Learning from Archbishop Tutu, Al Gore and others in Copenhagen

by Sara Imperiale

COPENHAGEN – One of the first things I noticed about the city was its green countryside, which was completely covered with wind turbines. I don’t understand the aesthetic argument against them; to me, they are a beautiful addition to the landscape.

Over the past week, I’ve noticed how fully the city seems to have embraced the COP15 conference, which ended today. A new bus line has run straight from my hostel here to the Bella Center, where events are held, and the airport. “Hopenhagen” signs are everywhere.

My second morning here, I headed to the Bella Center to get my official “non-governmental” badge and check out events. (All public transportation has been free with the badge, which kind of makes up for the expensive food.)

There were marches that day from the downtown area to the Bella Center. When I arrived at one, I stood in an incredibly long line where I met a representative from an association of electric companies based in Washington, D.C.

He introduced me to his friend, who turned out to be the person who ran the Clinton administration’s climate change task force for the Kyoto Protocol negotiations. He gave both of us a tour of the entire center, where we visited the meeting place of the delegates from the U.S. House and U.S. Senate and met Congressional staffers and people working on the U.S. delegation from the EPA and other departments.

The next day, the Countdown to Copenhagen Campaign co-sponsored an event with Hopenhagen Live in the City Hall square. Men and women representing Bolivia, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India and Norway spoke about how climate change has affected their families, communities and countries.

Here, Archbishop Desmond Tutu told to an energetic crowd that developing countries in the South want to develop, just not the way Northern countries have. While he acknowledged that financial support from the North will be necessary to allow for more sustainable development of Southern nations, Tutu said this seems minimal in comparison to the amount of money currently being spent on arms and on rescuing banks.

He emphasized the global nature of climate change and compared the walls that try to divide the world into rich or poor countries to the walls of apartheid. He called for a legally binding agreement, not just a political agreement, and declared that those fighting for this goal are on the “winning” side — the side of justice. In closing, he presented the more than 500,000 signatures collected by Countdown to Copenhagen to Yvo de Boer, the convention’s Executive Secretary.

Good luck and Al Gore
Immersing myself in COP15 events, I’ve continued to cross off my list major environmental heroes I’ve wanted to meet. My third day in town, I ran into Al Gore — twice. The first time was on my way to a meeting. After pushing through a crowd to get to the entrance, I looked up and there he was, coming out of the room. He was promptly whisked away, and the people who had been waiting outside the room ran in a single wave down the hallway after him. (The meeting started 30 minutes late.)

The second time I saw him, a friend and I were trying to attend a Danish film festival. We arrived only to discover tickets were sold out. But after seeing people get tickets — miraculously — we decided to try again. The usher eventually showed us into an overflow room. Five minutes later, the French owner of the Danish Film Institute walked in and asked us to welcome “Mr. Al Gore.” And sure enough, Gore walked in right behind him and said he wanted to come in and talk to us for a little while before he went upstairs to give the “real talk” to the people who bought tickets.

Gore began by asking people to suggest things he should mention during his speech. Someone mentioned the importance of recognizing that this is something the developed countries need to deal with, as they have historically been the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases. Gore agreed, but said he understood why U.S. representatives were hesitant to sign on without emissions targets across the board — they have to go back to the U.S. to their constituents, who are feeling aggravated by job loss and exportation.

Gore called this the art of diplomacy: bringing together two ideas that have validity and seem to be completely irreconcilable. Still, he didn’t have any real, meaningful insight into finding a solution to the divide between developed and developing countries in the negotiations.

Chris Paine, the director of “Who Killed the Electric Car?,” asked how we can get past the “culture war” of the liberal/conservative divide in the U.S. Gore went off on a crazy-sounding tangent about how he thinks the science that shows there is a genetic association with being predisposed to an ideological framework is valid. He sees ideological association as a part of the human tendency to group with others and then defend that group from a threat.

Coming back to the present partisanship, he noted that healthy differences can turn hostile when political culture becomes detached from reason. When that detachment takes place, people become more vulnerable to the impulse to fight. Gore largely blames television for this trend because he sees it as essentially re-feudalizing broadcasting, delivering news from the elite to the masses. As you might expect, he praised the potential of the internet culture to offer a source of salvation.

The last response worth noting came from the point that the recent climate e-mail scandal seems to suggest that most of the population still does not understand the basic science of climate change.

Gore, saying he thinks about how to educate the public frequently, cited the lecture and book by C.P. Snow, The Two Cultures. Gore compared lobbies against climate change legislation to cigarette advertisements in the 1950s that went on in spite of the Surgeon General’s warnings. He pointed out that there is a concerted, well-financed effort by oil and coal companies to mislead people into thinking the science is somehow not valid. Aside from shifting people away from 30-second television clips and continuing to spread the science in a common language, he had no big ideas on how to change people’s minds.

Gore concluded by praising President Obama’s sustainability efforts thus far, noting that he accomplished far more in the last year than the U.S. had seen over eight years with the previous administration. (Europeans in the crowd pointed out that doing better than the George W. Bush administration, especially in the realm of international climate negotiations, does not constitute an accomplishment.)

After Gore spoke, James Balog, director of the Extreme Ice Survey, made a presentation of footage and video from the time lapse cameras he has set up on glaciers around the world documenting their retreat. While words don’t really do the images justice — check out the link — Balog made a few comments that really stuck with me. He called ice “the canary in the climate change mine” and said this argument for drastically reducing our greenhouse gas emissions is not about belief but proof: concrete, scientific, observable reality.

He also noted the videos and photographs show things happening beyond the realm of natural variability, and that whenever he watches, it feels like “you’re seeing things you’re not meant to see as a human being.” He concluded by saying he believes that “he has the future to answer to” and that there is a responsibility to communicate this story to the world. Building on that sentiment, I encourage everyone to share the EIS footage with others.

Dana Patterson contributed to this report. This is the second in a series of posts about the convention in Copenhagen. Click here for the first, and stay tuned for the third.

Sara Imperiale and Dana Patterson are WildNewJersey.tv correspondents. Imperiale, a college senior and Morris K. Udall Scholar, is attending the Copenhagen conference through the support of IDEAS, on the web at new.ripplingideas.org.

Posted by Green Jersey on December 18th, 2009 | Filed in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

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