Who needs a binding global climate treaty?

That was essentially the message delivered by Jonathan Pershing, the Obama administration's deputy special climate change envoy, when he held an off-the-record briefing for US nongovernmental outfits at the Copenhagen climate summit on Tuesday. Speaking to about 200 people from various environmental groups, Pershing made the case that a non-binding political agreement—in which the world's biggest emitters of greenhouse gases would pledge to take various actions to reduce their own emissions—would be more effective than a treaty establishing firm and legally enforceable commitments, according to several people who attended the session. Pershing's comments mark a significant effort on the part of the United States to reshape the climate negotiations underway in Copenhagen. Though the Copenhagen session was initially conceived as the gathering where a hard-and-fast treaty would be crafted, there is now no chance of that happening. Pershing was trying to turn the absence of such an accord into a plus.

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This story was reported for Mother Jones as part of the Copenhagen News Collaborative, a cooperative project of several independent news organizations. Check out the constantly updated feed here. Mother Jones’ comprehensive Copenhagen coverage is here, and our special climate change package is here.

The highlight of my first day at COP15 was a conversation with the extraordinary Nigerian poet and activist Nnimmo Bassey, chair of Friends of the Earth International. We talked about the fact that some of the toughest activists here still pull their punches when it comes to Obama, even as his climate team works tirelessly to do away with the Kyoto Protocol, replacing it with much weaker piecemeal targets.

If George W. Bush had pulled some of the things Obama has done here, he would have been burned in effigy on the steps of the convention center. With Obama, however, even the most timid actions are greeted as historic breakthroughs, or at least a good start.

"Everyone says: 'give Obama time,'" Bassey told me. "But when it comes to climate change, there is no more time." The best analogy, he said, is a soccer game that has gone into overtime. "It's not even injury time, it's sudden death. It's the nick of time, but there is no more extra time."

The solution for Bassey is not carbon trading or sinks but "serious emissions cuts at the source. Leave the oil in the ground, leave the coal in the hole, leave the tar sands in the land." In Nigeria, where Bassey lives, Friends of the Earth is calling for no new oil development whatsoever, though it does accept more efficient use of existing fields. If Obama isn't willing to consider those types of solutions, Bassey says, "he may as well be coming [to Copenhagen] for vacation."

Attention, world leaders: You don't want the pictures below to come true.

Props to Greenpeace and Tcktcktck.org for the images, currently up at the Copenhagen airport. For more, click here.

Just past the security gates and the main entrance to the Bella Center, the site of the Copenhagen climate change conference, attendees must pass through a forest of exhibition booths—there are ones set up by conservation groups, research centers, and clean business associations, all promoting their work.

What you don’t see there are displays for the fossil-fuel industries that have massive financial stakes in the negotiations here. There is no table for Exxon Mobil, which made more profits than any company in the world last year. There is no table for the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), or any other coal group for that matter.

It’s not hard to understand why—dirty energy groups might get chased out by the armies of young activists in blue TckTckTck t-shirts.

Another reason: oil and coal companies don’t need to make their pitches here. Their work has already been done, in a sense, in Washington and other seats of government. National capitals tend to provide better access to decision-makers than international conferences such as COP15 do, according to several energy industry officials. It’s easier to work on familiar turf.

“Congress is a fantastic investment for the fossil-fuel industry,” said Steve Kretzmann, who started Oil Change International four years ago to shed light on the political influence of the oil industry.

One way to look at all of the green activism, rallies, and side events in Copenhagen is to call it a big game of catch-up, chasing after the larger fossil fuel lobbies. The U.S. oil and gas industry spent $35 million in political contributions last year; the coal mining industry spent $3.4 million; and electric utilities spent $20 million, according to opensecrets.org. So the green theater here will be eye-catching, and loud, and will try to make up for the fact that polluting industries have historically kicked their butts in getting lawmakers and bureaucrats to protect their interests.

Next week the Carbon Capture and Storage Association—a “clean coal” group—and the International Petroleum Industry Environmental Conservation Association will set up in the exhibit hall. But environmental and science groups will still vastly outnumber them.

This isn’t to say more fossil-fuel representatives aren’t here—they’re just not especially visible. I haven’t yet met Brian Flannery, the infamous climate adviser for Exxon and the subject of a mock “wanted” poster at a previous climate conference, but I’m told he’s around. Such advocates attend under the odd moniker BINGOs—Business and Industry Non-Governmental Organizations. They hold private meetings each morning and are loosely coordinated by the Paris-based International Chamber of Commerce.

The cliché is that the real work for lobbyists here is “wining and dining” delegates, trying to bend their ears to the interests of particular industries. One gas-industry BINGO who didn’t want to be named told me that he and a colleague planned to identify two delegates each day who would be useful to get to know, then invite them to dinner that night. “Lobbying isn’t good for the waistline,” he said.

I asked him who exactly he’d be pursuing—which delegates, from which countries?

“Wouldn’t you like to know,” was all he offered.

This story was reported for Grist as part of the Copenhagen News Collaborative, a cooperative project of several independent news organizations. Check out the constantly updated feed here. Mother Jones’ comprehensive Copenhagen coverage is here, and our special climate change package is here.

Is something rotten in the state of Denmark? The Guardian broke news on Tuesday afternoon that the Copenhagen climate talks had fallen into "disarray" after text leaked from the Danish host government outlining a far weaker deal than expected. Although it seems like the leak story has been overblown, the episode has sparked serious questions about the Danish government's leadership of these delicate negotiations.

The leaked draft suggests that developed countries would be allowed much higher per capita carbon emissions up to 2050 than an earlier draft agreement permitted. The leaked document also allows only a limited role for United Nations in handling climate financing for poor countries, a move favored by wealthy nations but unpopular with the developing world. The Guardian suggested that the United States and the United Kingdom were parties to the draft as part of an inner circle of nations advising Denmark.

However, the draft is dated Nov. 27, and negotiators insist it is just one of many different texts being circulated among participating countries. Earlier versions containing different goals leaked out in late November.

US Deputy Special Envoy for Climate Change Jonathan Pershing said in a briefing to NGOs on Tuesday that he had not seen this draft and it should not be viewed as meaningful. Instead, he said, Danish negotiators have been working to fashion a number of draft texts reflecting what various parties might support as the final agreement. "There is no single Danish text," said Pershing. "They are working on a series of texts, because that is their role in the presidency."

The past decade has been the warmest on record, according to a new report from the World Meteorological Organization. But in the early days of the Copenhagen summit, climate change is in danger of being overshadowed by the so-called ClimateGate affair.

Climate skeptics and dirty energy front groups falsely claim that a decade's worth of emails stolen from the a climate research unit at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom are a smoking gun proving that scientists have colluded to make the case for global warming appear stronger than it really is. In fact, nothing in the messages challenges the finding by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—the premier body of climate scientists organized by the United Nations—that the evidence of climate change is "unequivocal." Yet ClimateGate seems to be the main topic of interest for many of the 5,000 journalists here. I've been quizzed about it on several television programs, and yesterday I spotted British climate change denier Lord Christopher Monckton dishing on the affair to a gaggle of avid journalists. Scientists and leaders at the summit are being bombarded with questions about the "controversy." 

News from our other blogs and elsewhere on health, the environment, and wildlife.

Crowded Planet: Copenhagen struggles with 20,000 more attendees than planned.

Time for Action: Danish organizers say the time is for action, not words. [Al Jazeera]

Say Goodbye: Real possibility of public option may be going away soon, so what'll replace it?

Making Changes: The EPA's evaluation of the dangers of GHGs could have big impacts on business.

Packaging Air: The New York Times asks why there's so much extra space in packaging. [Consumerist]

Deadly Questions: Odd "suicides" at Gitmo, some physically impossible, raise questions.

Big Steps: Is pushing for broad environmental policy change better than "going green" at home?

This is London: Londoners protest ahead of Copenhagen, asking for real change. [MSNBC]

Press Monkey: Photo-snapping oranguatan takes popular self-portraits.

Green Tax: A flat carbon tax seems easy and straightforward... at first.

Taxes Part 2: Kevin Drum thinks the Senate will never pass a serious carbon tax. Ever.

Slim Shady: Eminem brags about rape on tape, plus new sex assault report.


There's a lot more on the line in Copenhagen than our own well-being. The well-being of a whole bunch of other species, for starters.

The Wildlife Conservation Society today joined the throng of organizations, scientists, and researchers releasing important findings in conjunction with COP15—trying to leverage the outcome with years of data and observation.

WCS's report (PDF) highlights more than a dozen species and groups facing threats from a warming climate. It's not just about polar bears, obviously. Many wild plants and animals are affected by changes in:

  • Land and sea temperatures
  • Rain patterns
  • Disease and pathogen boundaries
  • Predation, human and otherwise

The WCS report particularly highlights the role of deforestation in climate change. Nearly 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are the result of deforestation—that's more than the combined output of all the world's trucks, trains, cars, planes, and ships. So protecting our extant forests is one of the thriftiest and swiftest of remedies.

Climate change affects species in every habitat around the world. Here are a few noted by WCS researchers, each affected by a different facet of a warming world:

  • Bicknell’s thrush: a bird nesting in the mountains of northeastern North America, whose breeding forests are threatened by even slight increases in temperature .
  • Flamingos: a group of species impacted by the availability and quality of wetlands in the Caribbean, South America, Asia, and Africa.
  • Irrawaddy dolphin: a cetacean relying on estuaries in Southeast Asia, where changes in freshwater flow and salinity impact their survival.
  • Musk ox: Arctic dwellers specialized for the harsh environment of the tundra, now at risk from increasing predation by grizzly bears moving north toward the tundra.
  • Hawksbill turtle: a marine reptile highly vulnerable to changes in temperature, since higher temps produce more female hatchlings, skewing sex ratios and thereatening their long-term survival.

Everything's at stake. The future will be written in what is or isn't done over the next 12 days in Denmark.


On the opening day of the COP15 talks, the Obama administration is poised to provide an Exxon-led consortium with a $3 billion loan for a liquefied natural gas (LNG) project in Papua New Guinea.

The loan has been approved by the Export-Import Bank, an agency of the Obama administration, and was first reported on Friday by the Bloomberg news service. The report comes amidst increasing pressure on the U.S. to offer billions of dollars to poor and developing countries for clean energy generation and projects that will assist them in adapting to climate change.

But the financing package also runs counter to prior commitments given by Obama. Back in September, at the UN Climate Change summit, he promised: "I will work with my colleagues at the G20 to phase out fossil fuel subsidies so that we can better address our climate challenge." A few days later, in Pittsburgh, G20 heads of state included in their final communiqué a commitment to ending these subsidies, although without specifying a timeframe.

Opponents of the Exxon deal are now raising the issue at COP15. "The Obama administration talks a good game on climate and ending fossil fuel subsidies," Steve Kretzman of Oil Change International told The Nation, "but $3 billion for Exxon says its still business as usual in Washington." Obama's message to the world and to his colleagues in the G20 is to cut subsidies. But the message to agencies within his administration is to keep the subsidies flowing.

The loan approval could further undermine US legitimacy during the COP15 talks. Yvo de Boer, Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, has made "fast-track financing" a key negotiating demand at COP15. He has called on developed nations to commit to $10 billion per year for three years beginning in 2010. The money would be used to finance adaptation to the effects of climate change, such as rising sea levels or desertification, and fund a transition in developing economies from carbon intensive forms of energy production to cleaner ones. The US has said that it will pony up its "fair share" of that amount but has not made a specific offer.

Greenpeace, which has a large and visible presence inside and outside the Bella Center, is pushing hard on the issue of financing. When asked about the Exxon-Mobile loan, Steve Herz, a policy analyst with the group, told The Nation: "For one company, for one project to receive that level of funding is huge, especially relative to the amount of financing that's currently on the table in Copenhagen." Pledges for "fast track financing" have been made, but questions remain about who will provide long-term financing, perhaps $300 billion a year by 2020, for clean energy and adaptation projects. Cutting global fossil fuel subsidies could go a long way for addressing both financing tracks.

Kretzman is working the halls of the Bella Center trying to link the issue of fossil fuel subsidies and climate finance. He estimates that fossil fuel subsidies among developed nations are in the range of $57 billion. "One of the key issues on the table here in Copenhagen," he says, "is money. The US hasn't been able to give any specific commitments yet towards climate finance. I guess Exxon comes first."

This story was reported for The Nation as part of the Copenhagen News Collaborative, a cooperative project of several independent news organizations. Check out the constantly updated feed here. Mother Jones’ comprehensive Copenhagen coverage is here, and our special climate change package is here.

The so-called "ClimateGate" scandal is a dream come true for global warming deniers. In the two weeks since hackers stole more than a decade of emails from Great Britain's Hadley Climactic Research Unit, thousands of private messages between leading climate researchers have been mined for dirt and relentlessly spun by a network of front groups for Big Oil. The scientists' emails reveal little more than efforts to grapple with complex data and implacable critics.  But the deniers have found a voice in the media as they proclaim that the case for global warming has been proven a liberal conspiracy and a sham. "Anyone who continues to cite the [United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] as representing the 'consensus' on global warming is wrong," crows the industry-funded Heartland Institute on a web page devoted to the scandal. "The IPCC has been totally discredited."

Most Americans still see solid evidence that the earth is warming, yet polls suggest those views are malleable. In 2002, veteran Republican consultant and framing guru Frank Luntz counseled the GOP "to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the [climate] debate." Luntz has since distanced himself from this strategy, but that hasn't stopped junk science and bogus economic forecasts from ricocheting through a vast echo chamber of kooky blogs, "nonpartisan" institutes, and fake "green" and "citizen" groups that are often directly or indirectly controlled by the oil and coal industries. Luntz's strategy may finally be working. According to polls conducted by the Pew Research Center, the percent of Americans who saw "solid evidence" for global warming peaked in 2006, at 80 percent, and has steadily fallen ever since. As the United States prepares to enter UN climate treaty negotiations in Copenhagen this week, only 57 percent of Americans see solid evidence for warming, with just 36 percent blaming it on humans.  Here's a guide to the dozen loudest components of the climate disinformation machine.