Big Copenhagen Demonstration – Noisy, Colorful, Insistent – Pushes For Climate Action

In Circle of Blue’s third installment from Keith Schneider, we take to the streets of Copenhagen with environmental activists from around the world. Connecting with rallies in other countries, demonstrators hoped their cheers and compelling testimonies would encourage swifter, more comprehensive action from negotiators to “save the climate.”

Copenhagen Demonstrations

Photo by J. Carl Ganter/Circle of Blue

By Keith Schneider
Circle of Blue

COPENHAGEN – Great social movements are about the intelligence and vision of individuals, and the compelling strength of crowds. Both have been in abundance throughout the first week of the United Nations Climate Change Conference, and especially today.

Wearing polar bear costumes, red suits and dark glasses, black jeans and matching black t-shirts, and carrying a multitude of colorful signs aimed at speeding the pace of negotiations and results – “Bla, Bla, Bla. Act Now,” “There Is No Planet B,” “The World Wants A Real Deal” – tens of thousands of people crowded into Parliament Square for a rally this afternoon, and thousands more joined them for a 4-mile march to the Bella Center to present negotiators with demands as potent as their numbers.

The swelling crowd, variously estimated by the police and organizers as measuring between 60,000 and 100,000, was peaceful, insistent and cold. Temperatures were just above freezing, and a wind tugged at upturned collars. Those in attendance wore pins, badges and carried banners indicating they came from all over the world.

Ride From Australia
One demonstrator, Kim Nuygen, said he took 16 months to bike here from Australia. Most of those who attended today were young. A trio from Paris said they’d come to organize a film festival that launches next week and features former Vice President Al Gore. A group of students from the University of Michigan said they wanted to see how theories of dispute resolution, climate science and chemical engineering actually worked when subject to the vagaries of political ideology and social differences. Their conclusion: It ain’t pretty.

“I’d like to think that something good will come out of the next week,” said Aubrey Parker, a University of Michigan student who was raised in the Traverse City region. “But I’m a little pessimistic. There’s a lot of bureaucracy. A lot of countries have come here with plans that are not progressive enough.”

Marcia Lee, a 27-year-old graduate student studying dispute resolution at Marquette University, in Wisconsin, said, “I really wanted to see how negotiations work on the international scale. I just wanted to gather people’s stories and learn and understand what really breaks peoples hearts. If we can reach that heart level it is possible to start the conversation of how to heal that broken heart.”

When pressed about what she meant, Lee said: “There are four elements that everybody needs: The need to love and to be loved. The need to belong, and to be of use. If we can reach people at that level then a lot of things that separate us are changed. There is a lot of overlap to being human.”

More Around The World
The Global Day of Action here coincided with thousands of other gatherings of climate activists around the world. Five thousand people demonstrated in New Delhi. Paris decorated its North Station yesterday and dispatched the Climate Express, which carried hundreds of people to join demonstrators in Copenhagen. Tweets from Melbourne reported that 50,000 people attended the climate demonstration there.

The purpose of the Copenhagen rally, march and candlelight vigil with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, which ended the day, was to amplify that essential sense that young people brought here — the idea that there must be a better way. They also provided mass to the individual voices of concern that have made the planet’s changing climate the signature issue of this generation. Speakers at the large and noisy rally pointed out time and again there is a vast difference in perception and language between those marching today, and those inside the Bella Center, where negotiators from 192 nations are racing to reach an agreement by the December 18 deadline.

The Heart vs. The Numbers
Inside, for the most part, the ornate language of diplomacy joins with complex science to set an often confusing table for talking about numbers. There are differing views among delegates about how much carbon should be removed from the emissions of industrial and non-industrial nations; 20 percent? 40 percent? 0 percent? And when: 10 years? 25 years? 50 years? How much should be invested to do that: $10 billion annually; $195 billion annually within a decade? How many acres of forest need to be preserved? How should uses of land change? And can the world hold the level of warming to 2 degrees Celsius — an increased viewed by many here as manageable, or will the climate shift be 4 degrees or will it reach a level by the end of the century that threatens the species?

Outside, in the streets of Copenhagen, the words and phrases shouted through loudspeakers and in the mix of song and music carried in the wind was of people facing urgent consequences of climate change, and calls for an end to delay. A woman from Ghana opened the rally with a story of how her village, economically robust at the start of the decade, and easily able to feed itself, has been under siege in recent years by killing floods that gave rise to plagues of mosquitoes. The two growing seasons that used to exist have been cut in half to an uncertain one. After the floods came droughts and then floods and erosion and an end to bountiful harvests. Sickness has brought unexpected deaths. She blamed the fluky weather and its sober consequences on climate change. Not once did she use a number to describe the compelling misfortune of her family and her village.

Candlelight Vigil in Copenhagen

Photo by J. Carl Ganter/Circle of Blue

Vigil and a Plea Heard Globally
The plaintive and plain spoken messages seem to be heard inside the Bella Center. The march today concluded outside the center’s doors with a vigil. Sails that demonstrators carried from Parliament Square were ceremoniously handed to Yvo de Boer, the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and one of the conference’s key organizers.

Early in the week, Tuvalu, the tiny Pacific Island nation of 12,000 residents, three of whom are here as climate negotiators, raised its voice to insist on faster action on climate that was legally binding for all nations. The proceedings slowed considerably, but did not stop, as the issues raised by a nation that lies four feet above sea level and understands that its fate will be determined by what happens in Copenhagen.

Indeed, the competition is fierce between developing nations that are the first to confront the immediacy of climate change, and the industrial nations that have varying levels of conviction about the consequences. Negotiators found a way later in the week to work through Tuvalu’s concern, and draft texts of a final agreement were circulated on Friday that were greeted favorably by many nations. Environment ministers are arriving this weekend to carry the negotiations closer to a final agreement next week, and the UNFCC is telling NGO representatives that a number of heads of state are planning to arrive days earlier than planned.

That is an indication of the anticipation building here that something worthwhile will come out of these two weeks in December. The Bella Center itself has gotten so jammed that its capacity of 15,000 people is close to being exceeded. The UNFCCC yesterday alerted participants that it will initiate a new system of issuing what it called “secondary cards” to keep the packed center from being too full. The new badging requirement will take effect on Tuesday.

“Fate of My Country”
As demonstrators and negotiators converged at the Bella Center at the march’s end today, the text was made public of a dramatic statement in the plenary session early in the week by one of Tuvalu’s diplomats. Circulated by NGO groups and among the young people reading on their cell phones, the clear-headed plea for action by one man from a little-known nation reflected the will of many of those who’ve come to Copenhagen.

“This is not just an issue of Tuvalu,” the diplomat wrote. “Millions of people around the world are affected. Over the last few days I’ve received calls from all over the world offering faith and hope that we can reach a conclusion on this issue.”

“Madame President, this is not a media trip for me. I have refused to take media calls on this issue. As a humble servant of the government of Tuvalu, I have to make a strong appeal to you that we consider this matter properly,” his statement read.

“I woke this morning. I was crying. That’s not easy for a grown man to admit. The fate of my country rests in your hands.”

Keith Schneider, a former New York Times national correspondent, is senior editor and producer at Circle of Blue. Contact Keith Schneider

Read the two previous installments of Schneider’s COP15 blogging here and here. Stay tuned for more of Circle of Blue’s COP15 coverage all this and next week.

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