President Barack Obama's chief science adviser, John Holdren, had this to say at the end of the rough-and-tumble climate talks in Copenhagen this month: "I think we're winning more than we're losing."
Really? How? Diplomats had just failed to produce a binding treaty to control global warming in any meaningful way.
But maybe Mr. Holdren's right. I attended the climate conference myself, representing Marylanders concerned about sea-level rise and the need for clean energy. And I think - just maybe - we did win more than we lost in Copenhagen.
First, the winning. If there were any doubts that the "climate movement" had matured into a vibrant, worldwide phenomenon, they were put to rest in Denmark. More than 100,000 activists marched through the streets of Copenhagen on Dec. 12, led by South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and other distinguished leaders, demanding action.
Elsewhere during the two-week conference, Buddhist monks fasted side by side with college kids from Baltimore. Danish rappers performed next to Bolivian pan pipers. In Arabic and Russian, in English and Tshiluba, the demonstrators spoke with one voice: Save the climate! There were vigils, speeches, chanting, drumming and peaceful civil disobedience almost every day, involving thousands of people, creating a buzz that drew the constant attention of more than 5,000 journalists and as many politicians. Many of us are returning home imbued with new hope, thanks to our shared experience with activists worldwide.
Also on the "winning" side, the world's rich nations agreed to raise $100 billion in "climate aid" for poor nations already hit hard by global warming. And China reluctantly agreed to a framework allowing international monitoring of its pollution cuts. Both of these features - finance for poor countries and carbon monitoring for big polluters - need strengthening, but negotiators made genuine progress.
So, where did we lose in Copenhagen? In several serious ways. First, there was no binding treaty to turn "agreements" into concrete international law. Second, all the talking about reducing greenhouse gas pollution didn't match the target laid out by recent scientific findings.
Officially, at least, Mr. Obama's negotiating team was committed to stabilizing carbon pollution at 450 parts per million in the atmosphere by 2100. Unfortunately, leading scientists - including James Hansen of NASA - now say that the only safe level for carbon pollution is much lower: 350 parts per million. This new number is based on terrifying new measurements of rapid Arctic ice melt and other signs of faster-than-expected warming.
If you want to risk even deeper despair, consider this: A team of computer wizards in Copenhagen, using a program developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, added up all the greenhouse gas emission cuts "pledged" by the 193 nations attending the treaty conference. These pledges included Mr. Obama's woefully inadequate promise that America will cut its own emissions 17 percent by 2020. When you add up all the pledges made by all the nations, the MIT program spits out this number as the carbon level worldwide by 2100: 780 ppm.
That number bakes the planet. It dooms Maryland and the rest of the world to probably 20 feet or more of sea-level rise. In this sense, it's actually good that there was no binding treaty locking us into this doomsday scenario.
The math is simple: We need to do twice as much. When world leaders meet next December in Mexico City to again attempt a planet-saving treaty, the goal must be 350 ppm. That might require the United States to cut its current emissions in half by 2020. Can it be done? Europeans, right now, use half the fossil fuels per capita as Americans. So do the Japanese. Surely we can match them by 2020, even if it takes hard work.
But given all these high-profile setbacks in Copenhagen, are we really winning more than we're losing? Again, I come back to the creative and ubiquitous activism on display throughout the city. And the most visible group of all, with their memorable signs and song-like chants, was an outfit called "350.org." Launched by a small group of Americans barely a year ago, it now has a staggering international following.
Founder Bill McKibben insists that a treaty committing us to 350 ppm carbon is our only hope. But, he says, 'ppm' doesn't just stand for parts per million. "It stands for a 'people-powered movement.'"
With that sort of movement on full display in Copenhagen, I think there's a real chance we'll see a binding treaty - one that wins a victory for the planet - in 2010.
Mike Tidwell is director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. His e-mail is email@example.com.