This opinion is a part of a Point-Counterpoint on the Copenhagen Conference, read Aaron French’s Opinion.
In December of 2009 I attended the 15th Conference of Parties (COP15) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Copenhagen, Denmark as a delegate of the Sierra Student Coalition (SSC). I was one of 500 US and 2000 international youth accredited by the United Nations to attend the negotiations in the Bella Center, the largest number of youth in attendance since the creation of the UNFCCC in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Fitting given that according to the Bali Road Map laid out in 2007 a follow up to the Kyoto Protocol created in 1997 was to be adopted in Copenhagen. The stakes were high and hopes even higher.
I arrived on the morning of Dec. 4 and from the minute I stepped off the train it became clear that the city was filled to capacity with climate change, with a giant banner reading Sammen er vi grønnere (Together we are greener) hanging in the middle of the train station, and activists from across the world asking for directions to housing cooperatives set up around the city. And this was three days before the negotiations kicked off, although not everyone was there to attend COP15. Around 5,000 people came to attend KlimaForum2009, a people’s climate summit that ran parallel to COP15 and 500 youth attended the 5th Conference of Youth (COY5) on Saturday and Sunday. Christiania, the legendary free town, was already filled to capacity and under stricter supervision from the police.
As the delegation and I prepared for the first day of COP15 we received a security warning from the United Nations. Passports needed to be kept on our persons at all times and we could be arrested and held for up to 12 hours without being charged for looking suspicious by any of the three police forces (Danish, Swedish, and German) in the city. So at 5:00 a.m. Monday morning we left for the Bella Center, passports in hand, ready for whatever security or the police threw our way. The first week in the Bella Center turned out to be fairly uneventful. Heads of states hadn’t shown up yet and the negotiations consisted of plenary sessions about the Kyoto Protocol (which the US, not being a party to, couldn’t attend). During these sessions nothing much of interest happened but the youth made it clear (inside and outside the Bella Center) that this is our future that’s being negotiated and inaction is not acceptable. “How old will you be in 2050?” a question that was asked repeatedly to negotiators and governments, signified that the politicians failing to take action will not be around to see the effects of climate change, the youth will. The end of the first week of COP15 concluded not in the Bella Center but on the streets of Copenhagen as 100,000 men, women, and children marched through the city to the Bella Center for climate justice. Although from where I was marching the protest was nonviolent, the police sectioned off around 1,000 people and arrested them, something that became increasingly common as we entered the second week of negotiations.
Monday, Dec. 14 marked the beginning of the second week of negotiations and the last day in which NGOs had unrestricted access to the Bella Center. Starting Tuesday, access to the Bella Center was going to be in short supply and the SSC had only five passes for 18 delegates. So just as negotiations were getting into the meat of the policy discussions, civil society was pushed out onto the streets, with no access to our elected leaders. Energies needed to be channeled differently. So the delegation split up and we managed to cover a good amount of ground. We blogged from the Fresh Air Center, created Good COP15 videos with Avaaz, checked out KlimaForum, participated in demonstrations on the streets, and tried our best to stop the collapse of negotiations. The week was not without highlights. On Friday I had dinner with Congressmen Steny Hoyer, Tim Ryan, and Jay Inslee and 20 other youth where we discussed US climate policy and what the youth can do. None of this, however, was enough to stop the negotiations from falling apart and in the end no significant policy was passed in Copenhagen.
Now, nearly a month later, I am still trying to figure out what COP15 meant. To the world it was a failure. No international treaty was passed, no policies agreed upon (cap and trade was a point of great contention), and civil society was alienated. For me it was simultaneously the most depressing and uplifting two weeks of my life and the ultimate learning experience. Last spring I took two courses that would transcend the classroom in Copenhagen, public policy and the politics of protest. Throughout the semester I learned about international social movements and their impact on politics and the political climate that caused the policy process to be so sluggish and began to draw the connections between protest and policy. At COP15 I was on the ground seeing how policy is made (or not in this case) and really began to understand what must be done in order to create public policy. I realized that without protest, politicians and diplomats will not be motivated to address anthropogenic climate change and that climate change cannot be adequately addressed without policy that protects our ecosystems and provides economic guidance for sustainable development. In short, we need both policy and protest if we hope to solve the climate crisis and the youth of the world are increasingly involved in making that a reality both on the streets and in conference centers. United Nations, this is not over.
-Submitted By Chelsea Howard-Foley, Class of 2011