Four Days in Copenhagen

Trying to change the world before it changes us

By Rachel Weil (CAS’10)

Copenhagen131_h.jpg Rachel Weil (CAS’10) left, and Athena Laines

Rachel Weil is one of several BU students and professors who traveled to Copenhagen, where representatives of 192 nations have come together to devise a strategy to combat global warming at the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2009.

Copenhagen, CO2penhagen, Kobenhavn, Hopenhagen …

Day one
We knew something was up as soon as we stepped off the plane. A multicultural throng of people greeted us in front of a banner reading, “Welcome to Hopenhagen.” After a layover in oh-so modern Reykjavik Airport at 6 a.m., many things could seem surreal, so I went with it. Advertisement after advertisement tied companies and organizations to cutting carbon emissions or fighting climate change. Coca-Cola had its own Hopenhagen campaign with indie-looking graphics. A distressed, graying Barack Obama was pictured next to an older Angela Merkel in an Tcktcktck ad campaign for 2020: Reflecting on what they didn’t do at the COP15. The only publicity not conference-related was a bunch of scantily clad Dolce & Gabbana models, but they were probably climate refugees, right?

As we traveled around the city searching for our massive ship hotel, we saw a city already aligned with many of the principles touted by climate activists: fervent bicycle use (with separate lanes and traffic lights, no less!), copious recycling bins in public and private establishments, and collective “people’s kitchens,” serving low-cost organic and local food. It’s the perfect place to set an example for the rest of the world, especially at this time of year, when the Danes seem full of Christmas cheer and glögg (mulled wine).

The largest climate change protest unfolded on our first day, with a reported 100,000 in attendance and 900 arrested. The flood of people, many dressed and painted in blue, marched to the Bella Center, where the COP15 is being held, and ended in a vigil being held around the world for the climate refugees in conjunction with the organization 350.org. The protest was all around the news, as many of you in the United States probably saw. People coming together, peacefully for the most part, sending the message that it’s time to confront the growing emissions problem, for our generation and future generations.

Day two
Day two allowed us more daylight, but only marginally. We ventured first to the IISD (International Institute for Sustainable Development) Development & Climate Days, a series of panels about issues and concerns related to the COP15. As the delegates of the 21 and under generation, we listened to discussions about adaptation, a reality many countries will have to deal with in the near future. Project leaders from Bangladesh spoke about the problems of having extreme droughts in some areas and intense storms in others. The Nepalese representative spoke about the fires due to lack of melting glaciers in the Himalayas. (That’s right — they’re already gone.) The countries all shared the need for refuge for their soon-to-be-refugees. NAPAs and LAPAs (national and local adaptation plans of action) are now being negotiated and in some cases enacted in these countries already facing their worst nightmares.

Later, we met up with Inge, a Danish friend I met studying abroad in Madrid. She was offered a position as an attaché for the COP, but could not take it, as she is currently writing her thesis. Nevertheless, she gave us her perspective on things — noting how lively the city was for a Sunday night and the heavy population of tourists. She works in a fair trade shop-café, and gets endless questions about the COP goings-on. She expressed some cynicism about the huge environmental footprint the conference is making. I have questioned this many times personally, considering all the people who have flown in this week and the increased pressure put on this relatively small, waterlogged plot of land. While I will battle with this eco-guilt for a while, it will all be worth it for a solid, binding emissions target.

We’ve already witnessed many different perspectives of climate change and approaches to solving the crisis. To me, this is the best thing about being here in Copenhagen: observing and interacting with different groups and individuals, seeing the top-down (government) and bottom-up (grassroots people’s movements) approaches, while not forgetting those in the middle (the regional level emphasized in Professor Henrik Selin’s Global Environmental Negotiations class). This is systemic change being addressed here, and we can’t afford to forget anybody.

Day three
On Monday, a demonstration blocked all buses from running, and a military marching band intersected our path and captured our attention. They were leaving from the Amalienborg Palace, the winter home of the Danish royal family, followed by police. Were these choreographed processions gearing up to meet the anarchical demonstrators in an age-old tradition vs. progress standoff? Only in my head. But what a city of contrasts!

During the day, we were awed by the newfound “eco-celebs” of the climate change movement. At Klimaforum, the “people’s climate summit” happening in conjunction with the COP15, Bill McKibben of 350.org and President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives got the crowd riled up, chanting “350,” which has become the number of the climate change movement and the level of carbon dioxide concentration being equated with survival. McKibben pointed out, “In the 350 world, there was poverty, there was war. It wasn’t perfect, but it worked physically.” He emphasized how 350 is a number provided directly from respected scientists, and its adoption as a global movement is historical in many senses, as evidenced by the 350 international day of climate action photos taken from around the world.

President Nasheed, delayed in arriving, has been a political prisoner and a political activist for years. Aspiring to be an intellectual heir of Gandhian positions, Nasheed has taken creative action to express the need to address climate change’s effects in the Maldives. Translation: his cabinet held an underwater meeting on October 24, scuba gear and all. This guy takes out all stops. He is truly an environmental hero, an honest to goodness rock star.

Today the G-77, the 77 poorest nations represented at the COP15, walked out on negotiations, claiming that the rich nations have to take the first step. This may have slowed the talks, but these brave 77 are those who will be first affected by climate change due to the actions of other, more wealthy nations. If the last few days have taught me anything, it’s that climate change is global and negotiations need to focus on the needs and concerns of the most vulnerable, not those wielding the most political power.

Day four
Day four began as a wonderfully festive winter day in Freetown Christiania, Copenhagen’s alternative communal society. This self-proclaimed autonomous township is notorious for anarchist sentiments, squatters, and a market for cannabis. During the COP15, Christiania has been the site of the ‘Climate Bottom’ meetings, addressing the spiritual and more radical sides to the climate change movement. Intense riots have occurred here as well — notably, one last night involving tear gas and a massive police presence. Today, however, as fat flakes fell on the tents and reappropriated warehouses, people were calmer and spoke of ‘cradle to cradle’ design (aka C2C), designing products to follow natural processes, at the daily meeting. Soup and hot tea were offered at the people’s kitchen, and babies and older folks alike gathered together in the tent.

We wandered further down the bicycle-lined path and found the Christmas market, or Juleloses, a beautiful indoor market of handmade goods, ‘Bevar Christiania’ (Save Christiania) pins, charming gnome ornaments (one of which my roommates may be getting as a present), and other holiday wares. People sat around drinking glögg, a mulled wine that reminded me of a wintertime sangria, eating gingersnaps, and listening to new-agey Christmas tunes played by a bearded man on a keyboard. Even a little Jewish girl like me felt the Christmas spirit in a way only a Danish communal market would allow.

Later on we met up with Andy, a friend who has been studying in Geneva, and Frederik, a Danish student activist I also met in Madrid. After Greek food (Danish food = meat, thus no sampling from these vegetarians), we jumped into the huge crowd at the open-frigid-air Hopenhagen-sponsored Gogol Bordello concert for awhile. We went to a café where Frederik volunteers, filled with international activists sharing cups of coffee and hot soy chocolate. Patrons of the café shared their frustrations with the slow pace of the negotiations as well as their enthusiasm about the ‘Southern’ countries (the G-77, et al) really stepping up their game. The leaders and inhabitants of these countries are rising above the tide as the leaders of the climate change movement in a way no celebrity or former vice president could. Now more than ever I believe that it will be these inspiring nations — who are ignored much too often — that will really ignite this whole climate change thing.

This article first appeared in BU Today on December 17, 2009.

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