Not as expected

December 20, 2009

This week did not quite turn out as expected. Why? For one reason, despite taking place in Denmark – a rather well-run country – the organization of the conference was chaotic at best, and catastrophic at worst. On our arrival Monday afternoon, when we sprinted to the Bella Conference Center right after getting off the airplane, we were turned away by security with dozens of other people. No more registrations that day, we were told.

But it was the next day that was far beyond unbelievable. Knowing that we wouldn’t be the only ones wanting to enter the Bella, we left our hotel 5.40am only to find a queue of many hundreds if not thousands of people.

Endless freezing

After enduring a very, very long seven hours in freezing temperatures with other researchers, advocacy group members, officials from IOs… I finally made it inside the Center – just to spend another hour in line to pass security and receive the photo-badge. Luckily I had a “secondary pass”, the little card needed in addition in order to gain access – what a system… Had it not been for the Danish soldiers, serving coffee and tea and for the vegan activists handing out sandwiches the wait would have been unbearable. Once through the ordeal I first had to recover my strengths with a late lunch at very pleasant (body-thawing) room temperature.

Being already late in the afternoon at that point, I was excited to at least be able to conduct an interview with a representative from the German renewables industry. He went into detail about how the industry is organized and the channels it uses to influence policy. The basic statement: the industry is ready for a large-scale transformation towards renewables – all it needs is the right policy.

Inside, the enormous Center was organized in a series of areas. The exhibit area, where organizations of all sorts had set up information stands, was mostly abandoned at this time of the day, frustrating my objective of interviewing experts there. In the corridor towards the next area some activists dressed in black suits with black glasses were throwing fake $-bills with Sen. Inhofe’s face on them and speaking in a deep, sarcastic voice, denouncing coal industry lobbying. Past a café and the official documents desk emerged another area. In this huge nicely decorated hall, a flurry of delegates, journalists, NGO reps… were sitting and rushing around. One interesting sight was a politician being interviewed by a polar bear. Beyond that layed the main plenary, the enormous press center and the many, many work group, meeting and side event rooms. Although people were still only being let in very slowly, inside it didn’t feel crowded at all, although not empty either.

Also unexpected was the severe restriction of non-governmental badge carriers for the rest of the week. This category comprised not just all sorts of NGOs but also business reps, journalists (that didn’t get journalist accreditation) and researchers like us. The following day (Wed), I didn’t even head to the Bella, having heard that access was virtually impossible. For Thursday and Friday the number was reduced to a staggeringly tiny 300 – out of 25,000 accredited! This is unprecedented in UN conference history and was vehemently criticized by the NGOs. They saw it as a disrespect of the fundamental right of civil-society participation. (A side effect: influential non-govs, e.g. some businesses, being moved onto country-delegation lists to get in.) At least one positive thing can be seen in the overcrowdedness: The world has come to a point where climate change policy is an issue that does not fit in one conference center!

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A last minute shaming action

Unexpectedly being able to spend only a few hours in the official Bella Conference Center during the whole week, I had to find other venues. One overall interesting one was the KlimaForum – “The People’s Summit”. Here, in the center of town, a very different atmosphere reigned. It was basically another universe. I felt *slightly* overdressed with my suit among the many civil society reps and grassroots activists from all over the world. Here one could hear vivid discussions in the hallways, pick up all sorts of info material of many shades and eat great, cheap organic food. On the program was a multitude of events and workshops on every imaginable issue related to climate change. The reason why this was another universe was already expressed in the slogan of the Forum: “System change, not climate change”. Here market mechanisms (emissions trading) and technology hopes (e.g. CCS) were less seen as the solution; rights-based and reparation (“climate debt” of rich countries) approaches dominated; and concerns for the poor and climate-vulnerable were high (“survival is not negotiable”).

Next to the KlimaForum a NGO convergence space was set up as a Bella-alternative, where the negotiations could be followed live and groups organized events. Last night I witnessed a particularly interesting one, at which various speakers – Bill McKibben of 350.org, an indigenous chief, a 1000 hour climate fasting 25y old girl, an African singer… – convened a candle vigil. (Each of the hundreds of candles represented 10,000 signatories of a climate petition.) As outcome of the negotiations was expected to be quite unsatisfying/a failure, the speakers tried to give inspiration and hope to the attendees (“the first truly North-South global justice movement in history”; “just the beginning”).

"President Nasheed of the Maldives at a 350.org

The past week was one I will definitely not forget! Moreover, getting into the Bella only once wasn’t so bad.  As the whole city was filled with all sorts of climate people, the conference in effect took place all over Copenhagen. Meeting interesting people, researching for my thesis, and expanding my knowledge on climate negotiations and civil society activity made my week. What a week!