Monday, February 1, 2010

Students in Copenhagen for COP 15: We Are Not Finished

By Jessie Robbins

Originally published in the Georgetown Independent, reposted with permission.

This past December, three fellow Hoyas and I (Julia Schindel COL’10, Olivia Chitayat COL’10, and Kathryn Padgett SFS’11) joined 40,000 delegates, politicians, concerned citizens and Professor Joanna Lewis (Georgetown’s official “observer”) in Copenhagen, Denmark to participate in the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties 15, more commonly known as COP15. Despite our varied academic interests provided multiple perspectives for our trip, we all shared a common passion for tackling the challenge of global climate change.

Ultimately, I was disappointed by the shortcomings of the final outcome as it indicated a general lack of ambition at the international level. The problem, however, seems to rest with governments unable to act due to politics at home. Though Georgetown tends to exalt all things international, in this case the local level seems a better place to begin. We cannot expect our leaders to make strong pledges abroad if we aren’t backing up those policies at home. Most importantly, in light of the perspective we gained as young people interacting in this incredibly complex community, I now see that the responsibility for this change lies with us.

The COP15 has been heralded as the most important climate summit ever held. However, poorly arranged logistics hampered its proceedings and the over-registration for the summit generated problems for the NGO communityover access to the conference, which took place in the Bella Center . By the time the conference began, over 40,000 people had registered for a center with a capacity of only 15,000. And unlike previous COPs, the turnout for COP15 was massive.

For those not intimately associated with climate legislation and related lobbying groups or Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), it was incredibly easy to lose touch with the proceedings. The discussions were sometimes so complex thart even the delegates lost track of them. Though delegates have greater access than NGOs to the summit’s proceedings, if they are not included in the many informal bi- or multi-lateral meetings with other nations or do not have access to the same resources as their more powerful colleagues, these delegates are just as marginalized as the most insignificant university students.

A few very helpful contacts, many of them Georgetown alumni, provided clues on how to understand the proceedings. Daily schedules for both COP15 and side events provided info on meetings and schedule updates, which allowed us to take full advantage of the summit’s many activities. Last-minute assemblies or press conferences were often the most important. Certain email listservs from various NGO networks and climate groups provided us the ultimate insider information, as experts and heads of many prominent NGOs posted the latest knowledge on the rumors, deals, and deadlocks that surrounded the negotiations.

Beyond the summit itself, Copenhagen offered an assortment of related activities, such as marches, lectures at KlimaForum (a summit of global civil society held at a separate site), and the COP15 negotiations themselves. I spent most of my time at the conference, sitting in on large Plenary and Working Group sessions, interviewing delegates and observers, and attempting to follow the incredibly complicated process involved in international legislation.

As more waves of people arrived during the second week and security concerns mounted over heads of state arriving, the Secretariat announced that admission would be limited beginning Tuesday. Summit organizers implemented a lottery system, in which every delegation received white entry passes for approximately one third of their total number. Luckily for us, the Georgetown delegation was able to spare one pass on Tuesday for our group of four.

In the conference center, the restrictions were already hampering discussion as certain side events and panels were either cancelled or moved because the speakers could not enter the Bella Center due to these capacity limitations.

Wednesday was a different story. The Georgetown delegation completed its panel on Tuesday, a prominent affair involving, Canadian premiers and United States governors’ discussion of sub-national climate change mitigation. As many of our delegates returned home, several precious entry passes freed up for our group of students. Early Wednesday morning I took off to the other end of the city to pick up a pass left by a departing delegate. After getting lost, I made it back to the Bella Center a few hours later. Approaching the barricades, I was surprised—no line. Every other morning involved a wait of up to two hours to clear security. I walked up to the guard, badge in one hand and entry pass in the other. After glancing at the badge, he barked, “No NGOs. Parties only.”

And so I remained for the rest of the day, standing outside the barricades with freezing fingers, checking the latest news online through the faint wireless signal (the only thing getting through the Bella Center’s barricades). Gradually, the picture became clear. Demonstrators had staged a protest around 9 a.m., which created enough “security concerns” for the police to restrict access to NGOs a day early. Intercepted emails indicated the demonstrators intended on breaching security and entering the Bella Center illegally, possibly disrupting the conference.

Waiting with other NGO representatives for the situation to change, I was shocked at the sudden turn of events. Trying to save money, many observers had come late, only to see one or two days of the conference before being shut out. One man told me about the work he had been doing for several small developing countries, arranging press for their delegations so they could communicate with people back home and get their message out to international news agencies. Now deprived of this help, those delegations were even less likely to have their interests heard.

But while wealthy countries dominated the discourse inside the Bella Center, those outside saw a different side of the environmental movement. There, people spoke of their frustration and even anger at the snail’s pace of action by the international community. Groups without a negotiating platform gathered outside the normal constraints of the official legislation process to take action any way they could—marching, demonstrating, and protesting the unacceptable delays in reaching a global treaty. Whether in or out of the COP15 system, I wondered if there was any way to see progress beyond the slow crawl of international legislation.

Despite what I have seen and experienced, I continue to believe the United Nations is the best possible framework within which to work towards an international solution. However, I do not think regions, countries, cities or citizens should be waiting around on the global community to get its act together before making a decisive move on climate change. Paradoxically, while climate change is a global problem which will require global coordination to solve, the first steps cannot be global in scale. We need to take small steps before we can take action in leaps.

Yet the data tells us there is not time to wait. My two weeks in Copenhagen crystallized the question that lurks in the head of many students of environmental science: We are young. We are students. We have little power, but we do have every incentive to care about what is happening to our planet. The morbid truth is that most of the COP15 negotiators and world leaders will be dead when their climate targets mature. Without falling into helplessness, what on earth can we do for our earth?

Our strength lies in our conviction and energy, and most of all, in our utter impatience for the politicking and bureaucracy of those who tell us, “You can’t understand. You’re just too young.” The process cannot break down now. We cannot afford to pay attention for only two weeks out of a year, but instead must work continuously to make sure those two weeks are the most productive of all. With less than a year until the next meeting, COP16, to be held in Mexico City beginning November 29, it is more important than ever to put pressure on leaders in the United States and other powerful countries to continue making progress at local and national levels. Going into my Copenhagen experience, I remember thinking how insignificant I felt as a young individual. But now it is clear that individuals are the most important factor of all.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

December 20th, 7:30 PM CET

Alex's Apartment

Until I can get a few interviews and thoughts up from the final days of the conference (having bandwidth problems here) let this suffice for an explanation of the last two weeks ;-)

Friday, December 18, 2009

December 18th, 4:28 PM CET

NGO Forum

Around 8:30 this morning, Air Force One touched down in Copenhagen, beginning what many hoped would be the last, big push on the final day of COP15. President Obama's day began with select one-on-one ministerial meetings, including one with Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jaibao. A later meeting between multiple ministers, however, resulted in a distinct snub as the Chinese vice foreign minister, He Yafei, was sent in the Prime Minister's stead to meet with heads of state. Rumor is that this is in response to Secretary Clinton's "Chinese proverb" quip yesterday, prodding China to cooperate, but this is unconfirmed.

The President's speech was brief, dry, and hardline - but not in a positive way. His message was that the United States has given everything it had to offer, and would not be giving any concessions. He did, however, acknowledge that the United States bears responsibility for climate change - a sticking point in the language of the negotiations between developed and developing countries.

He made no further concessions on emissions targets, sticking with, "cutting our emissions in the range of 17 percent by 2020, and by more than 80 percent by 2050." One of his final lines - "We have charted our course, we have made our commitments, and we will do what we say" - sounded more like the 43rd President of the United States, not the 44th. (For more on why the more things change, the more they stay the same, check out this article from a fellow couch surfer at, and the Daily Kos article that inspired it.)

Deviations between the speech distributed to the media beforehand and what actually came out of the President's mouth speaks volumes to the lack of progress today. The first read, "There are those developing countries that want aid with no strings attached, AND NO OBLIGATIONS WITH REGARD TO TRANSPARENCY and who think that the most advanced nations should pay a higher price," with the change noted in bold. Though it was clearly a stab at China's reluctancy to accept MRV (monitor, report, and verify) measures, it seemed petty and out of place considering China's recent adoption of additional concessions. China has indicated it will agree to measures of transparency, though it is not clear what they may be. This remark could just as well have been aimed at China for their snub of the ministerial meeting earlier in the day.

The second should have read, "After months of talk, and two weeks of negotiations, I believe that the pieces of that accord are now clear," but instead finished with, "should now be clear," reflected the stagnation among leaders leading up to the President's address, instead of the quick resolution that was forecast.

There were no expectations that Obama would announce a surprise move, like Secretary Clinton's $100 billion bomb. The US is still very much bound by domestic politics. Though developing nations are still hoping for strong leadership from President Obama, the United States is definitely not putting anything else on the table than what they already have. With their will for a significant agreement eroding - the idea that it will be legally binding has already been scrapped - the United States seems like it has given up, and will punt anything binding to COP16. This is hardly the groundbreaking conference for which the world, owever futilely, had hoped.


December 18th, 12:35 PM CET

Alex's apartment (new digs)

I spent the morning lugging bags across the city, so before heading out for the day I thought I'd post some videos from past events.

(President Obama is currently speaking live - thoughts on his speech to come.)

From Saturday, December 12th, opening remarks by Tuvalu.

From Tuesday, December 15th, Avaaz activists inside the Bella Center.

Klimaforum and Dr. Vandana Shiva! (Sunday Dec 13)

I wanted to add on a little bit to Kathryn’s post about Klimaforum on Sunday. In the afternoon I attended an event on carbon trading. Here there was a panel where many discussed the problems of offsetting and involvement of banks and speculators. Many of them noted the problem of many projects of “clean development and regulation of markets” maintaining the same system that created the problem, as well as providing opportunities for profit. The developed countries have made 75% of emissions, and are only 20% of the world population.

One speaker describes how the UN process has, “reduced the problem to molecules,” rather than changing the structure of the system. I also went to an event on the Manifesto on Climate Change with
Dr. Vandana Shiva (mentioned first to us by Dr. Beach on the far right in the top picture). As Kathryn has already described, this woman is absolutely amazing! She is a radical progressive scientist, a beautiful speaker, and grassroots organizer. She is my new found inspiration for life. I mean, she's a scientist! Perhaps, I am making a big deal out of this 'being a scientist thing', but it’s just something I don’t see very often. She is part of a coalition working to make radical on-the-ground change. They have in-depth alternative solutions to the problems we are faci
ng. It is wonderful to see something concrete from an international group. They especially work to integrate agriculture, poverty, development, and the environment. If you want to learn more and read there unique manifestos look at:

One more thing about Dr. Shiva - Kathryn and I worked to talk to her a bit after the event. We fought against many aggressive reporters, including Amy Goodman from Democracy Now. After pushing through the crowd, I asked, “How do you balance being an activist and a scientist?” She smiled sneakily in response and said that, “There is no contradiction between these two things - they balance each other.”

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Flood + Day of Action (Sat Dec 12)

A post from Olivia…. From Saturday December 12, 2009

On Saturday, Julia and I attended the large marches in Copenhagen, working to shake things up a little bit. I woke up in the morning to check out Klimaforum09 – a public conference on climate change being held in the city – leaving Julia asleep for another hour. At Klima many people were in blue ponchos, paint on their faces, with creative signs. One group of people had a space craft offering tickets at “a discount price for 1 billion dollars. This is your last chance.” The Flood began to flow, a protest put on by Friends of the Earth International, where approximately 5,000 people marched. People in the march were calling for no offsets, a strong climate treaty, reform of the economic system, and much more. The flavor of this march was, well, like a flood. We did “the wave.” Literally. The front would start and then everyone would jump all the way to the back. When we got to the square, this march closed with a few speeches.

The next march for the Global day of Action started up a few hours later. By then the crowd had grown quite large. We joined in on some wonderful dancing, made friends with activists dressed as clowns, polar bears, pandas, and more. In the Global Day of action, the march took on a size between 50,000-100,000 participants (reflecting the range presented in the media). This action was part of thousands that took place all over the globe calling for meaningful serious action taken on climate change, and for a binding international agreement. In Copenhagen the march was sponsored by many organizations with their own banners calling for action at COP15. These were transported and handed off to delegates of COP15, after 2-5 hours of marching. (We were in the 5 hour time block.)

During the march there was amazing drumming and a line as far as one could see of people. There were people of all sorts. As described more clearly in Julia’s recent post, the police have been engaging in pre-emptive arrests during the Copenhagen conference. Groups of police follow/target particular blocks of the march, particularly anarchist and black block groups. Julia and I got caught in one scuffle where we did not even see what had initially happened, but all of a sudden people were running away and the police were surrounding a section of the block. They backed off and the march continued after arresting a few people; However, at the same spot a few minutes later, the police surrounded and arrested 900-1000 activists at the same place, with only a few actually being charged. After searching for those being arrested, but blocked off by police, we arrived at the Bella centre at approximately 6pm. Here we met David, got a hot dog, and hung out with fellow activists around a series of fires that had been started. We finished the night by wandering around looking for food and returned to Morten’s around 11pm. Absolutely exhausted, legs pounding.

December 17th, 6:50 PM CET

Forum, NGO Center

There were two sights I saw today that typified the current state of the negotiations. The first was a police-escorted motorcade, lights flashing, racing down one of Copenhagen's main streets towards the Bella Center. I suspect it was carrying a head of state from one of the upscale hotels downtown to the negotiations, stalled for the better part of the week. The second followed shortly after. One of the COP15 buses, running a special route to connect the Bella Center directly to other central points, passed by at a markedly slower pace. It was almost entirely empty.

As world leaders fly in, NGOs and observers are increasingly shut out. Temporary work spaces have been erected all over the city and side events and lectures are taking place in cafes around the city, if they still happen at all. Grassroots networks struggle to reach their members and find physical locations in which to meet and organize. The question this raises - and my opinion is still changing on this - is how the content and progress of the negotiations are affected.

On the one hand, mere access to the Bella Center may be a little overrated. The site is so large, and hallways so crowded that experienced COPers remark at how difficult it is to generate the sort of informal run-ins and brief encounters that have characterized past conferences. Draft texts are not printed and distributed (or even put online) until they are hopelessly out of date, if at all. Most of the action happens in closed meetings, "bilats", or consultations with the secretariat, all inaccessible to observers. Even press conferences are closed to NGOs, though they are broadcast on the website live. The open plenaries rarely yield any new information on specific topics. Overall, unless one is plugged in with a delegation or otherwise working constructively at the Center, it's almost easier to follow the negotiations by keeping one ear listening to live feeds of the negotiations and press conferences, and an eye on email listservs, blog updates, and official press releases from governments, etc., as well as the occasional draft text - all of which can be done outside the conference.

Avaaz's aliens demonstration - standing with a delegate from Panama. Hilarious AND smart - video to come.

However, by closing the Center to NGOs, as was done yesterday after protests inside and out led to concerns over security, the possibility for the kind of constructive work carried out by some NGOs was also shut out. One observer, expressing his frustration in an email on Wednesday, explained how he had been doing pro bono press work for a delegation from a small developing country without any communications staff of their own. Without help, they are unable to get their message out to their people at home or to news agencies at the conference. Now, the only leverage they have is what they can manage to accrue through the negotiation process, which amounts to very, very little. NGOs can also serve as resources to delegations needing guidance from experts on key subjects going into the text. By denying access to NGOs, a large wealth of knowledge is also excluded from the process. In this respect, there is no replacement for being in the same physical space as the negotiations.

So by protesting in order for everyone to "get their voice heard," one block of of civil society managed to obstruct the work of another. Ironically, the idea that the Reclaim Power Now movement on Wednesday would get everyone a spot at the table was patently counter-productive, and only served to further limit input from those poor, disenfranchised, and most endangered by climate change. But again, they were joined in their walk-out by the Bolivian delegation and Indigenous Peoples Caucus. I don't know that that's the smartest move those delegates could have made, but it obviously they saw it as their only recourse. After all, isn't this whole movement about giving developing countries control over their own future?

I welcome comments on this - I'm certainly far from understanding this dichotomy, and especially the role of youth.