For the last several weeks, pundits have been bemoaning the prospect that the nations of the world will likely not be signing a comprehensive treaty at the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. The simple fact is that Copenhagen has already succeeded beyond any reasonable expectations.
Of course, global warming skeptics call the summit a waste of time, and maintain that any agreement is a disastrous one since global warming doesn't exist. But even reasonable voices have been lukewarm on the summit, maintaining that no multilateral agreement will be formalized. Here's why their criticism misses the point:
Global Media Attention: Few events in the last decade have focused the world's attention like Copenhagen. Delegates from 192 nations have already arrived and 110 heads of state will gather for the final two days. Every media outlet on the planet is covering this event. The political left, right and center in every country in the world is debating one issue over all others this week -- climate change. Focusing the world's attention on this issue in such an unprecedented way means the commitment to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions is at an all-time high. To that extent, we've already made a huge leap forward. However, there is something more important happening here:
The Power of Now: Immediacy and competition are powerful forces. Virtually every world leader is driving their staffs to give them the most powerful commitment they can take to Copenhagen. No one wants to be outdone. While emissions reduction legislation has stalled in the U.S. Senate, President Obama is moving full speed ahead. His EPA Administrator, Lisa Jackson, recently announced that greenhouse gases pose a danger to public health -- a move that will enable broad new pollution regulations. President Obama promised last month to reduce U.S. emissions to 17% below 2005 levels by 2020. Leaders around the world aren't waiting with legislative support -- they are working overtime to make history.
The Developing World: While The European Union has promised to reduce emissions to 20% below 1990 levels by 2020 (and possibly by as much as 30%) -- the question remains -- what about China, India and Brazil, who were the focus of so much criticism after Kyoto because they were exempt from the targets? China has pledged to reduce its carbon intensity (the amount of carbon emissions for each unit of economic output) by 40% to 45% below 2005 levels by 2020. India has agreed to reduce its carbon intensity by 24% and Brazil has committed to reducing their emissions by 36% to 39% -- placing them near 1994 levels. Without Copenhagen, it's hard to imagine these countries stepping up in such a profound way.
The next few days will be fascinating theater, as world leaders compete with each other for the spotlight. Policy makers and experts are working around the clock to make sure their bosses show up in Copenhagen ready to make a significant announcement. No one wants to go home empty-handed.
Just as competition drives innovation in the private sector -- it's driving progress on climate change as well.
Critics such as Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe will continue to maintain that global warming is "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people" and Congress will continue to be locked in partisan debate -- but there can be no denying that something historic is happening in Copenhagen and the world is going to be better for it.
Steve Westly is a delegate to the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen.