One last chance to save the world — for months, that's how the United Nations summit on climate change in Copenhagen, which starts in early December, was being hyped. Officials from 192 countries were finally going to make a deal to keep global temperatures below catastrophic levels. The summit called for "that old comic-book sensibility of uniting in the face of a common danger threatening the Earth," said Todd Stern, President Obama's chief envoy on climate issues. "It's not a meteor or a space invader, but the damage to our planet, to our community, to our children and their children will be just as great."
That was back in March. Since then, the endless battle over health care reform has robbed much of the president's momentum on climate change. With Copenhagen now likely to begin before Congress has passed even a weak-ass climate bill co-authored by the coal lobby, U.S. politicians have dropped the superhero metaphors and are scrambling to lower expectations for achieving a serious deal at the climate summit. It's just one meeting, says U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, not "the be-all and end-all."
As faith in government action dwindles, however, climate activists are treating Copenhagen as an opportunity of a different kind. On track to be the largest environmental gathering in history, the summit represents a chance to seize the political terrain back from business-friendly half-measures, such as carbon offsets and emissions trading, and introduce some effective, common-sense proposals — ideas that have less to do with creating complex new markets for pollution and more to do with keeping coal and oil in the ground.