I now wonder whether our international political system can meet this epochal challenge. Instead, we at a local level must show our leaders the way forward.
At the opening ceremony, Danish Prime Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen told delegates from more than 190 nations that a deal was "within our reach."
Soon thereafter, however, a procedural controversy emerged, and it became increasingly clear that a binding agreement would be hard to achieve.
Formal negotiations proceeded on many fronts, including the Conference of the Parties ("COP") itself and two primary "ad hoc working groups." Draft texts spoke to scores of issues, including overall goals for reducing greenhouse gases ("GHGs"), specialized rules for land use and deforestation, and short- and long-term financial commitments by developed countries.
I paid special attention to the deliberations relating to technology transfer and intellectual property rights, assisting the nonprofit Worldwatch Institute in monitoring those areas, as an attorney. It was not my first visit to Denmark: 37 years ago, in 1972, with the Vietnam War reaching its height, I was an American Field Service exchange student in Soroe, a small town 45 miles southwest of Copenhagen.
The Danes I came to know were warm, insightful, incredibly hospitable and extremely well-informed about world events. Many remarked that "Denmark is a little land," but one with an enormous global perspective.
The real give-and-take at COP15 took place outside the enormous plenary halls. Formal meetings often broke up quickly. Many assemblies were simply closed to the press and non-government organizations, known as NGOs.
Hallway conversations and scraps left on copy machines gave clues to the real state of affairs.
Numerous "side events" were held throughout the conference. I was drawn to panels exploring the science of climate change and techniques for responding to it.
Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the International Panel on Climate Change, and his scientist colleagues summarized key findings to be evaluated in their next assessment report. Johannes Lehmann from Cornell and several investigators from the European Union's Joint Research Centre described recent work concerning "biochar," a form of charcoal used as a soil enhancer that also captures carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Representatives from Google described how their PowerMeter software can help people track and reduce their carbon consumption individually and as communities. They showed how Google Earth can be modified to monitor deforestation in the Amazon.
When the second week began, it was far from clear that Prime Minister Rasmussen's deal could be reached. The arrival of senior political leaders, however, brought new momentum. U.S. Sen. John Kerry promised a packed hall that Congress would pass major climate legislation. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave assurances that the United States would pay its share of $100 billion annually, beginning in 2020, to ameliorate climate-related problems worldwide.
But as the ministers arrived the non-government representatives were shown the door. On Tuesday, the number of NGO participants was cut from well over 10,000 to 7,000. On Thursday and Friday it was slashed to 1,000 and then to 90.
Many side events planned months in advance were canceled because speakers were not allowed inside.
I was particularly disappointed that an important panel on reproductive rights and population issues would not be heard.
Hopes for an agreement rose when President Barack Obama arrived. He met privately with representatives of many countries. Throughout Friday evening, at the home of friends, we watched Danish TV, awaiting a dramatic announcement. Finally, a motorcade whisked the president away to Kastrup airport. Reports of a deal circulated, but with few details. On Saturday morning, news of both the "Copenhagen Accord" and many countries' objections to it spread.
Since I've returned home to Palo Alto, many people have asked what I think of COP15.
I see it as a half-step paused in mid-air.
We can't tell how far we've advanced or even where we're headed. We could have taken a courageous stride toward a global climate consensus, we might have moved only inches forward, or we may have turned in the wrong direction.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has urged all countries to sign the accord, but that's a far cry from a legally binding treaty. If the major industrialized countries and the largest emerging nations cannot agree to restrict greenhouse gases substantially, if the developed countries cannot make firm commitments to help pay for adaptation measures, and if an enforceable agreement is not reached in 2010, then the formal processes of COP15 will have accomplished very little.
Yet I remain optimistic, for three reasons.
First, as scientific evidence accumulates I believe more people will take the problem of catastrophic climate change ever more seriously.
Second, the voices of citizens crying for change in Copenhagen will not be silenced. While international consensus may be lacking, global consciousness is growing.
Third, while we must demand that our governments enact meaningful national legislation and enter binding treaties, as "civil society," we ourselves must take up the grueling but urgent work of building a sustainable global community.
Governments of regions, states, counties and cities are fashioning initiatives. Scientists are identifying and outlining the environmental problems we confront and devising techniques for mitigating or overcoming them.
Businesses are recognizing the imperative of stabilizing our world climate, and entrepreneurs are envisioning how to realize that goal — and make money in the process. Non-government organizations of all kinds are educating us regarding specific practices and policies that will lead to a sustainable future.
As I witnessed the unraveling of the initial hopes for the Copenhagen conference, I became more and more convinced that we must all work together to build personal, social, business and political coalitions to move these initiatives forward.
The road from Copenhagen does not lead to Washington or Beijing. It runs from Palm Drive right down University Avenue, around the Bay Area, and then out to the rest of the world.
Global sustainability is too important to leave to national political leaders alone. We must show them the right path, a set of Google directions, clear and unmistakable, in multiple languages.
The journey back from COP15 winds through our homes, our places of work, our schools and ultimately our hearts.
"Will our children hate us?" a Danish essayist asked after Copenhagen's anticlimactic ending. I think not. As he pointed out, they will be too busy devising their own ways forward.
But my hope is that they will not think ill of us — and might even gain a measure of respect for our generation — because we decided not to wait for politicians and national leaders to lead us toward a more sustainable world in inch-worm increments.
I believe our children may respect us because we ourselves chose to tackle that problem head-on.