Dispatches from Poznań: Change in the Weather, the United Nations in Poland

01/11/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Even more than the late autumn drizzle in Poznań, Poland, the rituals of 21st Century international gatherings tend to dampen the spirits of the most vigorous protesters. In her novel, The Sweetest Dream, Doris Lessing, the Nobel Prize winning author, captured the essence of this new international bureaucracy, ridiculing its capacity to admire the problems of globalization from a perch in the 5-star hotels of the world's capitals.

Walking a gauntlet of young civil society delegates to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in this ancient city, I couldn't help but feel a similar disconnect between the plunging prospects of working people around the world at the end of 2008 and the tepid rhetoric of government delegates at the official "Shared Vision" workshop. This workshop was designed specifically to provide a public opportunity to government representatives to inspire us to embrace change.

But it was announced last week that manufacturing output had fallen to its lowest level in the U.S. in 26 years. The U.S. auto industry and its employees are in free fall. We know from the experience of the steel industry collapse in 1999 what that translates to in blue-collar towns across the Midwest -- vacant storefronts, a new round of mortgage foreclosures, and less spending on health care as a generation of retirees lose their access to health insurance. And yet in the midst of this crisis the urgency for action at the UNFCCC is expressed only by a hundred students chanting at the entrance about what a "shared vision" of climate solutions means to them.

In the conference hall itself, an old environmental colleague introduced me to a U.S. State Department veteran of the climate talks. He started in 1989 during the first UN-sponsored discussions on sustainable development. He'd been at every conference since then, under the first President Bush, then two terms of Clinton, the second President Bush and he now looks with an eye toward serving again under President Obama. I asked him what would define a successful outcome at Poznań. He shrugged and called it a "way stop, nothing more."

Apparently, that's Poznań's history, too, a trade center where Western Europe reached across to Russia and down to the old Ottoman Empire, a city constantly tugged back and forth between Bismarck's Prussia, the Czar Nicholas, Stalin, and its own nationalist aspirations.

But the world desperately needs leadership that's more than a "way stop". If there's one encouraging sign at these climate talks, it's the degree to which the civil society representatives have grasped the idea that environmental investments are at the core of any viable strategy to reinvigorate the collapsing global economy. From the "global green New Deal" advocated by the United Nations Environment Program to the "green recovery" advocated by the U.S.-based Blue Green Alliance (a coalition of unions and environmental organizations), the idea that our way out of the current economic, energy and environmental crises is through big, strategic investments in clean energy is gaining ground the world over.

Anabella Rosemberg, coordinator of the International Trade Union Confederation's global warming initiative, remarked over dinner how the changed economic context of the UNFCCC talks isn't reflected in the official government rhetoric. "Regardless of which political party is in power in whatever country, the same negotiators show up -- representing socialists one year and neo-rightists the next. Democrats, Republicans, Liberals, Conservatives -- it's no wonder the urgency isn't here. But changing all that, that's our role, isn't it?"

Indeed. So one of the first true measures of the new Obama Administration's capacity to affect real change will be just how green its recovery package is in January. A recent study by the Center for American Progress and the University of Massachusetts Political Economy Research Institute, detailed how a "green recovery" program would create two million new jobs in two years by investing $100 billion in six smart global warming solutions. That should be the minimum bar.

The climate change negotiators in Poland will continue their discussions, preparing for the conclusion to the successor of the Kyoto Treaty in Copenhagen in 2009. But the real decision on whether or not we have the will to tackle climate change will happen much sooner in capitals around the world as governments grapple with how to stimulate their own economies.

A few months ago, former Vice President Al Gore observed, "We are borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Middle East to burn in ways that are destroying the plant. Every bit of that has got to change." Stimulating our own economy by borrowing money to go back to the technologies of the past would be a terrible mistake.

The Blue Green Alliance is a strategic partnership of U.S. labor unions and environmental organizations dedicated to expanding the green economy. The Alliance is composed of the United Steelworkers, Sierra Club, Communications Workers of America, Natural Resources Defense Council and the Service Employees International Union.

*Portions of this article are posted at the AFL-CIO Now Blog.