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William Powers: Snowflakes in Copenhagen

It’s a little ironic. The world has gathered at the climate conference in Copenhagen to talk about the weather, but few people are aware of, well, the weather. Not weather trends, mind you. There’s plenty of discussion about that. I’m talking about the fact that it’s snowing now in the Danish capital—lightly, beautifully. This is more than poetic musing. Both Freud and Jung said that the world’s problems can’t be solved with the same type of thinking that created them. Recent psychological studies suggest that humans cannot solve environmental problems through logic alone, divorced from the environment we’re trying to protect. We have to also feel ourselves to be part of nature. Take the example of one Latin American delegate I met here. She has been working until 2am every night; and she wakes up at 5am to begin work every day. “Can she make good decisions without any sleep?” a colleague asked, rhetorically, to a group of us here in the gargantuan, windowless media room. An ethos of total work reigns in Copenhagen—not unlike the one that’s consuming the world’s finite resources at unsustainable rates and spewing out tons of greenhouse gasses. Blackberrys vibrate away as participants race from meeting to meeting, stopping only to gulp down a double espresso. Meanwhile, I discovered a “meditation and prayer room” here, and walked inside today. Of the 40,000 participants, only one was there in the silent space, amid a half dozen potted trees. In a business suit, he was stretched out of the floor, asleep. I'm not suggesting delegates chant “ohm” all day or hug trees instead of hammering out solutions to climate change. Global warming is already contributing to floods and hurricanes, severe droughts, and spreading diseases like dengue fever and malaria. The need for work is urgent—the world must act. But if we’re to achieve equilibrium in our ecosystem, shouldn’t we also foster equilibrium in our lives? Here’s a modest suggestion for the delegates: work hard, but also step outside once in a while and catch a snowflake on your tongue. I know at least four leaders from Bhutan who are probably doing just that.

William Powers: In the Thick of It

COPENHAGEN—Under the vaulting sloped-glass roof of Copenhagen's Bella Center, the excitement is palpable. I'm here for the two-week long "COP 15," or the Fifteenth Conference of the Parties of the UN Convention on Climate Change. The world’s environment ministers have arrived in advance of the historic gathering of 110 heads of state coming next week. It's been a rollercoaster ride so far. On Friday, spirits lifted after much uncertainty that any sort of deal could be struck, when a draft agreement that seemed to have some consensus finally circulated. It said that—using 1990 levels as a baseline—all countries together should reduce emissions from 50 to 95 percent by 2050, with rich countries cutting emissions from 25 to 40 percent by 2020. But then at a ministerial meeting on Sunday, the United States dropped a bomb: it couldn't commit to a legally binding target for emissions reductions because Congress hasn’t approved the proposal. Not surprisingly, Canada and other rich nations followed suit, saying essentially, "well, then we won’t either." "When that happened, the whole dialogue broke down," said Papua New Guinea Minister Kevin Conrad, who was present. In rebuff, lesser-developed countries basically told the rich world to "sort out your problems internally and then you come back and talk to us about the things we can do." Then they walked out, stopping negotiations for most of today. By Monday, the conference chair, Danish Minister Connie Hedegaard, had managed to overcome the deadlock through some quick diplomacy. But the peace is fragile, and there’s an increasingly pessimistic sense among a number of country delegates and representatives from non-governmental organizations about the possibility of any significant deal being struck here. The pessimism is understandable, given the vast differences in perspectives. For example, last week Washington scoffed at the idea that there exists a "climate debt" that industrialized countries owe to the world (an idea based on the inconvenient fact that wealthy nations have caused the vast majority of the current problem). But in a developing world press conference I just attended, cries were made for "twenty-four trillion dollars in reparations for climate change damages, as well as a radical reduction of emissions in the North." Meanwhile, 1,200 protesters were taken into police custody over the weekend. Some of them held up signs that read, "Blah, Blah, Blah. Take Action!" referring to the perception that nothing of substance had come of last week's negotiations. Against this backdrop, the world's leaders will soon arrive to try and hammer out the contentious bargaining issues like financing and exactly how deeply to cut emissions. It's only going to get more interesting.

THE INDEX — December 4, 2009

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