Nature Climate Change | Climate Feedback

The road from Copenhagen

Olive Heffernan

The latest issue of Nature Reports Climate Change, online today, takes a look at what is next for climate policy post-Copenhagen. I put together a round-up of responses from several experts on what they consider to be the most important milestones on the road from Copenhagen. I was curious as to where that road should lead to: Mexico in November, South Africa in 2011, or some destination outside of the UN calendar of scheduled conferences? Do we need a different route altogether, considering the failure of the UN to deliver an agreement in Copenhagen that everyone, well, agreed on.

But first of all, an admonition: I did actually invite responses from experts outside of the ‘male, white, middle-aged and living in the developed world’ category, but sadly none of these responded within our timeframe for the piece. Despite the relatively uniform appearance of our respondents, their views are, however, quite diverse on how we should move forward on tackling climate change from a legislative standpoint.

The full article is available here [free access], but I’ll flag up some of the highlights here:

Mike Hulme of the University of East Anglia says we need a more radical approach to climate policy, one in which different forcing agents are treated in different ways. “One could have two separate treaties: one controlling short-lived agents such as black soot and methane, and one concerned solely with carbon dioxide”, says Hulme. He also said to me that uncoupling powerful short-lived agents from carbon dioxide would also have the distinct advantage of dissociating part of the problem from the political issue of energy. Presumably, in that way, we would solve part of the problem without getting embroiled in all of the politics of vested interests.

Aside from that, Hulme says he thinks that we need near-term targets that are pragmatic and technology-based, rather than aspirational targets driven by IPCC science. “It’s better to be pragmatic than to be overly aspirational; surely the lessons of the 12 years since Kyoto tell us that?”, asks Hulme.

Roger Pielke Jr of the University of Colorado in Boulder agrees on the need to step away from aspirational targets and timetables for emissions reductions. “It is often said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results. [Yet] many in the climate debate seem ready to put the Copenhagen experience out of their minds and gear up for doing it all over again in Mexico City”, says Pielke Jr.

Jonathan Lash, president of the World Resources Institute in Washington DC, is far more optimistic about the UN process and says that a legally binding climate treaty, hopefully delivered in Mexico, is still the ultimate goal. Lash says there will be nearer-tern milestones to watch out for on the road to Mexico, however, including China’s twelfth Five-Year Plan, due out this spring. Also if the US passes domestic climate legislation, this will be an important landmark on the road to international legislation, says Lash.

John Schellnhuber, climate advisor to the German government and director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Research, Germany, says we should be looking to the UN meeting in Bonn this summer as a crucial test-bed for avenues beyond the Copenhagen quagmire. But ultimately, says Schellnhuber, what’s needed for the UN process to work – and to forge a global deal that will be tolerated by everyone – is co-operation between the US and China.

Bill McKibben, founder of, also blames the US and China for the failure of Copenhagen. McKibben says that they didn’t want to acknowledge calls by the world’s most vulnerable nations to limit warming to 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial values, and so they cut their own pact. But says McKibben “the US and China, having broken the UN process, also bought it. That is, success and failure are increasingly on their shoulders”.

For David Victor of Stanford University in California, the next definitive milestone is the expiration of the Kyoto Protocol in 2012. “At a minimum, governments will scramble to find some kind of replacement treaty so that systems put into place under the Kyoto Protocol — such as the Clean Development Mechanism — do not become mired in disarray” , says Victor. But he predicts that Mexico will probably be as much of a non-event as Copenhagen.

In the short-term, he says, the most important goal “will be to find an acceptable path that works for the small number of countries that really matter — starting with the United States and China”. Ultimately though, says Victor, we’ll still have to address the underlying cause, which is “a basic lack of public interest in addressing the problem”.


  1. Report this comment

    Karen Nyhus said:

    Hi Olive

    I generally love your work, but was pretty taken aback that the “experts’ views” about the road from Copenhagen were all white men from privileged (i.e., first-world) nations! Whazzup with that? If we continue quoting only “experts” from the existing power structure, we will get answers which support that structure, period (but thank you, Bill McKibben, for trying to represent on behalf of everyone else). There are plenty of experts in the rest of the world, which represents the majority of its people, and (as McKibben says), the most impacted. Perhaps a follow-up counterpoint, featuring only women, and only from non-white and/or indigenous communities, is in order? Seems only fair. How about Vandana Shiva, from India? How about Wangari Maathai (Kenya)? How about Andrea Carmen (U.S.), director of the International Indian Treaty Council, who held an indigenous summit on climate change in Anchorage, Alaska in April of 2009? Or make an exception and include Evo Morales, yes a man, but also head of a majority-indigenous state (Bolivia), and soon-to-be host of an alternative global summit on climate change (April, 2010)? We need to hear a true diversity of “expert” opinion if we are going to solve this problem. Thanks.

  2. Report this comment

    Olive Heffernan said:


    That’s a fair point, but I do admit – and explain – it in the blog post. I invited several other people to contribute but they couldn’t within the time frame. It’s unfortunate, I agree, but yes perhaps we should follow up with some more diverse contributors here on the blog.