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Four Days in Copenhagen

Trying to change the world before it changes us


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.


14 Comments on Four Days in Copenhagen

  • Anonymous on 12.17.2009 at 5:37 am

    I also just returned from Copenhagen as an NGO observer; being in the conference was a very different experience from the Hopenhagen events and the Klimaforum, both of which I sat in on for a while. The whole scene was really interesting, especially in the Bella Center and circulating around with people like the head of the UNDP, UN Foundation, and World Food Program. From what I gathered (my group met with Al Gore on Wednesday morning as I was flying out), Al Gore is not very optimistic about the process. As of Tuesday, the ministers still hadn’t decided what form of a treaty they were negotiating at all… so basically they weren’t getting anywhere because it still hasn’t been determined whether the treaty will be one treaty or whether it will be two tracks with the Kyoto Protocol countries on one and everyone else on another.

    Hopefully in the coming days the heads of state will do something, but beware the results. No matter what happens by tomorrow, they will call it victory; 110 or so heads of state cannot show up and not call whatever they achieve a victory. Look carefully at the substance… it may be called a victory, but may not be at all.

  • Susan Chaityn Lebovits on 12.17.2009 at 9:26 am

    Four Days in Copenhagen

    Your wonderfully crafted blog really gives us back home at Boston University a nice understanding of what you’re experiencing. Let’s hope that the Copenhagen talks make some more progress.
    I hope you’re taking a lot of photos, and we look forward to hearing more when you return!-Susan

  • Anonymous on 12.17.2009 at 10:00 am

    Global warming profiteers

    While global warming may be occurring few self-respecting scientists would be naive enough to think that the cost of slowing the process is justified. On the contrary we know we that we are causing deforestation and have contributed to the formation of a “plastic bottle” island off the pacific coast but I do not hear people getting all excited about these irrefutable man-made problems. Have any of you stopped to think that the media is not helping to hype up these other more obvious problems because those who stand to profit from global warming will not make penny if we instead plant trees and clean up the plastic island we created?

    Please be more critical in your thinking people. Global warming is scam put forth by people who want to control your behavior and profit in the precess.

  • Anonymous on 12.17.2009 at 7:16 pm

    I wish global warming was a scam

  • Cutler on 12.17.2009 at 8:20 pm



    nice work–it nice to hear about the important details that we cant get from the mainstream media–i look forward to reading more


  • nick on 12.17.2009 at 9:09 pm


    hey so great to read this!! the news about the conference is kind of depressing on this side of the pond, what with the US and china refusing to agree on small details. i like that your giving us a feel of hopenhagen(lol) as well. has there been discussions on whether climate change is real? that would be interesting. like your focus on the G-77. i feel like until i read this ive been dismissing them too readily as unable to get anything done, but this gives me a little hope. how optimistic are you about serious change? what do other countries think of the US?

  • Anonymous on 12.17.2009 at 9:14 pm

    great work guys! you really represent the majority at bu

  • Courtney Carroll on 12.17.2009 at 9:26 pm

    I’ve been trying to keep up once in a while with the events taking place in Copenhagen, and the articles I’ve read in the New York Times have made it seem like not a lot is being done, but there are some potential deals going on. In general does the vibe you’re getting from Copenhagen a successful one or more cynical? Do you feel like there’s significant ground being made?

  • Anonymous on 12.18.2009 at 12:38 am


  • Patrick Michaelyan on 12.18.2009 at 8:42 am

    Struggling to Come Down on One Side of the Fence

    Copenhagen has attracted many for the climate change negotiations. The hour of action is now, yet what action(s) must be taken is a topic of much debate.

    I ultimately know where I stand: Increased global emissions, driven by the onset of the Industrial Revolution, are creating a potentially catastophic environment for humananimal life in the not-too-distant future.

    Still, I struggle on how to address this. My deepest sense speaks to the role of the world’s economic powerhouses in addressing this challenge by creating and capializing on opportunities. Said another way, although I’m an environmentalist at heart, this challenge is mainly one best handled by those with an economics-first focus.

    The truth is relatively simple: The industrialized countries fear making “economy-crushing” sacrifices; the emerging countries expect to be free to continue their blazing economic growth; and the developing countries of the world look to the industrialized countries to pick up the bill for the “mess” they’ve created (mainly by supporting adaption of the early effects of climate change). In the end, all parties are concerned with the economic aspects of addressing global climate change.

    Finally, I’d like to echo the sentiment that we must be able to look beyond the fanfare of the climate debate, and the big ticket items addressed within it, to the manmade catastrophes awaiting at our doorsteps, such as the plastic island in the Pacific and the way we have transformed the food (especially meat) industry into a high-tech manufacturing proposition where the mentality is “produce goods cheaply, and produce them efficiently” (except this time “the goods” are living, breathing beings).

    At the very least, hopefully the events around Copenhagen will open minds and hearts. I, for one, will be devoting my career to the sustainability of our planet and its ecosystems, on one hand, and the continued economic growth of our societies that is necessary for raising the global poor out of their collective miseries while allowing us all to capitalize on the opportunities of a series of re-engineered growth models.

    Keep the faith…and work hard to establish it within others!

  • Rachel Weil on 12.18.2009 at 2:06 pm

    my final installment

    DAY FIVE & six

    Our last day in Copenhagen was certainly one of the most action-packed. We got up early to join the ‘Reclaim Power’ protest, aiming to join activists inside and outside the Bella Center in a people’s assembly to make faster decisions on climate change solutions. The Bella Center, it turns out, is quite far from the city center and the special ‘COP15’ buses are for badged persons only. Well la-di-da. We finally unite with the march of a couple thousand people shouting about frustrations with the negotiations and capitalism in general (“a ti, a ti, a ti capitalista!”) Here was student activism at its finest, in the most global cause of them all. So global, in fact, that there were many different motives for the march being conveyed. But at the heart of it was this urgency for solutions to a problem not being properly addressed at these conferences.

    The protest was met by the most politi (police) that I have ever seen in my life. I heard that about 75% of the Danish police force and army were in Copenhagen for the conference. As activists linked arms and tried to push through over fences and police cars, the patrol became violent and used pepper spray to deter the nonviolent demonstrators. Activist first aid teams were in place, as people came staggering over blinded by the pepper spray or hurt by other acts of brutality. About 250 people were arrested this day, and the NGOs who particpated inside the Bella Center, attempting to get out, were banished from the negotiations for the next few days. As I learned later that day from my friend Frederik, the protest lasted until after dark, but ultimately no one was able to enter the center.

    While I am certainly an advocate of non-violence, this issue requires a kind of urgency that is very difficult to convey. Protests, marches, hunger strikes and photo petitions all certainly help the cause and attract new advocates; but we need a kind of demonstration that is can be furthered on a day to day basis. The basic valuation of our future existence is at stake for shorter term political and economic goals that will seem miniscule very soon to the Tuvalus and Maldives of the world. We’re down to the last straws in this conference, and even if miraculously the ‘high-level’ officials and diplomats arriving to Copenhagen in the next 24 hours decide to set a binding emissions target (or the Governator will be back), its going to come down to the people. These talks have exposed a greater public to the urgency of addressing climate change for nations already needing to make adaptations, as well as general exposure for global interest in the issue. So thank you, Copenhagen and your many pseudonyms of the last few weeks, for raising the world’s awareness and engaging a global population in one of the most consequential challenges of our time.

  • Anonymous on 12.18.2009 at 2:20 pm

    thanks for the great updates Rach, they are much appreciated. Keep it up, and have a blast. I will be thinking of you monday morning during the 250 final. Hi to athena too.


  • danny on 12.19.2009 at 2:02 am

    boston will be abandonned by 2500 AD

    see my blog here

  • Jennifer Doherty on 01.06.2012 at 4:20 pm

    While the Earth has always endured natural climate change variability, we are now facing the possibility of irreversible climate change in the near future. The increase of greenhouse gases in the Earth?s atmosphere from industrial processes has enhanced the natural greenhouse effect. This in turn has accentuated the greenhouse ?trap? effect, causing greenhouse gases to form a blanket around the Earth, inhibiting the sun?s heat from leaving the outer atmosphere. This increase of greenhouse gases is causing an additional warming of the Earth?s surface and atmosphere. A direct consequence of this is sea-level rise expansion, which is primarily due to the thermal expansion of oceans (water expands when heated), inducing the melting of ice sheets as global surface temperature increases.
    Forecasts for climate change by the 2,000 scientists on the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) project a rise in the global average surface temperature by 1.4 to 5.8°C from 1990 to 2100. This will result in a global mean sea level rise by an average of 5 mm per year over the next 100 years. Consequently, human-induced climate change will have ?deleterious effects? on ecosystems, socio-economic systems and human welfare.At the moment, especially high risks associated with the rise of the oceans are having a particular impact on the two archipelagic states of Western Polynesia: Tuvalu and Kiribati. According to UN forecasts, they may be completely inundated by the rising waters of the Pacific by 2050.According to the vast majority of scientific investigations, warming waters and the melting of polar and high-elevation ice worldwide will steadily raise sea levels. This will likely drive people off islands first by spoiling the fresh groundwater, which will kill most land plants and leave no potable water for humans and their livestock. Low-lying island states like Kiribati, Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands and the Maldives are the most prominent nations threatened in this way.“The biggest challenge is to preserve their nationality without a territory,” said Bogumil Terminski from Geneva. The best solution is continue to recognize deterritorialized states as a normal states in public international law. The case of Kiribati and other small island states is a particularly clear call to action for more secure countries to respond to the situations facing these ‘most vulnerable nations’, as climate change increasingly impacts upon their lives.

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