There are two times this year that in a packed crowd in sub-freezing weather for over 8 hours with no access to food, water, or restrooms.  The first was on January 20th when I tromped down to the mall in Washington, DC before daybreak to get “as close as possible” to the momentous event: the inauguration of President Obama. It was a joyous, albeit exhausting event.

The second time was today, in Copenhagen, as I and hundreds of other would-be COP15 attendees waited outside the Bella Convention Center from pre-dawn to post-dusk in order to register for participation in the momentous event taking place in this city. At 5pm, a gentleman in from the UN spoke to us by bullhorn, from behind a metal barrier and several rows of burly Danish Police.  He had one simple message: I’m sorry, now go home, accreditation is full.

Now let me make two things very clear.  The first is that this man was not addressing a crowd of protestors, but rather a crowd of hundreds of fully accredited press, NGO observers, and even country negotiating-team members, from German ministers to Ghanaian delegates. All of us had paperwork entitling us to entrance to the conference under the UNFCCC’s own self-designed system, but most of us were never let in.

The second thing to make clear is that, despite this fact, my time thus far in Copenhagen has been very productive, educational, and extremely enjoyable. My ten hours in line were by no means fruitless. Instead, I did on the outside what I had come to do on the inside of the conference: I had countless interesting conversations with other participants, I learned a whole lot, traded my Fletcher business cards, and even conducted an informal interview with a former US negotiator about part of my research interest, the history of the development of carbon emissions reporting requirements under Kyoto.

There was the young gentleman who worked for a green-tech start up with whom I spoke about carbon storage in finished products as we shared a cup of coffee, which was being freely distributed by Greenpeace.  And there were the folks from the Natural Resources Defense Council with whom I spoke about dams and increased water flows from melting glaciers in the Andes.  Together, we waited in the cold.

News from the “inside” floated out through text-message and occasional word shouted.  For a brief moment the whole crowd quickly spread the rumor that the whole G-77 had walked out of the negotiations.  As it turned out (and we found out from word of mouth), they had only briefly sat out, in what the NY Times called a “tactical move.” Those moments of thinking the whole negotiation process had gone up in flames were intense.  What I mean to convey is the deep invested interest in the negotiation details from the outside crowd hungry for the tidbits of information that trickled through the walls of the center.  It was exciting.

At one point, when I introduced myself as a Fletcher graduate student to one veteran DC lobbyist, I got a curious response: a pop quiz.

“Here’s a trivia question for a budding climate academic: What’s the Byrd-Hagel Resolution?”

To which I replied something like,
“the Senate’s 95-0 vote in the summer of 1997 which pre-emptively killed US  involvement in the Kyoto Protocol process if it didn’t include binding provisions for key developing countries, why?” (Thanks Professor Gallagher!)

“I wrote that resolution,” came the response. And we hit it off from there.

As we waited longer, and the hours of bathroomlessness and cold wind became more grueling, the intimacy created by our collective experience deepened.  We got to know each other—quite literally breaking bread together (the vegan sandwiches distributed by activists). One woman fainted and we managed to extricate her.

As night fell, the hopelessness (of getting in) really hit.  The crowd became kind of boisterous, changing traditional climate cheers like, “What do we want? Climate Justice! When do we want it? Now!” to our new situation “What do we want? Registration! When do we want it? Now!”  The crowd cried shame on the UN for botching its own accreditation process.  And then we left, being told to come back in the morning and try again.

At this point I took the train to the KlimaForum, a separate “People’s Conference,” in downtown Copenhagen.  No lines or access-restrictions here, but there were heads of state: President Mohammed Nasheed of the Maldives, a small island state under dire threat from sea level rise, gave the evening address, highlighting the need to act and act now.

So after having been here for a day, I have to say that I am somewhat amazed by the fact that core structural issues, like how many texts the conference is trying to produce by week’s end, remain unresolved. In the end, I do remain hopeful in Hopenhagen, despite the lack of progress on some key structural issues, like whether or not to abandon the post-Kyoto negotiating track.

While that not be the same as hoping that we can reduce emissions to such a degree (pun intended) that we might prevent the Maldives from sinking, I do have hope that the attention and emotion focused here, on this point in space and time, must move things for the good.  So, even if we only get a political agreement, or the funding isn’t there for adaptation in developing countries, if we can move things in the right direction, then we can keep the momentum up.  After today, I must say, I have lost some of my faith in the UNFCCC process, but this was more for its logistical ineptitude than the content of the negotiation process.  On that, I will reserve my judgment until the end of the week.