On behalf of President Obama, Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced in Copenhagen Monday the launch of a new Renewables and Energy Efficiency Deployment Initiative (Climate REDI) as a “quick start” initiative for the broad technical and financial mechanisms of an international climate agreement. Secretary Chu also welcomed progress under the Major Economies Forum for Climate and Energy (MEF), inviting counterparts in MEF and other countries to a first-ever Clean Energy Ministerial in Washington next year.
Cramped alongside the meeting room with press and other onlookers, I was brushed aside by secret service as Chu and energy ministers from Italy, India, and Australia were hurried into the briefing. In moments like this, the COP15 Climate Conference lives up to its representation in the mainstream press as nothing more than a high-profile shouting match over “factual” science, controversial forebodings and arbitrary commitments.
It is different, however, when you’re close enough to the politics to be pushed out of the way. You see them roll their eyes, wipe their brows, check their blackberries, and begin to question the humanity of entrusting so few individuals with such imperative decisions.
The U.S. presence here is reassuringly strong, and high-profile appearances are expected every day this week by members of Obama’s cabinet. Destabilizing to Copenhagen skeptics is the compelling rhetoric emanating from Chu, a Nobel laureate, who speaks in largely technical and less wistfully emotive terms than Obama, when he must frustratingly tailor climate science to a global audience.
Climate politics is unique in that credible science is unavoidably manipulated towards discursive ends. The U.S. media center at COP15 is particularly geared towards bringing American scientific research to the global forefront. To clear space for Chu’s speech, for instance, a team of staffers hurried to move the elaborate demonstration by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of meteorological modeling, involving an enormous spherical display of real-time global storm patterns. Chu, himself, was speaking a foreign language to probably half his audience of press and politicians as he explained ion-pool energy storage and jet-engine-inspired turbine research. From what I’ve seen, Chu and the Department of Energy are not going to dumb down the scientific realities facing decisionmakers just so that they are more easily discussed over dinner.
But the next day, Secretary Chu was on a plane back to Washington. Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture, made his own speech on Tuesday afternoon as part of the back-to-back strategy of U.S. delegators in laying the groundwork for Obama’s appearance on Friday. Needless to say, I won’t be standing anywhere nearby for that speech, which will be attended by over a hundred heads of state expected in Copenhagen for the final days of negotiations.
The difficulty for me is in reconciling that a strong American presence encounters a delicate balance of global perspectives, especially significant resentment towards our disproportional contribution to global emissions. With blinders on, one is easily convinced that our scientists will live up to a history of life-changing innovation and provide American homes and businesses with the necessary tools for a carbon neutral future. The reality of conference proceedings, however, is that the most convincing stance, such as that of American scientific consensus, often has limited political voice.