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.