Wednesday, 16 December 2009

A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall

Bob Dylan’s 1963 classic about floods and rising oceans is taking on new meaning in Copenhagen. The song has become a bit of a theme song for climate action. For the first time in its seventeen-year history, the United Nations climate summit is being bombarded with massive protests inside and outside the conference centre.

Inside the conference centre, representatives from poor countries and small island states have managed to halt the negotiations to bring attention to their needs. These groups of countries have in the past been treated with much care and given special allowances by the UN, but really, they were merely seen as the moral voice at the negotiations, the victims and the ones who will lose out. Tuvalu has always had the power to make negotiators face the detrimental impact of their decisions, for example, when their delegate pointed out that the two degree target proposed by the EU will mean Tuvalu will disappear. This sort of statement caused a sober response and a solemn pause in the negotiations – for about five minutes. In Copenhagen, these countries are refusing to remain in the victim’s role. They are not willing to be treated as children alongside a much more important adult game. They are standing up and speaking out.

This sense of renewed courage is also vivid in some of the main environmental nongovernmental groups. It is unusual to see so many protests staged inside the summit. Indigenous peoples are being encouraged to speak out, climate change victims put on the megaphone. Protesters have even been able to climb up on centre stage of the negotiations voicing their concern. They have matured from the main group organizing the famous NGO party at half time of the negotiations to taking a stance even if it is uncomfortable.

Outside, the cold temperatures have not been able to freeze activists’ anger and frustrations at the slow pace of international climate action. There are solid calls for payment of the ecological debt, setting ambitious, science-based emissions reduction targets and abolishing false climate solutions such as offsetting, nuclear power or clean coal. The number of arrests must be in the thousands by now but activists still managed to approach the conference centre in great numbers in an attempt to take over the talks.

Civil society has now been effectively barred from observing the climate talks. The Danish police are stepping up the defences of the climate bureaucracy. They have already brought out the pepper spray, police dogs and batons. There are still the water cannon that are rumoured to have been purchased before the summit. A meeting of over one hundred heads of state in the coming days will require high levels of security, at least for the ones on the inside.

Will these two sets of climate protest merge? Today they almost did. The crowds inside and outside the summit wanted to unite but were held back by police. Some of the delegates inside the summit have defected to the alternative summit outside because they are frustrated by the negotiations. Perhaps pushing NGOs outside of the confines of the summit will expose them to the more radical thoughts at Klimaforum.

Which one of the two protest movements will create enough momentum to change our collective path into climate chaos? Will the heads of state come out strong in support of climate change mitigation and adaptation? Will the alternative platform gain so much strength that its solutions will ripple through grassroots movements across the globe?

The good news is that there is momentum – perhaps for the first time since climate action was called for at the UN over twenty years ago. Climate change melancholy is over. It is time to roll up the sleeves and get a-workin’.

Bettina Wittneben

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