Dissent, Winter 2020
XR promised to transcend politics as we know it. Yet politics has a stubborn way of catching up with those who disavow it.
Ten years ago, as world leaders headed to Copenhagen for the fifteenth annual United Nations Climate Change Conference, dignitaries hailed the event as the last chance to avert catastrophe.
“If we do not reach a deal at this time,” British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said, “let us be in no doubt: once the damage from unchecked emissions growth is done, no retrospective global agreement in some future period can undo that choice. By then it will be irretrievably too late.” The eminent economist Nicholas Stern echoed Brown’s predictions, calling the summit “the most important gathering since the Second World War, given what is at stake.”
Against this foreboding backdrop, hope was having its moment. U.S. President Barack Obama had taken office that year affirming America’s “responsibility to lead” on global climate action and pledging a $100 billion green jobs program over two years, in the vein of what some—borrowing a phrase from none other than free-market evangelist Thomas Friedman—were calling a Green New Deal. The UN got on board too: as climate writer Alexander C. Kaufman and others have highlighted, the UN Environment Programme published a report as early as 2009 calling for a “Global Green New Deal” that would see major investments in public transit, energy-efficient buildings, renewable energy, and land and water conservation, while drastically reducing fossil-fuel subsidies.
It didn’t take long for those hopes to be dashed. Once in Copenhagen, the United States tried and failed to strong-arm other countries into a deal on its terms. No binding agreement was reached. Friends of the Earth International called the conference an “abject failure,” and the decade since has borne out their diagnosis. Global CO2 emissions have gone up at least 15 percent. We’ve experienced eight out of the ten hottest years on record, as average global warming has passed the 1°C mark. Extreme weather events, from hurricanes to wildfires, have multiplied at a terrifying rate. Welcome to the post-hope era.