Reflections on Copenhagen
University of Iowa student Simeon Talley attended the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP15) in Copenhagen, Denmark. Following are his final observations and commentary on what he — and the world — learned as a result of the conference. — Julia Wasson, Publisher
The Copenhagen conference ended, for the most part, disappointingly. The Copenhagen Accord, the climate change agreement reached at the last minute, doesn’t effectively address climate change. While it may have been a step in the right direction, it was only an incremental step when the world needed a leap at this moment in time.
In the aftermath of such a disappointing effort, many have sought to place blame. Fingers have been pointed at China, predictably at the US, at Danish political leadership, and even at the UN. All of these narratives are partially correct, but only partially. The blame is plenty and should be spread far.
Yet, if we only focus on recriminating others, we’ll miss a fundamental lesson about what this Copenhagen conference taught us about the world we live in. Furthermore, such a narrow focus fails to acknowledge the positive aspects of the conference — albeit few.
COP15 wasn’t as successful as many had hoped it would be, because world leaders couldn’t put aside their political differences for the greater global good. And yet, something remarkable happened over the course of those two weeks. Thousands of ordinary people gathered in Copenhagen, with millions across the world standing in support of bold action. The Copenhagen conference unveiled a dramatic account of the many constituent parts that make up our world all interacting with each other for the very first time.
History may not look too kindly upon the leaders who participated in Copenhagen. COP16 taking place in Mexico in 2010 may begrudge what took place in Copenhagen as well. There are several interpretations of what went wrong in Copenhagen. And I imagine as time passes we’ll learn much more about what actually happened in those private meetings between world leaders. But what we do know now that can inform us moving forward is that many of those leaders still succumb to an outdated view of the world and how it is changing.
Climate change necessitates international cooperation on an unprecedented level. A few rich countries can’t get together, wave a wand and fix it. Nor can any country choose to remain on the sidelines and not participate. Climate change affects all, and any solution encompasses all. The issue is evidence of our increasingly interconnected, interdependent, and interwoven world.
Profound differences still exist, but with each day they are blurred, if only slightly. Negotiators and leaders came to Copenhagen with political positions and perspectives; they all had an eye on protecting national interests. To meet the challenges of the 21st century national interests that inhibit progress on critical global issues must give way.
I’m a university student studying international politics. The global community I saw in Copenhagen is vastly different than the one I — and most American students — read about in textbooks. The divisions between rich and poor, west and east are real. But in Copenhagen, poor countries of Africa effectively coalesced with the emerging economies of China, India, and Brazil to possibly thwart the will of the West for the first time.
African nations and small-island states like Tuvalu and the Maldives elevated their concerns like never before. At times, countries like Ethiopia, Brazil, and the Maldives played absolutely critical roles in moving Copenhagen negotiations along in the final hour. Unlike other international or intergovernmental institutions, to a reasonable degree, this process incorporated 192 nations. It wasn’t pretty most of the time, but it is a foreshadowing of things to come.
Thousands of ordinary people flooded the city of Copenhagen hoping to influence the conference. Citizens from all walks of life from all over the world were in attendance. Hundreds of youth participated, recognized as an official constituency group for the very first time. Citizen participation — the increasing ability of ordinary people to be there and to bear witness — will continue to shape climate change meetings.
There were protests and several arrests, but there was also excellent citizen journalism. Besides reading the mainstream press to stay informed, to get a complete picture of what was going on, it was key to read blogs or follow someone on Twitter . There a new element of transparency introduced in Copenhagen. What has happening wasn’t just confined to the conference center and how the big news outlets would report it. Information and news were profuse among many sources, some of them legitimate news organizations and some knowledgeable NGOs.
The task for civil society will be to continue to exert and raise political pressure on the world’s leaders to come together and cooperate in meaningful way. If COP16 is to be more successful, it will be in large part because negotiators know that more and more people are watching, and there will be domestic political repercussions if nothing meaningful is done.
2010 must be more successful than 2009. Let’s learn the lessons from Copenhagen and work together to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
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