The UN Copenhagen climate change conference is over, the weary participants are reliving the highs (very few) and the lows (quite a few), there is an agreement to keep talking and negotiating, and President Obama announced a five-party agreement on some crucial issues.
There will be plenty of commentary over the coming weeks arguing about whether the conference was a bust, a last-minute success or a waste of time, or if it set the groundwork for the next stage of struggle.
All these positions have some validity. The conference did not produce a binding, mandatory agreement on controlling greenhouse gas emissions - so the main goal of the conference was a bust.
Obama did fly in and through last-minute negotiations help seal a deal between the U.S., China, India, Brazil and South Africa. This is an important step, though still far short of any mandatory emission controls or explicit commitments to significantly limit carbon dioxide emissions.
Even though this last-minute deal is very inadequate at addressing the root causes of global warming, it is important that there was some result - a total defeat of any agreement between any of the major players would have set back the struggle. It is a small, incremental step, with a long staircase of steps still ahead of the people of the world.
The conference was also a success in an educational sense, bringing the issue to the forefront of worldwide attention, bringing leaders of 160 countries to the table, highlighting proposals for real limits and real solutions, and also making clear the intensive obstacles to a serious agreement.
The conference will result in a new stage of struggle. Many small, less-developed nations will continue to demand a larger voice, wary because their voices and concerns were brushed aside or muted in the hopes of an international agreement that didn't materialize. The grassroots environmental movements will only grow, the evidence of human-caused global climate change will only accumulate faster, the impacts of climate change will only intensify. The arguments will continue to shift away from denial.
The difficulties of the Copenhagen conference are signals for more involvement by the peoples of the world and their organizations. Unfortunately, some will see it as an excuse to retreat from political action, when much more is called for.
The next major struggle will be in the U.S. Senate. The House has already passed a bill, the Waxman-Markey bill, and the Senate has the Boxer-Kerry bill before it, as well as a bipartisan effort headed by John Kerry and Lindsay Graham. Much like the results of Copenhagen, the result will be inadequate, but some success is crucial.