The anti-climax to rival all anti-climaxes occurred late on Friday, December 18th 2009. One of the great opportunities for the world to come together and address the urgent problems brought about by man-made climate change, and to take decisive steps towards mitigating it was squandered in dramatic fashion which ended in Barack Obama announcing a draft agreement (that hardly anyone had seen, much less agreed to). I stood, dumbstruck, alongside hundreds of others who represented the many NGOs1 who congregated in the “Øksnehallen” while the most powerful man in the world deflated our hopes for a meaningful climate accord.
I arrived late on the stage. The conference had already been going for one and a half weeks when I arrived disheveled and jet-lagged late on Wednesday evening. My flight from Salt Lake City to Calgary had been relatively uneventful save for the spectacular flyover of the Grand Canyon. My flight from Calgary to Copenhagen, however was anything but. It seemed doomed from the very beginning when my taxi from the hotel to the airport managed to break down due to a flat battery. After an agonizing wait for a relief taxi to arrive, I rushed into the airport terminal to find a huge queue waiting to check in to my flight, which was to depart for London’s Heathrow airport in half and hour’s time. Luckily, the flight had been delayed by 3 hours due to a mechanical failure. I later learned that the mechanical failure was so bad that an entirely new aircraft had to be flown in from Toronto, hence the ridiculous delay.
When I arrived at the check-in desk I was informed of the rather distressing news that there were many more people booked on the flight than there were seats. I was given a “standby” ticket which I was to hold on to at the gate and wait for my name to be called from a list. Brilliant. So there I sat, nervously, while they called names out and boarded the plane. I had changed my ticket to Amsterdam to Copenhagen only the day before, and I was now beginning to regret that last-minute decision. Just as the lounge was emptying and it looked like they had just about boarded the plane completely, they called my name out. I was thrilled. I eagerly marched onto the plane and listened – no more names were being called. I had miraculously made it onto the last available spot on the aircraft. It also happened that this last available spot was in the first class part of the cabin, which made my 9-hour transit to London just a little more bearable than it usually isn’t.
Obviously, arriving in London 3 hours late meant that I missed my connecting flight on to Copenhagen. Luckily, the lovely people at the Scandinavian Airlines transfer desk were able to fit me onto the next flight out and I ended up finally arriving in Copenhagen (or København to the locas) a bit past 10pm (I was originally meant to arrive at about 5pm).
Those who have followed my travels closely will note that my final decision to divert my flight to Copenhagen came very last minute (Monday, in fact) and I had not yet arranged accommodation. Just calling a hotel wasn’t going to work, because the largest, most significant conference on climate change EVER was taking place, and with over 100 heads of state arriving for it, all the hotels were booked out. So I did what came naturally to me, and I went to a bar to meet up with some friends. As it happened, I picked a very good bar, and an even better group of friends to bump into during my first hours in Copenhagen. Among those present were names such as Naomi Klein, and Andy Bichlbaum of the “Yes Men“. Among the crowd was a friend from Columbia, Laurel Whitney, who had recently began working with the Yes Men who was able to find me a couch to crash on for the next few days.
Early the next day, I found my way into downtown Copenhagen and towards the very centrally-located Gallery Poulsen, which was to be the Headquarters of various art-activist groups during the COP15. In the basement of the art gallery, there was an impressive set up of a “fake” Bella Center. From a distance, the set looked like an incomplete furniture construction project, with logos scattered randomly around the place, and bubble wrap and mattresses taped to the walls. However, on closer inspection, particularly if you were to look through the viewfinder of one of the cameras mounted on a tripod, the space looked exactly like one of the many rooms from within the “real” Bella center from which “real” press conferences were being transmitted.
In fact, it was from this very headquarters that an elaborate prank on Canada was pulled. It is not well-known that Canada is some 36% over its agreed-on Kyoto protocol targets. Moreover, it has recently been trying to amend any agreements to set the measurement baseline to more recent times, obviously because then Canada wouldn’t have to reduce its carbon emissions as much. About five press releases and a few videos later, at least one Canadian minister “shit his pants” (I’m not joking, one of the Danish mainstream newspapers actually wrote that) and it made big news all over Canada. Read more on the story here.
Not wanting to have a perfectly awesome looking set go to waste, the crew decided in typical yes men fashion to use it for a bit more culture jamming. By the time I arrived, the conference had started refusing entry to many of the “civil society” organizations which were supposed to be there. Many NGOs suddenly found that their accreditations no longer got them into the building. Of course, when you have a conference venue that seats 15,000 and end up with over 45,000 registrations, these are the sorts of problems that you run into. So, “good COP15” was born so that people could give positive “wouldn’t it be nice if this really happened” messages from our own Bella Center, and they would then be broadcast on the web at the good-COP15 website.
In between our culture-jamming shenanigans, there were nightly speakers and forums in various venues around the city. Just up the road, at the “clean air blogging center” on the Thursday night, we went to hear a speaker from the United Nations foundation (who had basically sponsored the blogging center and the tcktcktck project) as well as give a performance of our own which featured a collaboration with the Yes Men crew and their Survivaballs as well as the climate debt agents with whom we collaborated for the Canada hoax.
By the end of the week, the actual negotiations seemed to be going pear-shaped. Friday morning saw the arrival of the President of the United States, Barack Obama, and with his arrival our hopes were buoyed. However, when he gave his opening speech, we were all somewhat deflated because… well… he didn’t really say anything.
Throughout the day we continued to record messages, and continued to deal with the technical difficulties of editing and converting those videos to be viewed on the internet. Towards the end of the day, feeling exhausted, we journeyed out into the city to find something to eat, and planned to eventually end up at what was described by at least one person as “the mother of all NGO parties”. By the time 10pm rolled around, we still weren’t quite sure where this party was supposed to be, but decided that a good idea would be to stop by at the Øksnehallen because that is where all the NGOs who were kicked out of the Bella Center (almost all of them) had set up shop.
It was basically a huge warehouse with a lot of tables and free wireless internet. At one end of the hall, there were two large screens where a live telecast of what was happening in the (real) Bella Center was being screened. We eventually learned that the party was at a basement location very close to the hall and that everybody was tired from two weeks of trying very hard to get stuff done, usually with very limited success. There was a feeling that the negotiations would run well into Saturday and possibly even Sunday.
Suddenly, somewhat unexpectedly, Barack Obama was on the screen. “Turn the sound up” someone cried. An entire warehouse full of people gravitated towards the screen where Obama was speaking to listen to what possible miracles he might have pulled on the world of flagging climate negotiations.
If there was ever a defining moment in the COP15, this was it. This was more than disappointing, this was infuriating. To all those in the know, (and EVERYONE in the room knew) Obama had delivered a less than useful deal. Moreover, the announcement of this draft had only been seen by a very small number of delegates and many were completely blindsided by this – never a good thing in international negotiations. There were jeers, and some outright booing from the crowd. Many onlookers were visibly upset and angry at what they were hearing. And to add insult to injury, Obama concluded his speech with “see you on the plane”, a comment that was so grating and inappropriate, that he had to backpedal embarrassingly for a few moments before he finally made his rushed exit.
The anger was so great, that a large number of us (myself included) headed to the Bella Center almost immediately and began protesting. If only to vent our anger, we gathered outside the Bella Center and shouted for hours in the -10 weather.
It got very cold, and very windy, but we persisted. I don’t know if anyone heard us. The police were out in force, but they seemed to be in quite a good mood that night. If any of them were edgy, the appearance of a few survivaballs took the edge off and lightened the mood a bit.
We eventually got tired, gave up, and went home. The negotiations hadn’t gone as well as we’d hoped and there wasn’t a whole lot more we could do about it. Later that night (at about 2am) I got a call from a friend who was still inside the Bella Center – they were still going, and they, like us, were not at all happy with what had happened.
We were all over the newspapers in the following days. We had made friends with a lot of the local activists and journalists, one of whom related to us an almost unbelievable story: He found Lord Monckton (a famously outspoken climate change denier) and a delegate from the Cook Islands (one of the Islands which is shrinking because of sea-level rise), taken the two on stage and, with one in each hand, raised Monckton’s and declared him the winner of these climate talks. What ensued was a heated conversation between the delegate, who was angry and distraught because her mother’s house was literally being flooded by the rising seas, and Lord Monckton who kept insisting that the science indicated that what she described was impossible because climate change was actually one big hoax.
No, I didn’t believe the story either, until this journalist pointed out that he made sure that he got a photo of it and that it was on the back page of one of the major newspapers.
So who really won? Nobody. There are talks that the talks will be continued ASAP, i.e. before the next scheduled COP2 (Mexico). Currently the word is Bonn, in April or May 2010, maybe earlier. Hopefully, next time I’ll be able to arrive a bit sooner than with only 2 days to go (although the President of the United States of America arrived on the last day and expected to achieve something, and instead he did the opposite, hmmm). The disappointment is akin to seeing a beloved football team lose an important game, except in this case, the fate of humanity rests on the outcome while in the other case, it’s just a dumb game. Maybe someday I’ll learn to deal with it, hopefully by becoming more involved in the process than just hanging out with a bunch of activist pranksters (not that there’s anything wrong with that).