COPENHAGEN CLIMATE CONFERENCE: Will we continue to be 'slowly boiling brainless frogs'?

October 19, 2009

The December 2009 conference presents an opportunity for students to consider some key issues facing our planet.

To the Teacher:

Physicist Joseph Romm has likened humans to "slowly boiling brainless frogs." Global warming is slowly boiling us, and we are brainlessly allowing it to happen, despite the information science is providing and our supposed intelligence.
What do your students know about the climate crisis? The "Moving Opinion Poll" below will help to elicit this information and suggest possible later inquiries. Following the poll are two students readings. The first summarizes some of the basic information about climate change and global warming and the warning signs we can all see. The second presents key issues facing the global climate conference that will take place in Copenhagen in December 2009. Discussion questions and a suggested action and global citizenship project follow.
For more information on global warming, see The Unpleasant News About Global Warming in the high school section of TeachableMoment. The lesson includes basic information as well as an outline for further inquiries.
Other background materials on this site include "Green Initiatives to Combat Climate Change," "What Will President Obama Do About The Global Warming Time Bomb?" "Presidential Election 2008: Oil Addiction, The Economy & The Planet," and "Paying for Climate Change."


Moving Opinion Poll 

The moving opinion poll is a way to activate students, to let them see that people can listen respectfully to views different from their own and perhaps even change their minds.
Post two large signs on opposite sides of the room: "Strongly Agree" and "Strongly Disagree." Explain that students will be participating in a Moving Opinion Poll. Each time students hear a statement they should move to the place along the imaginary line that most closely reflects their opinion. For strong disagreement, move all the way to one side of the room. For strong agreement, move to the opposite side. Or move to anywhere in between.
Begin with non-controversial opinions as an introduction. For example: The best band in history was The Beatles. The best dessert is apple pie. Then introduce statements on the issue in question—in this case, global warming. After each statement, invite a few students to explain briefly why they are standing where they are. This is not a time for conversation or debate. Rather, it is a way to find out what people are thinking and how differently they may view a matter. You might want to change statements slightly by qualifying them or putting them in different contexts to see if opinions change.
(See "Engaging Your Class Through Groupwork" in the high school section of TeachableMoment) for other techniques to engage students on controversial issues.)
Some suggested statements about climate change for the moving opinion poll:
1. Climate change is happening across the globe.
2. The global climate has always fluctuated; the change we are now seeing is simply part of a natural process.
3. Humans do not need to take action to address climate change.
4. Global warming is a hoax.
5. Unless we take significant action, global warming will have seriously damaging consequences for human civilization.
6. Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxides, are causing climate change.
7. Global warming will produce some valuable effects, like enabling people to grow more crops because of milder weather—so we shouldn't try to stop this process. 
8. We can reduce some of the harmful effects of climate change if we significantly reduce industrial greenhouse gas emissions.
9. The 21inches of rain that recently fell in Georgia over a period of 24 hours is proof of climate change.
10. U.S. government regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will hurt industry profits and cause unemployment. 
11. The US emits 25 percent of the greenhouse gases causing global warming.
For discussion
  • Did you hear any new insights or information during the Moving Opinion Poll? If so, what?
  • What don't you understand about climate change?
  • What would you like to know more about?
  • What questions do you have about climate change and global warming?


Student Reading 1: 

Unmuffled warnings

Some unsettling weather events
The National Resources Defense Council reported that average temperatures in Arctic are "rising twice as fast as they are elsewhere in the world...The polar ice cap as a whole is shrinking...Polar bears, whales, walrus and seals are changing their feeding and migration patterns, making it harder for native people to hunt them. And along Arctic coastlines, entire villages will be uprooted because they're in danger of being swamped." (, 9/09)
The New York Times reported that Douglas County, Georgia, was "hit by 21 inches of rain in a 24-hour period from Sunday to Monday, knocking out the drinking water supply to most residents, and forcing others to boil their water. (9/23/09) A state climatologist said the rain caused the worst flooding in 100 years in some parts of Atlanta. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that at a creek near Atlanta the water level surged to over 27 feet, nearly 11 feet over the old record.
The southern part of the island of Madagascar in Africa is "suffering severe drought and famine," according to the website "Lack of rainfall during the summer season has destroyed the country's main harvest in March and April. Half a million Malagasy have little or no access to clean water and food." (, 6/9/09)
Are these stories evidence of climate change? Climate scientists cannot be certain that a particular weather event is due to global warming. But they are certain that 1) the global climate is warming and 2) human activities are the main reason for this change.
The evidence
Since 1988, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been collecting and reviewing information on climate change from thousands of scientists around the world. Every few years, after scientific study and discussions, the panel issues an assessment report summarizing their findings. The IPCC's most recent assessment report (2007) found that:
  • Human activities since the industrial revolution are the main cause for the global build-up of greenhouse gases. These gases, including carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxides, "have increased markedly as a result of human activities since 1750."
  • These concentrations, confirmed by many observations, have caused climbing temperatures, rising seas and changing weather patterns, which will continue for centuries.
  • If we do not significantly cut greenhouse gas emissions, further warming will occur and cause additional changes in the global climate system.
  • Prompt action can reduce some of the harmful results of climate change. (

US inaction
In 1997, delegates from around the world met in Kyoto, Japan, in response to earlier IPCC warnings on climate change. They negotiated the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty that committed industrialized nations to cutting greenhouse gas emissions by at least five percent below levels measured in 1990. The treaty was ratified by 184 nations—but not the United States. It took effect on February 16, 2005.
President George W. Bush and the US Senate opposed the protocol because it required smaller cuts from developing nations like China and India than from industrialized nations such as Britain, France, and the US However, the developed countries are responsible for most of the man-made greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. In fact, the US is responsible for 25 percent of them. Since rejecting the Kyoto agreement, the US has taken no meaningful action to reduce its emissions.
Some recent surprises
Since the last IPCC assessment, climate scientists have continued to measure increases in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. They have been unpleasantly surprised to learn that Arctic sea ice has been melting much faster than they had expected. This may be good news for shipping companies that for the first time in human history will be able to send their ships on shorter routes through ice-free sea lanes. But it is very bad news for Arctic villagers—and for the planet as a whole.
Scientists have known for some time that global warming causes the tundra to thaw and release carbon dioxide. But their latest research reveals that the tundra holds more of this greenhouse gas than they had thought. As global warming increases, still more carbon dioxide will be released, speeding the warming process. This feedback loop is more bad news for our planet.
Despite this growing threat, our response to global warming has so far been meager. Some have likened our predicament to a frog sitting in a pot of slowly warming water, not realizing that it will eventually come to a boil. Joseph Romm, a physicist and energy expert, said: "We need all the unmuffled warnings we can get" about global warming, "given that humans are not like slowly boiling frogs, we are like slowly boiling brainless frogs." (
Some unmuffled warnings were heard at the United Nations in September 2009: Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned that climate change would "increase pressure on water, food, and land...and topple governments." President Oscar Arias Sánchez of Costa Rica described the global situation as "on the brink of a precipice." President Mohamed Nasheed of the low-lying Maldive Islands in the Indian Ocean warned that "if things go business as usual, we will not live...Our country will not exist."
Rising sea levels threaten more than the Maldives. The Asian Development Bank reported that global warming will swamp some Indonesian Islands, forcing "the relocation of many millions of people." To where? The Philippines, Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam will also be especially hard hit by rising sea levels. 
President Obama and other world leaders decided on November 17, 2009, to put off reaching a comprehensive international climate change agreement at Copenhagen. Among the chief reasons, according to the New York Times, was "Congress' inability to enact climate and energy legislation that sets binding targets on greenhouse gases in the United States. Without such a commitment, other nations are loath to make their own pledges." A "fully binding legal agreement" might be reached at a yet unscheduled second summit meeting in Mexico City. (Helene Cooper, "Leaders Will Delay Agreement on Climate," New York Times, 11/15/09)
For discussion
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
2. What is the IPCC?
3. What major conclusions about climate change have scientists reached? How do they know?
4. What is the Kyoto Protocol? Why didn't the US commit to this agreement?
5. What major observations have scientists made about the Arctic? The tundra? What makes these observations significant?
6. How and why will global warming affect water supplies? Food supplies? Habitats for animals and humans? Governments?
7. How might rising Arctic sea levels affect the US?

Student Reading 2: 

Copenhagen and the world's future

Meeting place: Copenhagen, Denmark
Purpose: To produce a new and binding climate change treaty to replace the Kyoto treaty 
Participants: Representatives from 192 nations
Dates: December 7-December 18, 2009
The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that by 2020 global emissions must fall 25 to 40 percent from 1990 levels to prevent the worst results of global warming. This would, they project, limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Would the UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen meet this goal? The future of planet Earth hangs upon the answer to this question.
The Climate Change Conference resulted in an agreement called the "Copenhagen Accord." But it did not result in a legal, enforceable international treaty. As Reuters reported, "It set a target of limiting global warming to a maximum 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial times — seen as a threshold for dangerous changes such as more floods, droughts, mudslides, sandstorms and rising seas. But it failed to say how this would be achieved." (, 12/19/09)
Four questions
The executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Yvo de Boer, has declared that answers to four questions will determine the extent and worth of any international agreement. (
1. How much are the industrialized countries willing to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions?
According to a New York Times report on a UN meeting in September 2009, none of the larger nations "want to take the lead in fighting for significant international emissions reduction targets, lest they be accused at home of selling out future jobs and economic growth." (9/20/09) The same problem hampered the Kyoto negotiators 12 years ago. Industrialized nations have so far pledged roughly half of the IPCC target.
The Accord does not commit any nation to specific targets for limiting greenhouse gas emissions, but leaves it up to each industrialized and developing nation to make its own target.
2. How much are major developing countries such as China and India willing to do to limit their emissions?
President Hu Jintao of China promised at the UN meeting to reduce the growth of his country's carbon dioxide emissions by "a notable margin" between now and 2020-but did not explain further. India's environmental minister, Jairam Ramesh, said that India's demands for an international accord were unchanged: India wants industrialized nations to agree to significant emissions reductions by 2020 and also provide financial and technical assistance to the developing world." (New York Times, 10/4/09) China produces roughly 23 percent of all global emissions, India less than 5 percent. Other developing nations have agreed that they must cut emissions but have rejected mandatory limits and, like India, demand help.
Under the Copenhagen Accord, the position of the developing countries is essentially unchanged.
3. How will we pay for the help developing countries need to reduce their emissions and adapt to the impact of climate change?
One example of this dilemma: Many developing countries are cutting down their forests, both for lumber and to open up pasture and farmland. According to William Laurance, the former president of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (, the destruction of tropical forests spews 5 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year, accounting for 20 percent of global emissions. ( But if these countries are forced to limit deforestation, how will they be compensated for the economic loss?
:The text of the Copenhagen Accord says: "Developed countries shall provide adequate, predictable and sustainable financial resources, technology and capacity-building to support the implementation of adaptation action in developing countries." The developed countries accepted a goal, again not a legally binding one, of providing $100 billion a year by 2020 to help the developing countries.
The accord recognized "the importance of reducing emission from deforestation and forest degradation and the need to enhance removals or greenhouse gas emission by forests." The developed world agrees to provide "positive incentives" to fund such action.
4. How is the money going to be managed?
The accord did not include an agreement on supervision of financial help.
Reactions to the Copenhagen Accord
World leaders:
President Obama: "Today we've made a meaningful and unprecedented breakthrough here in Copenhagen. For the first time in history all major economies have come together to accept their responsibility to take action to confront the threat of climate change... We've come a long way, but we have much further to go."
"Finally we sealed a deal," UN Secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said. "The 'Copenhagen Accord' may not be everything everyone had hoped for, but this ... is an important beginning."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel: "The decision has been very difficult for me. We have done one step, we have hoped for several more."
Leaders of developing nations:
Sergio Serra, Brazil's climate change ambassador: "We have a big job ahead to avoid climate change through effective emissions reduction targets, and this was not done here."
Lumumba Stanislaus Di-Aping, Sudanese delegate who represented the Group of 77 developing nations: "The developed countries have decided that damage to developing countries is acceptable...[The 2-degree target] will result in massive devastation to Africa and small island states." (Most of the developing countries want a 1.5 degree target.)
Environmental leaders:
Bill McKibben, a leader: "Our leaders have been a disappointment, and the talks have ended without any kind of fair, ambitious, or legally binding global agreement. It's unclear whether the weak 'accord' which emerged early this morning will provide a platform strong enough to deliver the kind of action we'll need in 2010 and beyond.
Nicole Granacki, chief organizer for Greenpeace: "The job of world leaders is not done. Today they failed to avert catastrophic climate change. The city of Copenhagen is a climate crime scene tonight....World leaders had a once in a generation chance to change the world for good, to avert catastrophic climate change. In the end they produced a poor deal full of loopholes big enough to fly Air Force One through."
Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club: "The world's nations have come together and concluded a historic—if incomplete—agreement to begin tackling global warming...It is imperative that negotiations resume as soon as possible."
Erich Pica, Friends of the Earth US: This is not a strong deal or a just one — it isn't even a real one. It's just repackaging old positions and pretending they're new."
US government action
For the first time the United States government is now seriously considering actions to limit global warming.
1) On June 26, 2009, the House passed legislation to curb emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases through a cap-and-trade system. This would establish a limit, or cap, on how much pollution a particular company can emit per year. Permits would be issued to the company based on the level of greenhouse gases it has been authorized to emit.
Companies that exceed their limit would be allowed to purchase permits from companies that are in compliance—this is what the "trade" part of "cap-and-trade" refers to. Companies will be able to purchase someone else's emission reductions rather than reduce their own. For example, rather than cutting emissions at its US refinery, ExxonMobil could purchase "offsets" from an Indonesian farmer who plants trees. (Public Citizen News, July-August, 2009) Tightening the cap on emissions would push such polluters to meet targets by limiting their own emissions.
Some environmental organizations argue that the House bill would cut US emissions by only a fraction of what is necessary. Others support the cap-and-trade bill as a step in the right direction. Business and industrial groups are also divided. The Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers oppose the House bill. But Pacific Gas and Electric, a major California utility, supports the legislation, and withdrew its membership from the Chamber of Commerce as a result. The Senate is considering its own bill.
2) On September 30, 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that it is preparing new regulations on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and other industrial facilities. The regulations would require these facilities to provide proof that they are using the best technology to curb emissions, or else suffer penalties. The rule would apply only to facilities that emit at least 25,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year. Such companies are reportedly responsible for nearly 70 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions.
According to the New York Times, major industries and utilities are working closely with Congress to ensure that a climate bill would circumvent such EPA regulations by substituting the cap-and-trade system.
President Obama said earlier that he prefers "a comprehensive legislative approach to regulating emissions and stemming global warming, not a piecemeal application of rules." But he has authorized the proposed new EPA regulation because it "could goad lawmakers into reaching an agreement. It could also provide evidence of the United States' seriousness as negotiators prepare for United Nations talks in Copenhagen in December..." (New York Times, 10/1/09)
For discussion
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
2. Did the Copenhagen Climate Conference achieve its stated purpose? Why or why not? Whatever your answer, how do you explain such very different assessments of the conference as that by the president, who called it a "meaningful and unprecedented breakthrough, " by Carl Pope, who hailed it as "a historic—if incomplete—agreement, and Nicole Granacki, who called Copenhagen "a climate crime scene"?
3. Why do you think that the world leaders at Copenhagen did not achieve a binding agreement? What specific evidence can you cite for your opinion?
4. What actions are the US Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency proposing? What concerns do American industries have about these actions? Environmental groups?

For discussion and citizenship

Will we continue to be "slowly boiling brainless frogs"?
What did the Copenhagen Climate Conference tell us?
Divide the class into small groups of three to four students for a micro lab, which involves only speaking and listening, not discussion or dialogue. Within each group, each student has a minute to respond to the two questions above. Designate a volunteer in each group to speak first. Announce when time is up.
Then invite a full class discussion, which the teacher might direct toward an action project. See in the high school section of TeachableMoment "Teaching Social Responsibility" for citizenship activities that can be applied to the climate change issue.

This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: