From the Halls of Copenhagen

Copenhagen protests

The march on December 12 drew 100,000 people to the streets of Copenhagen.

Photo by Green Mamba

The highly-anticipated second week in Copenhagen, when the outcome of the U.N. climate negotiations will be decided, has begun.

Thousands of newly-arriving government delegates and observers are pouring into the conference center, and the corridors are now full to capacity. Hallways are like a busy metro station; hundreds of delegates in suits and carrying briefing documents rushing by every minute. People’s faces express excitement and wariness. It’s sometimes challenging to focus amid the bustle.

The already-tight security is tightening down even further, in anticipation of 117 heads of state arriving later in the week. Traveling in the city center today, I saw vans of police patrolling the streets and helicopters flying overhead. A high, second security fence was erected around the conference center. Secondary badges have been issued to limit the number of entrants—including youth. Due to massive protest directly outside the conference center, U.N. security on Wednesday morning locked down the center and is prohibiting all non-governmental participants from entering, even with proper accreditation and secondary badges. There are reports that demonstrators outside have been tear-gassed by police.

Poor countries walk out

Inside the Bella Center, negotiations are heating up. On Monday, in full televised drama, delegates of the poor and developing countries (also known as the G-77) walked out of the plenary room during the middle of the Kyoto Protocol negotiation session. In these highly formal United Nations settings, it is unusual for government delegates to use overt protest tactics—although developing nations are doing so with greater frequency.

The protest was aimed at rich countries, which they claim are thwarting progress on key policies. Lead negotiators for the G-77 say rich countries like the U.S., Canada, Japan, Australia, and members of the European Union are working to weaken key pieces of the agreement, including a plan for quickly cutting emissions, new finance mechanisms to help developing countries make the transition to clean energy, strategies to reduce forest destruction in developing nations while allowing a livelihood for farmers, and funding to help poor counties adapt to worsening droughts, storms, and crop failures.

Negotiating tracks other than the Kyoto Protocol remain in session, but the walk-out by the poor countries sent a very clear message about their displeasure with the talks’ progress. Most observers clearly support the poor countries; international youth and NGOs immediately rallied to support the G-77 after the walk-out. One official said, “It is an injustice that the poorest nations are suffering the worst consequences of a problem to which they did not contribute. Rich countries must repay their climate debt.”

Will America lead?

Creating a fair, ambitious, and binding treaty will take extraordinary political will—and virtually everyone agrees that only the United States can provide it. On Sunday, a Canadian youth silenced a room of US youth by saying “I am a Canadian. And I’m giving up on working with Canada because Canada will only move when America moves. My country is waiting for you. The best thing I can do is help you get your government to act.”

The United States may be the most powerful country in the world, but has been notably silent in the negotiations in Copenhagen. The U.S. has a huge presence—it brought over 150 negotiators and built a massive briefing center next to the plenary rooms—but virtually everyone I have talked with in the Bella Center is disappointed by the lack of leadership from the US. With President Bush out of office, the international community had high hopes America would lead the world—just as America did in forging a treaty to phase out chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) which were depleting our ozone layer.

Some good news: last Wednesday, I sat 20 feet from Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa Jackson, who announced that her agency ruled carbon dioxide is a pollutant. (Speaking to U.S. youth and NGOs, she said with measured humor, “The government finally realized CO2 endangers human health… news flash.”) The ruling allows the EPA to regulate greenhouse chemicals without new action from Congress. However, many people wonder whether President Obama will use this authority or hold it as a bargaining chip for talks with Congress.

Unfortunately, with a clean energy bill stalled in the Senate, it appears the State Department negotiators are “greenwashing” America’s stance in Copenhagen. For example, the US has proposed a (pathetic) reduction in carbon pollution of 4 percent from 1990 levels by 2020 — but, by using 2005 as a baseline year, actually claiming it is a “17 percent reduction.” Also, the government is even claiming the slight dip in emissions caused by the recession is a “sign of real commitment.”

The hundreds of American youth here in Copenhagen are now calling on President Obama to live up to his campaign promise to lead on climate change.

They want him to hold a joint session of Congress, just as he did with health care, to push the Senate to adopting a strong clean energy bill. Actions are being planned for Obama's Friday arrival to remind him “You have the Power” and “Yes, You Can.” Earlier this week, I joined in delivering a letter signed by one hundred American young elected officials calling on Obama and Congress to “lead once again by forging a bold, binding, and just agreement in Copenhagen that will secure a safe and abundant world for future generations of Americans.”

Being in Copenhagen, I am reminded just how much power the United States has—and how much its citizens have. Last week, Tuvalu’s negotiator said the entire international negotiating process, which could help the world avoid potentially catastrophic climate change, “is being held up by a handful of United States senators.”

“If there was ever a time..."

On Saturday, I had the opportunity to listen as Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, spoke to a gathering of clean energy entrepreneurs. After discussing the economic opportunities of clean energy for jobs, security, and innovation, he switched to a somber tone as he observed that “the pace of international negotiations seems not to reflect the severity and urgency of what we are seeing," such as the rapid disappearance of glaciers that provide water to millions of people and the rising seas which threaten coastal cities across the world.

In a marked departure from his known diplomatic neutrality, he stunned the audience by concluding, “It’s clear we cannot rely on the governmental sector on its own to act in time. World leaders are failing to respond with the urgency which the science demands. If there was ever a time for a grassroots mobilization, this is it.”

350_candlelightvigil_7.jpgGlobal Climate Action
Photo essay: In vigils and protests around the world, activists stood up for a fair, binding climate treaty.

His profound statement still echoes in my ears. This past weekend, hundreds of thousands of people across the planet took place in a worldwide day of vigils and marches calling for a fair, ambitious, and binding treaty from Copenhagen. Over 3,000 events in 150 counties across the world made it one of the largest days of political action in history. In Copenhagen, international youth working inside the conference center joined an estimated 100,000 people in a climate change march from downtown Copenhagen to the Bella Center. Despite the cold, the crowd was upbeat, chanting, “We want a real deal” and “Blah blah blah: act now.”  Here is the latest video footage.

We have the power

I am continually reminded that the only way we will solve this climate crisis is by building the world of our dreams—by citizens from every nation working together across language, culture, and religion in a historically unprecedented way. If we can solve the climate crisis, we will certainly gain the moral courage to solve other global crises.

As a high-level government leader said in the main plenary today, “while we must recognize the gravity of the worst-case scientific scenarios, we must also imagine the opportunities if we succeed: a healthy, prosperous, and sustainable world.”


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