03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Clinton to the Rescue?

I'm glad I used a roller-coaster metaphor when I first got to Copenhagen -- it's gotten wilder and wilder. Yesterday, after a gloomy morning, as I was leaving the Bella Center, the student sit-in had begun. A group of young people were reading aloud the names of people (more than 13 million at this moment) who have signed the Avaaz petition calling for climate action. They sat in a big circle, very peacefully and quietly -- beautiful. But then I learned that the UN staff were threatening that if this peaceful sit-in did not end they would retaliate by completely denying ordinary citizen observers access to the rest of the conference -- effectively turning the UNFCC into another World Trade Organization.

But by evening, new rays of hope appeared. The intriguing proposal by Ethiopia and France that I mentioned yesterday began to gather steam. African countries, after initially rejecting it, stepped out to embrace it. So did Britain and Germany, creating the first real North-South coalition of this conference. U.S. Senator John Kerry and former Vice-President Al Gore both made energizing and vigorous interventions, and you could feel the energy building.

But then, at the evening's end, the UN announced that only a few hundred of the thousands of credentialed observers would be given access to the Bella Center -- and even those would not be allowed access to the areas where the delegations are located, cutting off the critical flow of information between citizen activists and their government delegations, a flow of information that has been crucial to climate change conferences ever since Rio. Then, this morning, we learned during a meeting with the U.S. delegation that in the early morning hours China had indicated that it really did not think it was worth continuing to try to hammer out a negotiating text. 

Things seemed at their bleakest. 

We were also told, though, that Secretary of State Clinton would release some new financial commitments when she arrived. Agriculture Secretary Vilsack had already committed $1 billion the previous day for tropical-forest protection -- but there had still been no clear indication that the Obama administration would actually commit to an adequate funding mechanism.

Later in the morning, the Chinese appeared to be retreating from their earlier pessimism. Then Clinton dropped her bombshell. The U.S. would commit -- as part of a deal in which all countries agreed to take action to reduce emissions and to make their performance transparent -- to participate in raising serious resources for helping the poorest nations develop clean energy and deal with the ravages of climate disruption. Clinton used the magic number -- $100 billion -- precisely the figure that prominent leaders in the South like India's Jairam Ramesh had said would signal real seriousness.

The jolt of adrenalin that this gave environmental observers was tangible. Suddenly, the tenor of the news coverage changed. But huge trust issues remain, and Copenhagen simply can't live up to our original hopes. But right now, as I post, it seems likely that the world could take a major -- if not final -- step forward in the next 48 hours.

And if it does, Hillary Clinton's speech will have been, in Churchill's phrase, "not the end, not the beginning of the end, but perhaps the end of the beginning" of the fight to restore our climate.