Copenhagen Reflection

By Oliver Bruce

I have to admit that I didn’t have high hopes for Copenhagen. I’d read the updates of the negotiations from Bonn, Bangkok and Barcelona. I knew they hadn’t made enough progress to pull together something substantive. So when I entered the Bella Center I was under no illusions as to any impact I could have and spent my first week twittering on where the free food was and meeting interesting people.

But as time went on, I could see the desperation increase among the tired negotiators I saw running from meeting to meeting. Each night, I’d get increasingly dire reports from Neil, a fellow COA student and party delegate for St Lucia, who was staying in my room. He despaired about the lack of transparency and power politics being played by the Danes. Somewhere along the line, it hit me that while I didn’t have high hopes for an outcome, I cared immensely about what was happening. Only over this last weekend, with the dust settling from the collapsed talks, and with a bit more information of what went on in the closing hours of the meetings has it all begun to truly sink in.

We failed.

Regardless of whether you were following the events in Copenhagen because you care about the planet, were interested in where carbon constrained business was headed, or because you somewhat sadistically enjoy subjecting yourself to UN bureaucracies, its obvious that what happened over the last two weeks was nothing short of a disaster. We’re now likely to have a set of short-term solutions, piecemeal agreements, and after the breaches of process and trust by the Secretariat and the Danes, a long period of tension and conflict in the international climate change arena. There is no common vision, no long term strategy – just a bunch of weak agreements that at this stage, don’t add up to much.

But the political and legal outcome is not really what this post is about. This post is more an expression of the grief and sadness that overcame me as I listened to leader after leader get up and deliver their “climate friendly” speeches and promise to do their part for climate. The frustration that came when it became obvious that my own country of New Zealand had appointed a minister who viewed the entire process as nothing more than a trade negotiation. The injustice of having all but less than 1% of civil society eventually restricted access to the talks.

I stopped caring that we’d not made enough progress in the negotiations prior to Copenhagen and began to ask why – why that even when faced with a potential catastrophe that affects the life-systems upon which we depend, we were unable to seize the opportunity to grow beyond the narrow-minded, sovereignty-obsessed politics that have constrained us until now? Why the common humanity that we share is not sufficient to overcome the constructed identities and barriers we place between each other?

I went to a United World College and then College of the Atlantic precisely to explore ways of being a better, more compassionate, more effective human being. I consider myself a strongly process-oriented person, who strives for inclusiveness and accountability. Despite my frustration with the UN, I consider international diplomacy a fundamental and necessary part of recognizing our fundamentally common nature as humans, and key to solving our collectively global problems. Yet my experience of last week, with its breaches of process, principles of transparency and simple lack of constructive cooperation, have given that faith a run for its money.

I, like many of my peers, sat in an old meatpacking factory on Friday of the last week to watch COA student Juan Soriano via video link deliver the youth address to the plenary. I could hear the anger and hurt in Juan’s voice when he declared that the negotiators “should be ashamed.” That after sixteen years of negotiations, we still can’t even come up with a common approach of how to deal with a problem that will affect all of us. The hurt that ebbed through his voice, as he quivered with frustration at the indignity of the situation, is the same sadness and grief I feel after seeing the circus that the international community put on when trying address a fundamentally common future.

Come on guys. We can do better. We need to do better.

Juan Soriano offers youth statement to plenary

By Donna Gold (from a press release)

Sporting an orange t-shirt with the question, “How old will you be in 2050?”—referring to the fact that in 40 years the youth of today will be experiencing the effects of climate change while many of the leaders negotiating the treaty will be gone—Juan Carlos Soriano presented the youth statement to the plenary today. [youtube][/youtube]

In 2050 he will be 64 years old.

Representing the thousands of youth of Copenhagen, Juan accused the UNFCC of becoming the “divided nations” and called on the delegates to sign a “fair, ambitious and legally binding agreement.” He concluded his powerful, short speech by declaring that the youth, “will keep on working and keep on pushing you harder until this deal is sealed.”

Lauren Nutter and Juan Soriano

Lauren Nutter and Juan Soriano working in Copenhagen. Both are SustainUs leaders

When asked, months before, why he cared so much about climate change, Juan recalled his summers spent visiting his grandmother in the highlands of the Huaylas Valley. “The Andes have some of the most beautiful snowcapped mountains in South America. But every time I visit, I witness the consequences of environmental degradation. Not only are the glaciers melting but also the fruits from my grandma’s orchard are not the same because an abnormal proliferation of mosquitoes is damaging crops and forcing farmers to use pesticides. The frogs that once fed on the mosquitoes disappeared a few years ago; their extinction has been attributed to the shortening of hibernation periods as a result of a rise in temperature.”

Though the youths are disappointed with the outcome of the talks, they are finding some hope in their unity. In an interview after his speech Soriano spoke about how well organized the youth have become through the process. “We have managed to create a Latin American youth network. Integration among youth regionally and worldwide is something meaningful that has come out of this conference.”

Thoughts while sitting in a very empty chamber

By Ken Cline

Civil Society has been removed from the negotiations.Walking the halls of the Bella Center this morning it was eerily quiet. There were no bright-colored shirts, chanting youth, polar bears or walking trees. The energetic, chaotic, raw emotion of democracy was gone. Everything was neat and orderly and very, very surreal.  Several of the NGO booths at the expo area had stark black and white signs that said, “Civil Society has been removed from the negotiations. How can you decide about us without us?” Very sobering. I don’t really understand what the UNFCCC Secretariat is thinking. Aside from the legal obligations for public participation, the whole UNFCCC’s existence owes itself to the efforts of Civil Society. It is the scientists, research institutes, advocacy groups and activists that have gotten the world to even think about climate change. Funny way to acknowledge that debt. But acknowledging debts isn’t one of the strengths of the official bodies when it comes to climate change.

After running the gauntlet of five security checks with two detours to constituency meetings and to abandon my backpack, I finally made it into the High Level Segment – Heads of State statements. I listen as presidents, prime ministers and even princes exhorted each other to reach an agreement and protect the earth. Some used their soap box to rail against US capitalism, Russian imperialism, or other political hobgoblins, but most genuinely seemed to feel the eyes of the world on them as they tried to “seal the deal” (in the less than 24 hours we have left.) One of my favorites was Brazil, though I am not sure that the American government was so thrilled. But at least Lula de Silva didn’t rail about US aggression and the evils of capitalism for 21 minutes like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did. Iran also put a strong plug in for developing nuclear power. Nice touch Mahmoud. Many of the speakers echoed the arguments that we have heard all week (or perhaps for years) from their various negotiating blocks. Still, the stories of the prime ministers of the small island developing states and African nations were heart-wrenching.  There were memorable quotes, Zapetero of Spain finished his statement by saying that “our planet does not belong to anyone but the wind.” Gonzi of Malta noted that “Climate change will define us … what we do here is our legacy.”  And my favorite, “My children will be asking me in 20 years, ‘Dad, what were you thinking?’” from Gordon Bajmai of Hungary.

Empty hall

Where civil society once was.

Many of the leaders repeated their country’s already public green house gas commitments. Europeans were rather smug and superior; Australia and others of the umbrella group were defiant and dismissive. But I was also struck by how many said that “the negotiations could not fail,” that there was “too much at stake.” Several made direct reference to the demonstrations over the past week as a reflection of the frustration that the people of the world are feeling as the negotiators stall and bicker. They might want to give that message to their negotiators.

My overall favorite was Nicholas Sarkozy of France. He repeatedly challenged the other heads of state by asking “Who would dare say…” that Africa and the least developed countries don’t need money to adapt to climate change? That we don’t need innovative financing? That we don’t need a body to check compliance. … It was great. He scolded the US and China both for not finding a compromise and proposed that the leaders themselves sit down after dinner and hammer out a political agreement. Grandstanding, yes.  But in a refreshing and inspiring way.

As I looked around in the public gallery while the Prime Minister of New Zealand finished up, I noticed a total of 12 people sitting in the chairs. All of the people who want to be there, who wanted to witness this moment, and there are only 12 of us. The rest are locked out, perhaps watching it on-line somewhere. Perhaps they have given up and are out enjoying the snow-blanketed city. Maybe the press will convey the inspiring words to the world (well actually the Prime Minister of New Zealand wasn’t that inspiring) but then again, all of these speeches may have just contributed a little more hot air to the atmosphere. And unfortunately that is something the world can do without.

The Importance of Civil Society’s Presence at COP

By Noah Hodgetts

For added context to my previous blog post.

It is vital that non-governmental organizations representing civil society ranging from College of the Atlantic and the  Climate Action Network (CAN) to the Indigenous Peoples  are involved in the process for several reasons. The most important reason is to hold countries accountable and to push them to make bolder pledges. Civil society is a recognized constituency of the UNFCCC. Its presence in official proceedings  is necessary to make sure all parties are playing by the rules and not shutting out those with less power. Civil Society participation is also neccesary to give a voice to the millions of people who do not have a voice at COP and whose governments don’t speak on their behalf. Finally, civil society presence is needed in the proceedings to push for a fair, ambitious, and binding deal in Copenhagen for the world can’t afford to wait until COP16 in Mexico City for a deal! We need action now!