Holy crap, this ain’t no Santa Barbara County Supervisors meeting. Shaking off jet lag and the ill effects of some mysterious late night street kebabs, Operation Copenhagen became a reality today and, no offense to the every Tuesday public get together of our County’s five fearless supervisors, but the United Nation’s Framework Conference on Climate Change is in a league all its own; an absolute action packed and information loaded three ring bureaucratic circus. Make no mistake folks, once you enter the undulating, groovy green vortex of the Bella Center where the conference is located, you better have a game plan or else you may never be heard from again (though you probably would be recycled somehow). Between the staggering crush of media folks(some 35,000 are reported to be in attendance), the untold numbers of Non Government Organizations(NGO) and their representatives from around the world, the scores of official Conference observers and, of course, the hundreds of diplomats, scientists and politicians on hand to help hammer out the hopeful international climate change fighting treaty and you have yourself an undeniably impressive- if not vertigo inducing- gathering that many are calling “the most important environmental moment of our lives”. Or, as COP15 Executive Secretary Yvo de Boer put it plainly this afternoon, “This is about the future of people.”
Waking up to a crisp, grey yet refreshingly dry morning in 2008’s Most Livable City in the World, we navigated a predominately bicycle traveling commuter crowd on our way to pick up our credentials at the Bella Center(The bike rider factor in this city is off the charts with bike lanes nearly 10 feet wide and the flow of peddle powered traffic often busy enough to make you pause before crossing an intersection.). The first big go out via public transportation in a foreign city is always a bit intimidating but, after an espresso and few awkward moments with a bus driver, we were well on our way.
It took about 20 minutes waiting in a slowly moving line next to a massive wind turbine wing to get into the conference- the sounds of guerrilla street theater performances by activists just beyond the edge of the Bella Center property ringing in our ears- before we got to an airport-styled security check point, flashed our passports to pick up our official press passes, and, after a second security block, made it through to the inside. Instantly, the chaos began.
Despite it’s relatively simple, big, block-like exterior, the inside of the Bella Center is anything but. Once past the gates, the understated functionality of the outside is replaced by a buzzing casino-esque labyrinth where, instead of slot machines, gaming tables and randomly located bars, you have exhibition booths from an uncountable number of business and enviro-minded NGOs and activist groups, seemingly endless breakout rooms humming all day with presentations on everything from the impact climate change has on biodiversity in South America’s rain forests to how a successful climate treaty could increase the gross national happiness of Bhutan, closed session negotiations followed by virtually non-stop press briefings from both delegates and science folk on the Conference’s progress or lack-thereof , and, obviously, the corresponding constant click of the laptop tapping masses lurking around every corner. Like I said before, if you don’t have a game plan, you are dead as a polar bear in 2020.
In that regard, we spent much of our morning getting acquainted with the layout of the conference before sitting in on an emotionally moving presentation from the Climate Action Network of Australia about the grim climate change induced realities being stared down by the residents of Kiribati and other small Pacific Ocean islands. While many in the United States still debate whether or not climate change is even real, the folks from quintessential tropical paradise atolls like Kiribati and Tarawa as well as the Torres Strait Islands don’t have time for such banter; they are too busy coming to terms with the certain death of their culture if things continue on their current climate course. In short, they are the human face of climate change. The increase in global temperatures and the resulting sea level rise from melting ice caps has basic things like food, shelter and drinking water very much on the ropes in their low-lying islands(Kiribati for example is, at most, only 3 meters above sea level). Further, ocean acidification- nasty side effect of excessive carbon emissions- is destroying their coral reefs and threatening their primary food source, fish, at an alarming rate. Connecting World War II’s Battle of Tawara- where Allied forces famously liberated the small Pacific Island- to the current allegedly carbon emissions caused climate change, resident Pelenise Alofa testified solemnly on Friday, “It is the same countries that gave me freedom in 1943 that are taking it from me right now. The second world war wasn’t my war but I was a victim. Climate change isn’t my war but, once again, I am a victim.”
From there, it was off to the daily afternoon briefing from COP15 Executive Secretary Yvo de Boer. With the first week of the two-week conference nearly complete, de Boer optimistically reported that “Serious work has begun on the core elements that will constitute the agreement that will emerge at the end of this meeting.” And, with the main negotiation sessions betwixt countries closed to media at this point at this point in the process, the large international crowd of journalists on hand had to take his word for it- though the buzz in the hallway out side of the breakout room where the real talks take place was that the initial draft of the climate treaty currently being worked on is inadequate to many involved and purposely being “blocked” from evolving by China and India. Adding that work on big ticket items like specific carbon emission reduction targets and financing for both mitigation and implementation hasn’t really begun, de Boer pointed that soon more than 118 Heads of State from around the world will arrive to Copenhagen specifically to broker a deal, not prevent one. “It is time to begin focusing on the big picture.” he said.
Along those lines, perhaps the biggest news from today was a pledge from the European Union to pony up some 7.2 billion Euros to help finance the immediate implementation of a climate treaty. With de Boer speculating that a legitimate deal would take more than 3 times that amount for implementation purposes alone over the first three years alone, the promise of funding form such a big player as the EU is indeed promising for the process, especially at this early of a stage. “Now we just have to wait and see what other rich countries offer.” explained de Boer.
With the United States delegates scheduled to have their turn in the press conference hall shortly after de Boer, Operation Copenhagen was killing time at the near-by and endlessly entertaining Google Earth exhibition when word came of the COP15’s first large activist/police clash near Copenhagen’s Parliament building. Scrambling to the scene, we arrived to a heavy police presence complete with riot gear clad officers, wailing sirens, bus loads of back-up and a helicopter whirling above but none of the “kids in black” that were rumored to be causing the trouble. In fact, the surrounding area had markedly more holiday shopping going down than actual civil unrest.
Now it’s time to locate a cold beer and maybe some more sketchy street meat before finding our beds and catching some shut eye. With the first large-scale demonstration by the Climate Justice group slated for mid-morning in the City Center and the highly anticipated “Scientific Basis for a Copenhagen Agreement” presentation by the Conference’s science team scheduled for the afternoon(the latter is going to be a big ticket item for all the “Climategate” conspiracy theorists out there as much has been made in the U.S. media in recent days about the alleged altering of evidence that supports climate change theories and the call for carbon emissions reform), Saturday promises to be action packed. After all, as one grizzled television reporter from an international cable news network told me today after over hearing me remark to myself about the sheer craziness of the whole scene, “Just wait man, things are only beginning around here.”