UN Climate Summit: Flickers of Hope, but the Building is Still Burning

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Heard on the street: “I hate it when the president comes to town”

New York is in disarray. Almost every mid-town street corner east of Broadway is choked with flatfoots, guns and radios tugging at their belts. As you get closer to First Avenue – closer to the United Nations Building – the barricades start appearing on the sidewalks and the traffic ebbs and flows depending on whether a presidental cavalcade is currently in motion.

In the last block, traffic disappears altogether. The constant thrum of this boundless city gives over to the quiet clatter of helicopters high overhead. Small clusters of UN delegates, bureaucrats, activists and journalists wait for permission to move to the next choke point – wait for the passing of the next parade.

As it turns out, there is not just one president in town. There are probably 60 – among almost 100 heads of state here today for the UN Climate Summit. You can judge the perceived importance of these various world leaders by how many police cars and high-security SUVs are in each individuals convoy – and by the tension on the faces of the soldiers riding in those SUV’s, their M16s at the ready.

And no wonder gansgters like driving in black Suburbans or Escalades. These are the vehicles of choice for the toughest of the tough, these legions of secret service types who have vowed to throw themselves in harm’s way to protect their president.

When U.S. President Barack Obama went by, the parade looked like a single-handed, single-minded attempt to reinvigorate the market for stupidly huge vehicles. A Yew York cop said, “Look at this. Clinton probably had 20 of those things. Bush had about 40. But now this guy [this Barack Obama] has, like, 75. (That was an exaggeration, but perhaps not by much.)

It’s hard to throw stones, though, about the overuse of greenhouse gases. I, of course, arrived in a plane, and while fighting my way through the UN security phalanx, I realized finally that having the really best quality UN media accreditation meant that you got to watch the proceedings on a much better television. With this kind of talent in town, you had to be a prime minister, a UN delegate or a particularly influential movie actor to get in the room.

And once there, you would probably be disappointed to hear everyone saying pretty much what you would have expected. President Obama said, “The threat from climate change is serious, it is urgent, and it is growing. And the time we have to reverse this tide is running out.” Then he ignored entirely the question of whether the U.S. Senate might be able to digest even the most diminished climate bill before negotiators head to Copenhagen in December.

Chinese President Hu Jintao said, “At stake in the fight against climate change are the common interests of the entire world.” Then he laid out a climate plan that, while more specific and ambitious than that of the U.S. or, scraping the bottom of the barrel, Canada, still promised only to reduce greenhouse gases “by unit of GDP.” That’s right. These are the intensity targets favoured by people like George Bush Junior and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper – “reductions” that allow total greenhouse gases to continue to increase.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy made a good point: “We are on the path to failure if we continue to act as we have.”

As did Rwandan President Paul Kagame, the remarkable politician who has somehow forged a reconciliation among two populations that had so recently been trying to wipe one another out. He said there should be “no finger-pointing.”

Let it be so. But let that not stop you from lifting your voice, from calling the nearest politician and demanding that this opportunity not be squandered.

Although a few world leaders didn’t bother to honor their compatriots with a UN appearance today (Stephen Harper sent Environment Minister Jim Prentice and then popped in later for the photo op), a gathering of this dimension suggests that the world is, sincerely, starting to take this issue seriously. There is a whiff of hope that, given a sufficient shove, those leaders might actually forge an agreement in Copenhagen that will change the disasterous direction that we currently walk.

Speak up. Give them the push. Clearly, they won’t do it without you.

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