A Long Night At The Copenhagen Climate Conference

Two years' effort comes down to two words: "shall" or "should"

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(Earthjustice attorney Erika Rosenthal is blogging from the Copenhagen climate conference)

4 a.m… Bella Center…December 15

I’m in a huge plenary room, waiting for the final session of the "Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-Term Cooperative Action under the Convention" to reconvene. (The AWG-LCA is responsible for one of the two negotiating tracks negotiations that are going on here to accommodate the fact that the US has not ratified the Kyoto Protocol.)

The hall has been in a state of suspended animation since midnight.

The chair took the stage shortly after the clock stuck twelve. Documents were distributed. This is the meeting where the negotiators are meant to agree to hand off the documents they’ve been working on for two years—since the adoption of the Bali Action Plan – to the ministers that have been arriving in Copenhagen all day. The U.S. reaction was stormy. They could not agree to the hand-off—even though the entire document is "bracketed," U.N.-speak for text that is recognized as not agreed. Heated words with the chair ensued and the delegation left the rooms to consult.

Representatives of a Swedish youth group started singing Christmas carols.

At 1:45 a.m. the "G77" – the name for the large negotiating block of developing countries (although there are 130 now there were 77 when the group was formed in 1964)—huddled in the front of the room. It looked like they were posing for a group picture, and the cameras started flashing. They left en masse—representatives of the vast majority of the world’s population—to strategize in an adjacent room.

The Swedish youth did cartwheels down the aisles.

The building hums with its own rhythms in the night. Cleaning crews move through the building, speaking almost as many languages as the negotiators. Scattered delegates chat and nap…visit vending machines. The scene is oddly compelling. Ministers take the reins later today (Wednesday). Heads of State take over on Thursday. It’s crunch time, yet the divisions are as deep as ever.

Now, the Swedish kids roam the hall with signs that say "smile"… now they’re singing "Good Morning to You" from Singing in the Rain.

A few minutes ago, a little after 4 a.m., the G77 delegates returned to the hall. The U.S. returned as well. These negotiations must set the world on a path toward a legally binding agreement in 2010. The urgency of the science tells us we must act.

5 a.m. The chair takes the stage again. Apologizes for the late, or rather, early, hour.

The Swedish youth flash the "Smile" sign at him. He produces a wan attempt. Explains that the U.S. has concerns and gives the floor to the US delegation.

The U.S. can’t accept the text. It has problems with setting a collective greenhouse gas emissions target for developed countries of 25-40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. The whole text is already bracketed, but the U.S. wants to insert a bracketed "X percent under 2005 by 2020" and state in a footnote that "X is equal to the sum of reductions by the parties." They want to change "shall" to "should" throughout the text to allow countries to pledge the commitments under their national laws —with little or no real international obligation to do so—and add them all up to get the aggregate target.

It’s not a recipe for keeping climate change below 2 degrees. Many say it’s a recipe for 4 degrees or more. Untold suffering around the world. Unimagined loss of biodiversity.

For two hours the parties restate their long-held positions, grafting a web of brackets within brackets to the text.
It’s 7 a.m… I’m walking back to the hotel. It’s snowing. It’s in the hands of the ministers and heads of state now. They must do better.

Part of the International program, Erika's work focuses on climate change, at international negotiations and with U.N. Environment Programme and regional bodies like the Arctic Council to reduce emissions of atmospheric pollutants.