B50A9757net_cle413f5e-4b487 FROM THE FIELD
The 2015 Paris Climate Summit

From Copenhagen to Paris: Holding onto Hope

by |November 25, 2015

There are actually a few reasons to be just a little bit optimistic about the possibility of a good outcome from COP21, apart from the fact that it is being held in one of the world’s loveliest cities.

Geophysicist and social scientist John Mutter is a professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences and School of of International and Public Affairs at Columbia.

Geophysicist and social scientist John Mutter is a professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences and School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia.

Perhaps most important is that the pope is paying attention, and a lot of people pay attention to what the pope pays attention to. That includes people like me who are not Catholic and don’t really believe the pope has speed-dial access to the word of God. I am sure he has better access than I do. I can’t seem to get hold of The Lord at all these days. So it is worth listening to the pope and, incredible as it might sound, the pope is actually saying the right things on this issue and, of course, we have no obligation to listen to him on anything else.

The second isn’t so much about COP21, but I have not lost faith that climate may be less sensitive to our actions than most scientists think it is. There might be a huge negative feedback hidden somewhere that will counteract all the efforts we are making to try to change climate for the worst. The climate system may turn out to be sort of dull and unresponsive. I wouldn’t bet on it, but I need to hold onto some hopes.

And no matter what changes happen, they will happen fairly slowly, much more slowly than the outbreak of war, plague or pestilence. Society is pretty slow, dull and unresponsive, too, so that doesn’t help, but things will change slowly, and that gives us time. The time should be available for us to create the huge negative feedback ourselves to counteract what we have done, just in case Nature doesn’t have one hidden. COP21 should be able to buy us the time we need to engineer the feedback.

COP21_ad1But more than that, I don’t believe for a second that we are on the brink of global destruction. We are on the brink of a global re-distribution and whole scale re-balancing of global goods and bads. But we have been there before and survived. Our planet will be a very different place, no doubt, but it will still be here and so will we, in some form, maybe not recognizable to us now. I don’t know how we will survive, but I am optimistic that we will.

I do know we will not be rescued by constantly repeating words like vulnerability, sustainability and resilience to one another, and I am optimistic that that phase will pass and we can start to think seriously about our new world. COP21 might just help us start that thinking.


Mutter was among Earth Institute contributors writing about the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009. Here’s some of what he had to say in a question and answer session back then (you can see all of his comments in 2009 here):

Is the world ready to meet a CO2 target—any target?

Probably not; we need to make big investments in technology. The lifestyle changes that we have made to feel better about ourselves don’t amount to much.  I’m not sure driving silent, ugly cars is going to help in the way people think they will. …

What would you most like to see happen at Copenhagen?

A serious discussion about adaptation: What we are going to do for [low-lying islands like] the Maldives and climate change refugees? Normally, refugees are people who have been displaced by somebody else—persecuted. One of the obligations we have to refugees is to repatriate them to where they came from. But if where they came from is under water? We don’t have language to describe the international community’s obligation for people persecuted by climate.

What will it take to get people to act?

If people see countries going under water, the spread of conflict in the drylands of Africa, with implications beyond, and people displaced from their homes, we will do something. We’re altruistic as a species. It calls on our core beliefs. We can ignore polar bears and still go to heaven, but we can’t ignore people.


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