests me, for the events of the past two weeks in Copenhagen signal not just a change in global climate politics, but a change in global politics, period.  The primary outcome of these negotiations is not just the Copenhagen Accord, the relative merits and demerits of which will now be debated endlessly in the months and years ahead. The second, and likely more important, outcome is the global realization that the balance of things on this planet has shifted irrevocably.  Copenhagen marks a phase shift in the way the world sees, understands, and governs itself.

Much has already been written (and much more will be written) about how the result of the negotiations boiled down to a dialogue between China and the United States, though this was something that longtime observers had already been saying was the case, months before CoP-15.  The constellation of the instantly-famous eleventh-hour meeting between Wen, Zuma, Lula, and Singh (the heads of state for China, South Africa, Brazil and India respectively), into which Obama barged uninvited to make the final deal, also communicates something all by itself. The absence of any European country from the conversation that ultimately mattered most ­– not to mention the absence of Russia, Japan, and all the other countries — was, to say the least, widely noticed.  It is the height of understatement to note that in the end, no one can accuse the European nations, among them the world’s former colonial powers, of imposing their will on the conference’s outcome.

While those closing, dramatic moments in Copenhagen were definitive and emblematic, the process leading up to them was already quite revealing. Many complaints have been heard  (and will be heard) about the CoP-15 process, the delays, the procedural wrangling. Strangely, I found it all a sign of progress — at least, from the standpoint of equity and democracy in global governance.  The CoP-15 process reminded of nothing so much as the U.S. Senate, where all U.S. states have equal representation, regardless of their size, population, or wealth, and every Senator has an equal capacity to disrupt or smooth the proceedings with filibusters or smart behind-the-scenes deal-making.  This makes for challenges when trying to take tough decisions, but it is, in purely political terms, highly democratic.  (The UNFCCC goes one better and operates by consensus, meaning that every nation’s “vote” is equally powerful, at least in theory.)

My colleague and friend (also my client for the UN assignment mentioned above) Tariq Banuri made an interesting observation during one of the final side events, which was also the last in a series of panel discussions and debates on the general topic of geo-engineering.  The subtopic of this last panel was the governance of geo-engineering — not only the doing of it, but even the research about it.  Who decides, and how?  What governance structures exist to steer research (much less action) on whether we can, or should, try to meddle directly with the amount of solar radiation coming into the Earth, or the amount of heat that is trapped here?  Speaking for himself, and not for his Division or the UN, Tariq noted that the world already has a governance structure, with a parliament where global laws are debated (the UN General Assembly and related other bodies, including the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change), but no executive branch.  It’s as though Jefferson had won the arguments over federalism during the founding debates on the US Constitution, and all executive power had been devolved to the states, said Tariq.  This is how the UN functions.  Its “global parliament” can pass “laws,” but the execution (or even acknowledgment) of these “laws” is left to the individual countries, acting in their individual executive capacities.

We saw this on perfect display at CoP-15 in the negotiations between China and the US on the issue of reporting and transparency.  “Sovereignty” was the stated reason for China’s deep reluctance to agree to independent monitoring and verification of its emissions.  In other words, to offer a free interpretation, China was saying, “we have our own executive branch, and we resist these world federalist attempts to strengthen centralized global governance with extra-national control mechanisms.”

We saw this anti-federalist, sovereignty-asserting behavior also on display in the overall dialogue among the countries.  Old categories like “developed” and “developing” and “emerging market” appeared less and less relevant with each passing day.  Sudan, the Maldives, France, Indonesia … it would be impossible to say which of these was most “powerful” during CoP-15.  They participated as true equals, with President Nasheed of the Maldives probably clocking more media time, for example, than President Sarkozy of France, whose media savvy is legendary.

Of course, the categories of “developed” and “developing” remain essential when talking about the flow of climate funds, issues of equity, vulnerability, adaptation, etc.  But I am talking here about the democratic process of the world.  Just as a blustery Senator from a relatively poor Southern state in the US can become a pivotal figure in the US national political dialogue, the CoP-15 process established once and for all that when it comes to a global negotiation and deliberation process, even the smallest or economically most marginal nation can find a powerful and influential voice.

The US Senate is a better model for understanding post-Copenhagen geopolitics than, for example, the European Union, because despite the obvious dissimilarities between countries formerly classed as “West European” and “East European,” these continental halves are still more similar than different.  The countries of Europe share a common, interlinked history (religious, cultural, economic, political) going back millennia.  At the global level, however, real commonality of history is a new phenomenon, and plays out against a backdrop of much greater diversity.  This is a situation more like that in the United States (though, of course, even more extreme); and therefore the dynamics are more like those on display, historically, in the U.S. Senate.

That increasing global democracy should go hand-in-hand with reshuffling of power concentration into the “G2” (US and China) or “G2+3” (add India, Brazil, and South Africa) — constellations that were seen as decisive in Copenhagen — is not a contradiction. Both phenomena can co-exist, and geo-engineering provides a sobering example.  On the one hand, the great powers will ultimately be forced into more extensive governance decisions regarding whether, and how, to examine the last-ditch planet-hacking options we call geo-engineering.  In the meantime, however, several commentators have recently pointed out that some geo-engineering interventions are so cheap and easy, any single country of moderate size could decide to undertake them — the ultimate in “democratic empowerment” in the context of global environmental governance.  As with nuclear weapons proliferation, even the theoretical possibility of unilateral geo-engineering means that no country with the capacity to do it can be ignored, any more than the world can ignore North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Dynamics like this mean that global governance on issues of climate will never be fully reducible to a conversation among the largest and most economically powerful states.  Therefore an inclusive global engagement of all actors in this drama is a not optional, but mandatory.

Another unexpected outcome of Copenhagen concerns the enhanced role of the press when it comes to understanding what is happening in this increasingly complex globalized democracy. Many today talk about the decline of official news agencies, and the rise of blogging or even Twitter as signs of a new, dispersed information economy. Copenhagen crushes this myth, for during CoP-15 everyone, everywhere, probably including the delegation members themselves, was dependent on the news — professionally gathered, well-written, carefully edited, and broadcast as soon as possible in widely accessible form.  There was no other serious way to know what was going on.  Only the global news agencies and largest press organs had both the access and the capacity that allowed them to stitch together a reasonable picture, and present it in relatively coherent narrative.  (An official translator told me that, even with direct access and participation in the discussions as they were occurring, it was impossible to understand exactly what was going on.)  Those inside the Bella Center were getting their information from the latest AP or BBC or other posting, as much as they were from watching the closed circuit television cameras or whispering in the halls.  The bloggers of this world may be important for airing underreported facts or building the body of global opinion.  But the press is, more than ever, the entire world’s Fourth Estate, and therefore indispensable.

As for the Copenhagen Accord itself, I believe the world is being a bit quick in jumping to judgments, both positive and negative.  Only time will tell whether the agreement was truly the best that was possible under very difficult circumstances, and therefore a major step forward, and therefore something that we can and will build on in the near and mid-term future … or whether it was an unmitigated (pardon the pun) disaster, as many already claim.  The Accord’s major flaws have already been acknowledged by several of its chief last-minute architects, President Obama noticeably among them (and Chinese Premier Wen noticeably not). The most troubling among these flaws, from the perspective of science, may be the obvious delay that will likely result from this Accord in terms of when the world will peak in its emissions and begin finally to head down, instead of continuing to head up.  Every year of delay in “bending the emissions curve” means that the slope of the curve on the other side of that peak must be steeper.  This is a mathematical way of saying that the longer we wait to start reducing, the faster we must reduce, once we start.

If, that is, we wish to keep the global temperature from rising more than two degrees above pre-industrial normal during the remaining ninety years of this century.

That, dear friends and readers, is a very big “if,” because it is attached to a very difficult and not-fully-shared “wish.”  To want to save human civilization and natural ecosystems as we have come to know them, we must believe that these things actually are in danger.  Even if we do believe they are in danger, we must care enough — as a big, complex, democratic, geopolitically fractious, yet somehow unified world — to take the mammoth actions required to save them.  We must be willing and able, as a world, to take coordinated action of a kind never before seen on this planet.

It is the scale of this “must” that ultimately gives me hope after Copenhagen, and causes me to hold back both harsh judgment and optimistic praise.  That, and the rather open-ended quality of that word “We,” which cannot be reduced to national leaders, national governments, or the United Nations.  This “We must” is the most challenging thing the human species has ever attempted, and it is not going away.  This “We must” involves everyone, everywhere; and it will be with us for a lifetime. Of course the negotiations over the first-ever comprehensive, legally binding global treaty to transform the world’s management of energy, forests, and climate-related development patterns were dramatic, confusing, problematic, and disappointing for many; it would be something like a miracle had they not been.

The Earthquake in Copenhagen truly marked the end of one historical era, and the beginning of a new one.  It is an era of more democratic global governance (at least in the sense of how power, actual and perceived, is dispersed among nations).  An era of continuous struggle to understand what is happening to our planet, and continuous effort to share that understanding.  An era of nations being forced to collaborate, more and more closely, and over several decades, on planetary management.  In the hindsight of future history (especially environmental history), CoP-15 will likely loom large indeed as an inflection point, a time when everything changed — or rather, was finally seen by all as changed.

As in all earthquakes, some structures were probably destroyed during this event. But as in all earthquakes, these were mostly the older, more rickety structures — mental models and international patterns that have outlived their usefulness.

And as in all earthquakes, there will be a time of mourning losses, regretting the “we-should-have-knowns,” and blaming those who, after the fact, are seen as not having prepared adequately for the inevitable. But soon, very soon, the rebuilding will begin.

And for that rebuilding to succeed, all of us will need to pitch in and help.  Indeed, pitching in is not really an option.

It’s a “We must.”