COP15: Tale of Two Speeches


Daniel H. was a youth delegate at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. He recently graduated from Rice University and has been studying energy policy as a Fulbright Scholar in Denmark. He blogs at Cheezy Danish.

A few weeks ago, I took a short break from dashing around the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen to watch President Obama give his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. My bleeding one-world heart was all a-flutter to watch it with a truly international audience: delegates, press, NGO observers and security personnel representing many of the 193 nations in attendance gathered around a projector screen to watch the president reflect on winning the ultimate peacemaker’s prize mere days after committing yet more soldiers to our eight-year-long war in Afghanistan.

Obama’s speech was moving and eloquent. After much internal and external debate, I had decided that I did not support sending any additional troops to Afghanistan, and the speech did not change my conclusion. What it did do, however, was give me confidence that while his ultimate decision may have been wrong, Obama’s core principles were worthy of my respect. He acknowledged that violence in all forms is abhorrent, he asserted the need for the oppressed to have justice and he showed humility in the face of his own limitations. After he finished, as people from every corner of the world applauded around me, I felt a surge of pride in my country and the ideals, so beautifully articulated by its leader, for which I believe it stands.

Eight days later, Obama was back in Scandinavia, and I again found myself watching him speak. This time, I watched from my apartment, as all of civil society had been kicked out of the conference center in direct violation of U.N. principles agreed to in, of all places, Denmark. The mood was decidedly darker as, with less than 24 hours remaining before the deadline, barely any progress had been made towards an agreement to address climate change. Outside the fortress-like Bella Center, police had met peaceful protests with violence. Inside, the smaller, poorer and most threatened countries had effectively been excluded from the negotiation process – a process on which their survival depended.

As Obama walked toward the podium, I knew that even if he gave a speech that topped his magnificent effort in Oslo, it still wouldn’t mean that the fair, ambitious and binding treaty I hoped for would be signed. In all honesty, most people had known for months that that sort of result was a fantasy. What I didn’t know, what I hadn’t even imagined, was that the speech I was about to hear would not only offer no inspiration, but would also arrogantly demand that the world sign an agreement of America’s creation, which served America’s interests and which doomed millions to famine, flood and destruction.

With this speech, Obama allied himself with the idea that the powerful will make decisions, and the powerless will suffer the consequences. He allied himself with the concept that what can be taken should be taken. He allied himself with the fallacy that we are not responsible for the damage we inflict on others. The equality, the justice and the humility he called for in Oslo were gone.

Obama made a mistake in Copenhagen. He was far from the only one to do so. In his defense, people will say that he was exhausted from the health care debate and the trans-Atlantic flight, that the speech was a negotiation tactic and, above all, that he was being realistic in the face of a skeptical American public and a conference on the verge of collapse. All true. But he would do well to remember his own words, delivered in such stark elegance a scant week before:

“We are fallible. We make mistakes and fall victim to the temptations of pride and power and sometimes evil. Even those of us with the best intentions will, at times, fail to right the wrongs before us. But we do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected. We do not have to live in an idealized world to still reach for those ideals that will make it a better place.”

Climate change is more than just bigger hurricanes and hotter summers. It is the natural manifestation of humanity’s inability to impose limits on our own consumption or to deal with its consequences. In Oslo, President Obama inspired us to “reach for the world that ought to be.” In Copenhagen, he reminded us how far we still have to go.


Flickr photo by pokmcfee