Personal Statement: Copenhagen conundrum


Published January 18, 2010

I left Copenhagen the day before President Barack Obama arrived on his white horse to save the United Nations climate talks — or so the American media would paint the scene. As I boarded my flight, however, I couldn’t help feeling disenchanted by what I’d experienced over the last nine days.

Unlike many of the reporters reworking the “Yes We Can” slogan to fit the climate mantra, I had stood alongside more than 200 NGO members denied access to the Bella Center, home of the two-week-long COP15 U.N. Climate Change Conference, as those with press badges slid through security.

I marched through the city streets with 50,000 peaceful climate protesters as Western journalists skewed our positive message by playing up police arrests to sell sensational headlines. I saw no arrests during my five-hour, six-kilometer walk.

I saw the pallid looks on the faces of those who had come from the far reaches of the world — from small island nations in the South Pacific to the Andean peaks to the sub-Saharan plains — as the African nations walked out of the negotiations during the second week.

The energy of more than 35,000 global citizens who had descended upon the Bella Center reached its climax in the last few days and was making a sharp descent into anguish and despair. The buzz from the conference center had changed from the glossy-eyed hope of the week before as reality sank in.

Although there were still two days of negotiations left, as I flew out of Copenhagen I knew the talks had failed.

The governments would come up with something, but nothing that would actually hold anyone liable if they were to continue emitting vast amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere —especially not big powerhouse carbon producing countries like the United States or China.

I had little time to ponder the past week’s events before I noticed that the man placing his luggage in the compartment above my head was still wearing his COP15 pass. I reached inside my coat for the lanyard still draped around my neck and flashed it wordlessly at Mr. Charles T. O. King III, a Liberian delegate, who returned my gesture with a smile.

“You must be proud of what your country has done here,” he said to me.

Thinking he was being sarcastic, I laughed. Confused at my gesture, he prodded me again.

“No, actually,” I responded, frowning once I realized he was serious. “I’m not pleased.”

King was relentless in his pursuit of the reason for my discontent. I turned my attention to the flight attendant demonstrating oxygen masks in a failed attempt to avoid King’s incredulous gaze.

I told King how disheartened I had become when I heard that his countrymen had walked out of the negotiating talks. I explained that I didn’t think the U.S. had come in with a progressive enough plan. I was angered that the European Union and other developed nations had only offered $10 billion dollars to be split between all of the developing nations of the world.

As I helped him change the SIM card in his cell phone back to his Liberian carrier, King told me of a Dutch girl he had met who reminded him of his own daughter. While he was lost in the city center, she had bought him a coffee and patiently given him directions.

“Young people today are so helpful,” he said, smiling at me as I handed back his phone. “They are so knowledgeable about these kinds of things — things that do not come so naturally to my generation, sometimes stuck in our old-fashioned ways.”

King explained to me that he was not present when the African nations walked out of the talks, although he wishes he had been. He would have liked to know what, exactly, was said to warrant such decisive, drastic action that could only hinder further progress.

When I scoffed at the idea of anything concrete being signed within the next two days, he told me that he was absolutely certain something would be signed, and even if it weren’t as progressive as it should be, it would be a step in the right direction.

He assured me that because of the networking he and other delegates were able to do at COP15, technological advances in the pursuit of cutting carbon emissions would soon be implemented in many Liberian homes, thanks in part to the $10 billion that was promised.

This man from one of the countries that had walked out of negotiations days before was able to reflect positively on the conference as he returned home.

As I listened to King stress the importance of the education of his countrymen in the fight against climate change, I began to feel ashamed of myself. What was my pessimism contributing to the argument? Absolutely nothing.

If I and the other 11 University students who attended the conference — or for that matter the 35,000 from around the world — returned home skeptical, cynical and bitter, what good would that do for those who looked to us for insight into what had taken place and where to go with future endeavors?

I felt my spirits lift a little as we flew above the gray clouds and gloom that had hung over Copenhagen.

“I do not worry,” King went on, “because I am confidant that you young people will come up with a solution. Because you must, and you know you must.”

—Aubrey Ann Parker is a senior in the College of Engineering. She was part of the COP15 University of Michigan Student Delegation and blogged for the Detroit Free Press and Circle of Blue while she attended the conference.