State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Protestors Should Press the U.S.

This is the twelfth of a continuing series of essays and interviews from Earth Institute scientists on the prospects for a global climate-change treaty. Check with us daily for news and perspectives, and to make comments, as events unfold throughout the Copenhagen meetings.


By Dana Fisher

At this point, most everyone agrees: the climate talks in Copenhagen will not result in a binding treaty.  It is not for want of trying; negotiators have emitted tons of carbon flying to meetings around the globe for the past few years. Now, leaders have announced that the talks will merely serve as a step toward an agreement to come sometime in the future.

One of the main barriers to an agreement is the United States. Even though 89% of all cities with more than 30,000 people in the United States have signed onto an agreement to implement policies similar to those included in the Kyoto Protocol, this local action has not translated to binding policy at the national level.  Today, there continues to be no national climate policy in the United States.   The world is waiting for the U.S. Senate to finalize a climate bill that can be merged with the one that passed the House of Representatives in June 2009.  Progress on the climate bill has been extremely slow, and its prospects for getting past a Republican filibuster on the floor of the Senate are bleak.  There are only a few months left for the Senate to consider “controversial issues” like climate change before they must turn their attention to the mid-term elections.

dana_fisher_readWith efforts to change national policies from within the United States so ineffective, it is time for the people of the world to take action.  On October 24, people in 181 countries around the world mobilized as part of the 350 day of climate action.  The motivation for this day was sound–but the target was too diffuse to have any real effect.   Another global day of action is planned for this Saturday, Dec. 12—right in the middle of the ongoing summit in Copenhagen.  So far, activists in 104 countries have committed to participate in a coordinated effort to call on world leaders to take urgent action on climate change.  This target is more defined, but it is still diffuse.

What is needed is a single touchstone for mass mobilization: the climate policies of the United States—or, the lack thereof.  Such an internationally coordinated and focused effort would shine a light on the contradictions within the U.S. position on climate change.  As one of the top greenhouse gas emitters in the world, the United States cannot continue to circle the globe telling everyone else what to do.  It has to regulate itself before talking about regulating the world. A mass mobilization around the world could pressure the United States to change.  Protestors should make this one count.

Dana R. Fisher is associate professor of sociology at Columbia University. Her research focuses on climate politics and protest. She is author of National Governance and the Global Climate Change Regime and Activism, Inc.

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