Don’t sweat the small stuff, Copenhagen is just a training exercise.


Now the world is slowly waking up to the climate threat, passionate debates are raging around the world on climate policy – cap and trade systems vs taxes, renewables vs coal with CCS and global agreements vs national action. From the US, to China, from South Africa to Australia, policy makers are examining their options and vested interests are furiously protecting their turf.

As recently as a year ago I would have been deeply engaged by these debates, deeply concerned that we got the right reduction target, the right policy mechanism, the right strategy in place. Now I find myself watching with an almost surreal detachment, observing with interest but rarely getting excited or disappointed as the debate swings this way or that.


This is all just shadow boxing, the training session before the game really begins. What happens this year and next, even at the Copenhagen conference is of marginal significance only.  What? That’s heresy! Isn’t the Copenhagen Climate conference the most critical global meeting in history, the one that will determine the future of civilisation? No, not really. Here’s why.

It is now completely clear that all the actions currently on the table by policy makers are based on the wrong science and the wrong assumptions – the science of a decade ago when we thought a target of 450ppm and 2 degrees was radical and bold. When we thought dramatic global reductions in emissions by 2050 of around 60% was going to put us into safe territory and protect humanity from collapse. But that science has been superseded.

The current debates are simply the world of policy and business slowly catching up to the science of yesterday. They’re acting in 2009 on what we knew in 1990. I would have been very engaged if this debate was happening when the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was agreed to by world’s governments, including George Bush Snr in 1992.

I still would have been excited these policies were being agreed when I was in Kyoto, Japan in 1997 when Vice President Gore rode in on his white horse in the closing days of the negotiations and convinced the world to agree to the Kyoto Protocol. Exciting days.

But I’m not in Kyoto and its not 1997. Its 2009, emissions are rising, the ice is melting and most negotiators think that even the inadequate 2 degrees / 450 ppm target is not achievable and if it were agreed, it would be a decisive victory for humanity.

But that’s OK, we will all certainly wake up soon. Then the shadow boxing will stop and the game will get serious.

Don’t get me wrong, I think all the work we’re doing now in this area is useful. I think a strong international agreement, even by yesterday’s standards of “strong”, would be a good thing. I think kick starting the renewable industry and phasing out coal is all worth the effort. After all, when you’ve got a big game coming up, training matters – it makes you match fit for the real thing.

You see what the science now tells us is that climate crisis is not about our children’s children, it’s about us. It’s not about reduction in the economy’s CO2 emissions, it’s about the elimination of net emissions in a few decades and removing billions of tonnes CO2 from the atmosphere every year for decades after that. Nothing else would be a rational response to the level of risk today’s science says we face.  Nothing else gives civilisation a reasonable chance of surviving in its current form with billions of people on the planet. So nothing else would be a logical, rational response.

I take a strange sense of comfort from this being the new reality. The science is so completely clear on these points that it is inevitable that humanity will one day soon wake up, end denial and get to work shutting down coal plants, banning dirty cars, transforming cities and paying poor countries for the use of their forests as carbon sinks. We will proceed to eliminate net CO2 emissions from the human economy and we will do so rapidly and globally.

So my message to all climate action advocates is to relax. Take the time to smell the roses. Keep training, stay focused, but don’t wipe yourself out before the game begins. We’ll need you all there on the big day, match fit, happy and ready for the real action. 

25 thoughts on “Don’t sweat the small stuff, Copenhagen is just a training exercise.

  1. This might make sense, except, the forests are doomed.
    Which is predictable, basic Darwinian evolution 101.
    The forests ecosystem, and all the species within it, evolved over millennia to create all the special and unique niches within it.
    Alter the climate, which we already have, and those species and that ecosystem are doomed to go extinct. We have changed the climate already, never mind what is in the pipeline for the future, far faster than species that can adapt in generations that are measured by decades or even centuries, can possibly adapt.

    So, whatever formula you are figuring that our species will manage, leave ecosystems that include trees out of the equation. We will have to make it without them.

  2. Kathy

    Loved this! Interesting that your message to relax inspires me to take more action, more urgently! Thanks.

  3. Hi Paul,

    I agree with your assessment of the significance of the Copenhagen negotiations and the idea that the official responses are arguing out 10-20 year old positions.

    I also agree that we could take a moment or two to smell the roses (before they die from lack of water [I live in southern Australia]).

    But I take a somewhat different position on what we should do just after smelling the roses. I don’t think the next step is disengaged training and fitness building, waiting for somebody else to get the debate onto the real issues. I think that people who realise that we face an emergency, as you clearly do, need to work with people right now to help them make the perspective shift that you see coming – as fast as possible.

    To stop the destruction of 80% – 90% of the Australian Great Barrier Reef (for example) will require the earth to be cooled by at least a third of a degree Celsius within 10 years. The same applies to the Arctic sea ice. And for all we know, the same might apply to the Himalayas, the Amazon and the equatorial rainforests in Africa and South East Asia. We need the perspective shift very, very fast.

    Cheers, Philip

    Co-author of Climate Code Red

  4. Richard Burn


    I agree with you that today’s politicans and business leaders are mostly addressing the problem as it was perceived ten years ago, but where can I find the best scientific case setting out the scale of problem as it is understood today? So many people still do not understand the basic scientific case or have the key facts and up to date assumptions at their fingertips.

    Best wishes,


  5. Hi Paul

    Thanks for the clarity on Copenhagen – I am not interested in waiting for a lot of suits to make decisions about the planet’s future. It’s our future and we have to take that responsibility into our hands and stop relying on ill equipped politicians to lead.


  6. Alf

    How exactly can Gail say “the forests are doomed”? Carbon dioxide is used in greenhouses to stimulate plant growth. Not at all surprisingly, since CO2 concentrations have increased in the past few decades, biomass has actually increased dramatically. Far from being doomed, the forests and other plant life will flourish in a world that is high in CO2 emissions.

  7. The big problem with spending too long smelling the roses while we wait for the world to realise what you and I know Paul, is that time marches on, and physics isn’t waiting for us to catch up. For me, I have hope that there is still time to short-circuit that catching up process, and that’s by (a) building the movement for change which can result in (b) exquisite pressure being placed upon existing politicians who are capable of acting as needed, and (c) electing others who are committed to taking these actions, who can then (d) apply political pressure to the other parties to lever action from them whether they like it or not. In other words there will be conditions when one of the lumbering old parties needs support from newly elected Greens members of the House of Representatives to form government. That’s just Australia of course – but such political upheaval is on its way all around the world. .So I agree, Copenhagen is not going to deliver what’s needed; but its a rallying point for movement building it is incredibly important.

  8. Julie Taylor Mills

    This is the first time Ihave been moved to reply to your great Cockatoo Diaries, Paul,, and as I write this, I recall a similar conversation we had on your back verandah – probably wathcing those cockatoos. Returning to Australia I am really struck by how many people cannot see what is happening before their eyes. The National Party (whose constituents are the most exposed and often the most eloquent on the impacts of climate change occuring in their domain now – not in the lives of their children,) seems determined to keep their heads in the sand. But like you Paul, I know we will all be dragged to action – kicking or screaming…however, the uncomfotable hidden subtext of this is what we must lose to have society galvanised around action. So it is with this in mind, that I find myself regularly smelling those roses and making the most of the physical environment we now have.

  9. salamander

    I agree it’s not panic stations yet, but I disagree on relaxing and letting things just happen. That places a larger burden on the few in the forefront, who have the main responsibility for convincing the politicians that they are wrong. After all they have had plenty of hints. How much worse do we let it become before we see that the roses are dead?

  10. Michelle

    I think some people have missed the point – training is an analogy. Of course its the real thing, all training is real but the truth is, as hard as we have worked over the past two decades to place the dire state of things in front people the reality is we have failed. Had we not, we would have clear and binding commitments to serious cuts in place now, an agreement to phase out coal, rapid uptake of alternative energy options and you all know the rest. We don’t and I for one don’t expect to see those commitments fall out of the sky between now and December. Therefore we keep doing what we’re doing but with an understanding that until something occurs to enable the vast majority to see the disconnect between our words and actions we’re still training. In the mean time stopping to smell the roses acts as a reminder of why we’re in the game in the first place and besides its uplifting. There’s no rule that says the journey has to be an unpleasant one.

  11. To alf, I suggest you visit my blog. It will be explained.

    Basically, the climate has changed, and trees cannot keep up. Their generational clock is in decades, even centuries. We have changed the climate in just the past 50 years. The habitat and ecosystems have evolved over millennia but the changes in temperature and precipitation (including snow) have altered over the last 150 years.

    End of story.

  12. Ed

    I agree with your sentiment Paul. It reminds me of the saying ‘can’t see the forest for the trees’.

    Stepping back can help look at the bigger picture and realise, as you pointed out, that the situation has changed. Roses smell nice too.

  13. Okolie, kevin

    I completely agree with you.The disasterous consequencies of increasing GreenHouse Gas emission is no longer in doubt especially for sub-saharan Africa. It is a chaotic non-linear problem and therefore requires a non-linear solution.However, there is a need for a robust global political commitment for effective climate policy and the industrialised world should sincerely take the lead.

  14. Graham

    Paul, can you back up ‘what the science tells us’, with some evidence? There are many people who would not agree that ‘the science is so completely clear’. It would make your arguments stronger if you cited some references.


  15. How can I say the forests are all doomed? First of all, to specifically address the CO2 is good for plants, go to this video:

    And then more generally, go to my blog and find the post titled Effects of Climate Change in the archives. Then write me if you still don’t understand.

  16. Anne

    hmmm. Unfortunately judging by the version of human history that I’m reading in Clive Ponting’s “A new green history of the world”, I find the conviction that “it is inevitable that humanity will one day soon wake up” rather optimistic. We’ve woken up to these issues in the past precisely never, leading to the collapse of many past civilizations, and much irreversible destruction; I’m not sure why you believe we’ll act differently this time. And all that is assuming it is not already too late, what with those pesky feedback mechanisms…

  17. If you think science and facts based on past experiences is the only way to change, don’t read any further, you will only think I’m a dreamer and not aware of the hard road we need to take to solve any of this. It still appears that any solution, while recognising that reductions everywhere are necessary, is still missing a vital point – that is one of connection to ourselves first. One that allows recognition not reaction. While I wholeheartedly agree with a ‘cradle to cradle’ full cycle approach to ‘commerce’, unless we as a world community of people first recognise our own separation from who we are in-truth, the energy we emit through reaction (anger to, greed, need, denial of, defence of etc) will continue to add to global warming. Huh, another crack-pot here? Science can record heat emissions from a person, multiplied by how many billions of people on earth, is it feasible that it would create a momentum of energy? Do we actually believe that ‘our energy’ and reaction to matters doesn’t contribute at all, whether it’s one persons anger, or a full scale war between countries? There is no consequence here?

    Be individual for sure, but if we don’t first meet each other by expressing from our truth and stop doing what we’re doing and start doing what is needed, our planet will never respond positively to any energy of reaction – the pattern of misuse will continue as before and the doubters will say, see I told you it wouldn’t change anything.
    It (just) takes a collective shift in consciousness first, so the greater good is honoured and there are individually, more people interested in good than bad – we just need to connect.

  18. Marie Sullivan

    Paul I heard you speak for the first time on ABC News Radio this morning – Sunday 14 June and just delighted to hear you talk openly, positively and with good humour. Not that the present and future issues we are facing are humorous but your approach is to describing the approaches to life by humans is very amusing and real. There are too many of us in the world, using far too many resources and wanting more than we need. I have just returned from a trip to the Flinders Ranges and Lake Eyre and even this landscape is testament to the folly of how important grazing and making money is even though the landscape is not able to support this any longer. I just loved listening to you and would welcome a discussion and debate any time around an outside fire where I live on Yorke Peninsula. The more we encourage discussions and debates, especially involving the younger members of our communities, the more likely you and I and others in our age group will see more positive and realistic changes in individuals and community groups. I have lived and worked remotely too in Cape York, Queensland and the aboriginal elders helped me to understand the power of how younger members of communities are more likely to change the actions and attitudes of their families than politicians or enforced rules made by people they don’t know. This is an area of work I would welcome more opportunities to work in. Look forward to receiving your chronicles and hearing more from you. Perhaps you could recommend articles, books, publications etc. which would be useful for us all to digest. Cheers.

  19. Jeremiah

    Delighted to hear your reasoned (relatively) optimistic scenario (WW2 analogy is OK: after all, we won) but curious about your reasons for such confirmed pessimism on the science on which I have done a lot of reading including stuff about cloud formation, precipitation, evaporation and long term ocean movements which are allegedly inadeqately modeled by the “consensus” scientists. Given that we are in a generally warming phase and that CO2 contributes something to it, how come the confident modelers can’t retropredict such events during the Holocene such as the drying up of the Great Lakes and falls of the Indus and Egyptian Old Kingdom civiilisations?
    Also, why shouldn’t Australia make itself as rich as possible from the burning and exporting of coal and then, instead of using the wealth in the style of English speaking consumerism, build up a find as Norway has from oil revenue, so we can look after ourselves, and others, come what may (plus fund research not being done elsewhere on a much larger scale than we can afford)? And what about population? True it has its own momentum but small pensions to women of child-bearing age who are being educated instead of bearing and rearing children would go some way to solve a number of the world’s problems.

  20. doug

    Paul i enjoyed your talk on radio national this morning,i think you are one of a very small group of people in the world who are aware of what is really happening .on the question of forests it gives me great hope,when i observe the bushland in the central victorian area that has been totally devastated by mining and farming over many years ,it is now regenerating naturally with out help from anyone.if we just give nature half a chance i am sure we can survive in this world

  21. Tony

    Superb stuff Paul, you are hitting the nail on the head with this article and your RN piece. As a climate activist myself, I’ve been pondering these questions for a while and it’s good to have some confirmation on what I suspected were the real answers.

  22. Diane Atkinson

    Of course activists still need be active as this will drive the solutions but I also sense that the whole debate will move dramatically as humanity comes to grips with this problem. This has happened amongst the engaged few but it feels like critical mass is being reached and the debate and responses will accelerate from this point. Individuals have difficulty changing, and societies even more so, but there are some indicators out there of the shift that is underway.

    Last week I read in the financial review that power companies are struggling to refinance loans for the continued operation of their coal-fired plants. The world of finance is reading the writing on the wall, and this has implications for future investment decisions. This has happened even though Labor is only proposing the weakest of targets with compensation to polluters.

    So while activism will still be incredibly important, why not smell the roses with the confidence that the battle can be won?

  23. David Stout

    I share McGrath’s frustration with (simply) smell the roses and wait for the big boys to wake up.

    I believe that the problem is a generational and psychological one. Mr Micawber rules, because, politically, we “elders” (who presently have the potential to take difficult and pressing collective decisions) have not evolved to respond to, and to anticipate and preempt events that are set well beyond our own life spans. We may be able to crawl out of short-termism into the medium-term, but not into the necessary long term. Most of us are congenitally unable to process the fact that – as a Chinese philosopher pointed out – if a tree is to reach maturity in one hundred years, then it has to be planted today.

    The SALT treaties were possible because the nuclear holocaust was well within the timeline of the leaders. What a difference it would make if the creeping threat to the Florida coastline was within the next five years, not the next thirty to fifty.

    It is difficult, perhaps too difficult, for the powerful elders to make sacrifices to save their children’s children, when they are neither absolutely convinced of it, nor feel imminent danger to themselves. Even the relatively young Barak Obama is more a time-server, than a time-lord. The Chinese leaders fall back on the convenient cop-out: “we didn’t cause it. You, who did, must solve it.”

    If, with the same predictive certainty as a future eclipse, the world’s astronomers announced that an annihilating comet was on a collision path with the earth on July 30, 2050, we just might not sit around and smell the roses. Even if it took all the world’s scientific and technological resources, there is a good chance that they would somehow be mobilised with little delay, to seek to find a way to divert it from its path or to destroy it. That case is different: the event would be certain beyond peradventure; the timetable would be exactly known; and it could not be said to have been anybody’s fault or unique responsibility.

    The challenge is to keep working so fast and hard on the science, on the geo-politics and on global outreach that cataclysmic global warming is universally understood to be quite a lot like that comet on its earthbound track.


  24. I agree. It seems to me that what we now have is the the whole world admitting publicly that we this threat is real. The developed nations tried to force their usual kind of solution and the rest of the world wasn’t having it. So the failure of business as usual to deal with this problem has been clearly demonstrated not to work. Considering where things began, this seems to me to be quite good progress…

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