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Amy Seidl: Copenhagen: Mind the Gap

Today's post is form Amy Seidl, author of Early Spring: An Ecologist and Her Children Wake to a Warming World. Seidl has taught in the environmental studies programs at Middlebury College and the University of Vermont. She is currently a research scholar at Middlebury and is at work on a book about adapting to climate change. She lives with her family in Huntington, Vermont, in a solar- and wind-powered home.

Seidl Before the holidays, I attended the Copenhagen Climate talks, if virtually. From my Vermont office I fed hourly on an array of media: streaming video, updated reports, panel discussions, protest vigils, and live feeds from the delegates' plenaries. It was as good as being there minus the jet lag and Danish hospitality.

What's clear from my desk-chair participation is this: the connection between the final accord and contemporary climate science is almost nil, it's not even a gap: it's a gulf.

The scientific consensus is that 350 parts per million (ppm) of atmospheric carbon dioxide is the safe upper limit to ensure life on the planet. Simple really. By making 350 our target, nations commit to collectively reverse the upward trend of emissions and safeguard the planet–and human and nonhuman life–against extreme and perilous effects, a rational and scientifically-grounded approach.

In contrast, the outcome at Copenhagen was that nations "took note"–a kind of formal nod–of an agreement in which no emissions targets are listed, no time tables are set and, while two degree Celsius increase in temperature is listed as a goal, no one is held legally accountable to it. Given the impotence of this pact, we can assume that the trajectory of annual increases in atmospheric carbon will continue. Indeed, the U.S.'s offer to reduce emissions by a mere 4% by 2020–when a 40% decline is necessary to achieve 350 ppm–is further evidence of our lack of belief in the science. The gap expands.

Clearly, the outcome of the talks is a disappointment. Many went to Copenhagen pledging to move towards 350, including tens of thousands of citizens, the European Union and the G77, a group of developing countries that have contributed little to climate change but whose poor and vulnerable populations have borne the brunt of its effects.

Why did the U.S. lead the climate talks away from an agreement based on science? How can we get back on track?

First, climate change remains invisible to the American public. Even though spring arrives two weeks earlier, the west has experienced prolonged droughts, and hurricane intensity is increasing, the connection between these events and climate change hasn't been made. Nor have the reports of desertification in Kenya, amplified monsoons in India, sea level rise in Tuvalu, and the strange movement of species all over the earth, i.e., penguins in Brazil and warm-loving squid in Alaska, convinced us.

Second, we are bound by a political system that demands legislative majority and yet too often yields to vested interests. It is true that anything Obama would have negotiated in Copenhagen would have to be ratified in the Senate. But it is also true that House and Senate Republicans speaking at Copenhagen supported continued use of fossil fuels, lest American jobs be lost, and asked that the "theory of climate change be scientifically verified." Enough said.

How best to resolve these issues? We must find new ways to show the science of climate change, connecting the changes in weather and season to the trends and predictions that climate scientists are making. Climate change is not occurring only in the Arctic, it is happening in our own backyards, in our communities, and in the places we fish, hunt, and watch birds.

Further, like the errant behavior in a young child, Americans need to understand that their behavior–contributing more greenhouse gases per capita than almost anywhere else in the world, not to mention our historical responsibility for the problem itself–is poor citizenship. It is unjust at its core and it will come back to bite us. For Americans to face this reality we need leadership, and Obama, a man who has long fought for equity and justice, is the one to provide it.

Looking in on Copenhagen it was hard not to notice that the rest of the world gets it, understands how hard and fast the chemistry and physics of climate change are and how little time we have to make transformative change. Bridging these scientific and social gaps for the American public is essential and must happen quickly, otherwise true accord, with nature and the rest of humanity we share the planet with, will remain out of reach.