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Waiting in Copenhagen

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The mood is edgy in the forum in Copenhagen. This large arena/conference space has been set up for NGO-accredited people attending the United Nations Climate Conference. Large screens broadcast the proceedings from the Bella Center (where the actual conference is being held) to rows and rows of seats occupied only occasionally by a person. Laptops are everywhere, with people following news sources and social networking sites while creating their own contributions.

Some watch the screens, which show the conference's high-level session, in which heads of states are giving short speeches about the problem, the process and the outcome. Denmark, China, Brazil, USA, Lesotho, India, Japan, Ethiopia, South Africa, Grenada, Sweden, Sudan, European Commission, Bolivia and Venezuela, the final speaker for now. The news is reporting on talks between the United States and China, perhaps others.

President Obama's originally strict schedule seems to have changed in order to work toward an agreement. The stakes are exceptionally high, both for the planet and for the political capital of these world leaders. I am trying to think of another point in history in which more than a hundred heads of state have come together, after weeks of negotiations. All talked about the gravity of the situation, the necessity of action and the need to come together for a solution. Yet an agreement is still uncertain, and the world waits.

The question of the moment is whether there will be an agreement. What will it be? We will know, perhaps in a few hours, a day, maybe two. I keep thinking about why this all matters. For some of the countries, the issue is survival. As sea levels rise, the small island nations negotiate for an agreement to keep the warming low enough to prevent the destruction of their countries. For others, the issue is economic. How do we maintain a stable climate while shifting our economy away from major energy sources?

The question I return to is about the power of the world community. Will we come together to solve a problem defined not by an enemy, but by our relationship to the world we inhabit? The answers are all still uncertain, and for now we wait. In Copenhagen and around the world, we wait. I hope our leaders come together to put us on track to solve the climate change problem, beginning now and perfecting along the way.

The one answer I'm certain about is the one the world's people will give to their leaders when an agreement is reached. We are going to work to solve this problem.

Notes from Copenhagen

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Stepping into the conference center at the United Nations Climate Change Conference is like stepping into an international river. A rush of people from all over the world constantly streams along the hallways, meeting rooms, work spaces, cafes and conference displays. Many delegates speed through on their way to strategy and negotiations sessions, while others stop into the eddy of a café for a bite to eat. The conference rooms are like creeks branching off the river with intriguing offerings of panels, commentators, and research reports put on by one of hundreds of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) accredited at the conference.

This conference brings together delegations from nearly 200 countries responsible for negotiating agreements -- on everything you want to know about climate change. At any moment, you can find delegation press briefings, creative youth actions on specific policy, or an international climate expert giving a talk.

Before coming to the talks, I had not envisioned these two events happening simultaneously in the same place, but they are co-dependent. The NGO presence and the observations, information, and action they create is a present and powerful reminder of why these talks are happening. Additionally, the NGO delegations receive regular briefings from various players in the talks creating a level of accountability.

As an elected official who cares a lot about how people engage in the political decision-making process, I am fascinated by the relationship between negotiations and the wider conference, and I have made a few observations about the process including:

1) The NGOs are incredibly important and useful. The preparation, expertise, and perspective they offer contribute to the overall direction of the talks. It is also important for a dialogue to happen among all the groups, even if the dialogue is as simple as sharing the same space.

2) The youth NGOs (YOUNGOs) are particularly well-organized and thoughtful about how to communicate their presence and concerns related to the negotiations. Youth do not necessarily have a seat as parties, but they are recognized as a constituency group and they have one of the greatest stakes as a constituency group in the outcome of the talks. This combination calls for creativity in how to engage in the talks effectively, and the youth are prepared. They invariably show up at high level briefings with well-framed questions, and their actions are tied to specific policy discussions on the table. The US youth delegation is 500 strong, and they are a part of a much larger international youth presence. As a policy mentor for delegates in the Will Steger Foundation, I have been honored to see the commitment of these young people.

3) Many of the people at the conference have one ear to the talks and a focus outside. Countless numbers of iPhones, cameras and laptops are connected to and communicating with people around the world. All of these links are being used to communicate, interpret, and advocate about the talks. It makes for a somewhat disjointed feel about where the focus of each individual actually is.

The conference continues to ramp up in intensity. The seriousness of the issues being negotiated and the arrival of worldwide leaders in the coming days will only increase the pressure. With such complicated, high stakes negotiations, the rush of the river will speed up, take unexpected turns, and perhaps slow at times. But the way is clear. These talks need to result in an agreement that will put people around the world to work slowing climate change.

How do we feed the world without destroying it?

The world population is growing by 75 million people each year. That's almost the size of Germany. Today, we're nearing 7 billion people. At this rate, we'll reach 9 billion people by 2040. And we all need to eat. But how?

That's a critical issue the Institute on the Environment tackles in our first "Big Question" video. We hope the video will help launch a much bigger, national dialogue around agriculture and sustainability, so check it out and share it with your friends!

Copenhagen, Footprints, and Evolution

Thumbnail image for copenhagen.jpgIn just a few days, negotiators and leaders from across the globe will meet in Copenhagen in an attempt to clamp down on the gigatons of greenhouse gases we're dumping into our atmospheric "bathtub" every year. The longer we fail to act, the more we risk crossing dangerous climactic tipping points, endangering global food security, and creating climate refugees.

Recognizing the immense scale of climate change can be disheartening. Hopefully Copenhagen will deliver the equally immense global commitment this issue requires. But what can a single person do? It's easy to feel helpless. Consider this: the average American emits 20 tons of CO2 every year. That's a lot of CO2 (check out the CO2 cubes project to see what a ton of CO2 looks like). But many coal plants emit more than 20,000,000 tons of CO2 every year! On the South Dakota - Minnesota border, a combination of poor credit markets and concern about climate change led to the demise of the proposed Big Stone II coal plant, but Minnesota still burns tons of coal every day to meet 60% of our state's energy demand.  The global picture is far more daunting. In China, as we often hear, a new coal plant opens every ten days.

Feeling discouraged? Wait! If we all do our part to save energy, won't we make a big impact? True, but the key is: "if we all do our part". Unfortunately, as Todd noted in his post, the general public's willingness to tackle climate change has been waning. Plenty of people really just don't care, and some actually vehemently oppose action (think "Drill, Baby, Drill"). So until policy creates strong financial incentive structures to motivate these individuals, why worry about lowering your carbon footprint? I believe the answer is clear: Even if the Chinese coal plant coming online tomorrow will emit more CO2 in an hour than you'll save by riding your bike to work for the next 20 years, your personal actions (bike riding, energy conservation, lowering meat consumption, etc.) are immensely critical for catalyzing others to act and thus establishing consensus and societal norms. Strong consensus is extremely necessary for gaining the political will to pass climate legislation in the Senate and strengthening the legislation in the years to come. Finally, I believe such consensus at home could help catalyze international agreements to cut emissions - like the one we hope to see in Copenhagen.

My reasoning behind these statement stems from some conversations I had with classmates of the Santa Fe Institute's 2009 Global Sustainability Summer School. Most of our conversations about sustainability eventually led to discussions of human nature, and I was fortunate to learn about Sam Bowles' work on the evolutionary origins of altruistic behavior. Bowles' interdisciplinary research suggests that intragroup cooperation within groups evolved (through group selection) as a result of intergroup conflict. In other words, humans are extremely good at cooperating with those that are within our particular group, partly as a result of being under attack by other groups. But when it comes to climate change, humanity is all in the same boat (although clearly the poorest in the world will suffer the most). We're under attack by our own actions and our own history, and all nations must work together to solve this problem on the scale it deserves. Thinking of the situation as us (Americans, developed world) vs. them (Chinese, Indians, developing world, etc.) only heightens our tendencies for intergroup conflict and obstructs cooperation. But if widespread consensus builds and societal norms are established, perhaps we could break through and make real progress on protecting our climate.

So ride your bike, take a staycation, and eat a few less steaks. Yes, you'll be saving CO2, but you will also be catalyzing global action!

(photo credits: olgite via Flickr)

PowerPoint and the Polar Bear

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As the Economist reported recently, the scientific community is nearly unanimous when it comes to anthropogenic climate change, yet the public's desire for action continues to drop. Why is this? Surely the recent "Climate-gate" scandal at East Anglia University is playing a role, but is it ultimately a failure of communication (or success depending on your point of view)? What do you think?
The way in which science is communicated is often just as important as the actual research findings, yet how many environmental scientists do you know who've taken courses in presentation design, speech writing or related topics?

As IonE's director has stated on numerous occasions, perhaps it's time we move beyond simply educating future scholars to training future leaders who are not only scientific experts but also adept at public speaking, media relations, government affairs, and yes, PowerPoint design.

The world - in particular polar bears and undergraduate students sitting through two-hour lectures - will be thankful.

P.S. Since PowerPoint/Keynote presentations have been on my mind quite a bit lately, I thought I'd share a few of my favorite resources for cleaning up those old multi-color / 20 bullet points / 200 word slides:

Slide:ology - Hands-down my favorite book on building better PPTs.

TED and PopTech - Inspiration from some of the best in the business. Note the prevalence of striking visuals rather than bullet points.

Welcome to Eye on Earth!

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Like most blogs, Eye on Earth is an experiment. What do you get when you mix perspectives from experts in land use, bioenergy, climate change, sustainable enterprise, conservation biology, environmental policy, social media and communications?

Time will tell, as bloggers from across disciplines at the Institute on the Environment take turns sharing their ideas, shedding light on research, and reacting to current events. Of course, those are just general parameters. We're not sure what will happen, but it's an interesting experiment to say the least...

  The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and not necessarily
  of the Institute on the Environment/University of Minnesota.


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