Connecticut College Magazine · Spring 2010

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students try belly dancing at an international lunch last semester. Photo by Bob Handelman.

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Crossroad in Copenhagen

Crossroad in Copenhagen
Nivedita Mathukumar and Jessica LeClair ´08 at a 350.org demonstration.

An alumna joins the struggle for real change at the 2009 Climate Change Conference

By Jessica LeClair ´08


The United Nations climate change conference in December held the fate of the planet in its success or its failure. I already knew I was at a crossroad for global mobilization on climate change on the first day of the talks, when I stood in the registration line at the Bella Center in Copenhagen, Denmark — my new home for the next two weeks — with members of the Maasai tribe from Kenya dressed in traditional clothing behind me, a group of people speaking Russian in front of me and Spanish-speaking delegates before them.

At Connecticut College I majored in international relations and environmental studies and earned a certificate from the Goodwin-Niering Center for Conservation Biology and Environmental Studies, where I focused on climate change in the Arctic.

Since then I have developed a strong passion to continue my studies and career in the field of climate change adaptation. When I learned early last year what was to happen in Copenhagen, I knew I had to be there. The conference would produce a document addressing mitigation, adaptation, finance and technology transfer for the world´s changing climate — which I would use as a guide in my future career.

The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change 15th Conference of Parties (UNFCCC COP15) was unlike any COP before. Deemed a “carnival on top of a carnival” by UNFCCC veterans, 45,000 were registered as Observers to the event, and nearly 60,000 additional people traveled to Denmark simply to be there while negotiations took place.

Some came to literally plead for their lives. I met many Southeast Asians whose homelands are being devastated by climate change repercussions: floods, droughts, rising sea levels that will inundate low-lying islands. Such stories brought urgency and emotion to the conference. The feeling each day was more and more palpable: too much was on the table.

A stable climate is a global need. We are all stakeholders. After I received notification from the nongovernmental organization SustainUS that I would have Observer Status at COP15, I joined the International Youth Climate Movement (IYCM). Our rally cry urging negotiators to act — “Oooo! It´s hot in here, there´s too much car-bon in the at-mo-sphere” — was sung throughout the halls of the Bella Center, where the formal negotiations took place. Though we were unbound by formal U.N. protocol, we did not go to Copenhagen unprepared for policy work and strategic lobbying.

The weeks leading up to COP15 were filled with conference calls, Web sessions and hundreds of e-mails to prepare for the U.N. process and formulate our platform. The pace did not slow upon our arrival in Copenhagen. After the pomp and circumstance on Dec. 7, the first day of negotiations, people rolled up their sleeves and got to work.

I spent each day in the Bella Center, arriving at 8 a.m. and staying until midnight or later. We wrote policy recommendations. We performed direct actions, like flash mobs and silent protests, in response to happenings in the negotiations. We tracked the proceedings meticulously and reported back to the youth movement. We gave speeches. We attended lectures and discussions. We talked, built networks and learned from each other.

And we were not alone. The capacity of the Bella Center was 15,000, and each day those thousands of people darted in and out of meetings, talking on cell phones while clutching binders of papers, on a mission. It was like an anthill. I have never felt such energy, and it made my three-hours-a-night sleep enough to fuel a day.

The negotiators had until the beginning of the second week to lay groundwork in time for the arrival, on Dec. 16, of environmental ministers who would make the loftier decisions on the proposed text. The ministers would then iron out minor issues and get a working draft proposal in place. By Dec. 18, the last day of the conference, 119 of the most powerful people on Earth would be in the Bella Center to make the final, difficult decisions and sign an agreement.

For that first week we were right on schedule. Multiple drafts of proposed text were negotiated, mitigation targets were discussed, money was on the table. Here it was: my dream of global governance realized. I could not get enough of the U.N. process.

The historically marginalized countries of the developing world were raising their case and getting an audience. Parties agreed to a maximum average global temperature increase of 2 degrees C. This target, though scientifically supported, was not endorsed by the IYCM and others due to the risk of increased droughts and floods and rising sea levels. But it was a step in the right direction.

Hopes pinned on Copenhagen no longer seemed out of reach. But then, before the end of the first week, the negotiations were derailed and I almost changed my career path. At first, procedural technicalities blamed on the Chinese delegation stalled the COP15 progress. Soon to follow were rumors — which proved true — that Observers would be evicted from the negotiations.

During the second week of negotiations the number of Observers permitted inside the Bella Center was radically reduced. Organizations were depleted to 30 percent of their original delegations for the first two days of that week, and sharper reductions followed. By Dec. 18, the last day of the conference, only 90 of the 45,000 accredited Observers were allowed inside the Bella Center.

We were out in the cold, outraged. Each day our numbers in the streets grew. Groups struggled to find sites where they could meet. For two days the IYCM gathered in a cold, leaking, cement room located under an outdoor decorative pool next to a metro station. At the end of the week, the thousands removed from the Bella Center gathered to watch the final negotiations, angry about the undemocratic turn of the proceedings yet still holding out hope that a global agreement could be salvaged.

It wasn´t meant to be. Nonbinding and weak, the Copenhagen Accord, drawn up by the U.S., China, India, Brazil and South Africa and passed in the early-morning hours of Dec. 19, acknowledges that global warming is a problem — but contains no emissions reductions or financing requirements. Vulnerable countries — the very nations most likely to be affected by climate change — and the European Union were blocked from these final negotiations.

Though most countries were shocked by the toothless document, in that final hour they were left with no choice but to call the Copenhagen Accord the official product of the conference. Countries have not yet adopted the Accord, but have instead decided to “note” it, a slight to the process at which it was created.

The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change has been working to regulate harmful greenhouse gas concentrations for 15 years, and COP15 was the first time that climate change was globally recognized by scientists, policy makers and citizens alike.

While the conference was, in my eyes, a failure, it did lay the foundation of the international climate movement. Climate change is now a major item on many national legislative agendas. And people now expect their officials to act. I do believe we will come together to tackle this problem. Copenhagen was but a stepping stone to humanity´s sustainable future.


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