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Also printed in Daily Hampshire Gazette   Date: 12/16/09 Bookmark and Share

Science Center Director Reports from Copenhagen

Thomas Litwin, director, Clark Science Center, reports from the United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen. Listen to Litwin's interview on WFCR radio.

Getting to Copenhagen from Logan via Iceland was the easy part. I don't often say that about air travel these days.

Traffic was light on the Mass Pike which let me focus on the radio reports coming out of Copenhagen. Shortly I would arrive at the COP15 United Nations climate change meeting that was ending its first week with mass demonstrations, estimates reaching 100,000 protesters, with 1,000 arrests. Rock throwing anti-capitalist demonstrators converged with climate, social justice and vegetarian activists.

A writer friend living in Copenhagen emailed to say he feared for his wife's storefront windows. The police moved swiftly and sternly, and it was over. But the debate about the demonstration and official reaction has spilled into the second week of COP15, a harbinger of the challenges ahead.

What was I getting into? More important, what was the world getting into?

The U.N. structure is straightforward. In 1992, with climate change emerging as a global threat to the environment and the societies that depend on it, the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was established at the U.N. Rio Conference. The mission is daunting—create an international vehicle for stabilizing greenhouse gases and their global environmental impacts. The Conference of the Parties (COP) is the 193 signatory nations that comprise UNFCCC. COP15 is the 15th conference of the parties being held in Copenhagen struggling for an agreement that extends beyond the Kyoto Protocol.

Getting into COP15 Monday was a challenge in itself. Arriving on the Metro at 8:30 a.m., thinking I was a half hour early, I was met by a waiting line 10 yards wide by a mile long. I went to the gate and showed my credentials to the police who responded, "Get on line."

I was in good company, surrounded by BBC, Canadian TV, CNN, Australian TV and Associated Press correspondents, as well as assorted governmental ministers and U.N. delegates. The presidents of the Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Defense seemed to take it all in stride. After eight hours of standing in 32-degree temperatures, I was in COP15 with a greater understanding of global organization management. The best line of the day was, "There will be a three-to-six-hour wait, thank you for your patience."

View from the North

All this was very far away, actually over 10,000 miles away, when I stood on the beach last March with Siberian Yupik whaling captains in Gambell village, St. Lawrence Island, in the northern Bering Sea. Every day during whaling season the captains gather on the beach to study the ice and the possibility of putting boats in the water to hunt. Whale meat is a staple for the entire community of 640 people, just 140 miles from the Bering Strait. Freezers filled with whale, seal or walrus meat mean a winter with food on the table.

There is no question to the Yupiks that the climate is changing. The sea ice habitat for the game they hunt once came in October; now it can be as late as December and leaves in late March rather than May. To extend the shorter season they have to sail farther from the village to find ice, exposing them to expanses of open Bering Sea water and its sometimes violent weather.

In a 16-foot boat this becomes a matter of survival. The house-sized bergs of "mother" ice that once came from the Arctic no longer wash up on their beach. Ice that was many years old is now replaced by thin ice that is less predictable and more dangerous to work on and around.

For this substance hunting community, loss of ice is both a loss of food and a cultural identity that has evolved over thousands of years. There are similar stories coming in from around the globe—villages that depend on disappearing Himalayan or Andes glaciers for water; South Pacific Island communities threatened by sea level rise.

Climate change as a theory is being replaced by facts coming in from around the world. These are the stories that bring into focus questions of social justice and the increasingly terse conversation between developing and developed economies.

Disagreement Among Nations

My question, "So how is the world responding to this?" brought me this week to COP15, where negotiations to address the broader issues were under way. And the going was rough on this blue Monday.

The stories nearly drowned out by the line-waiting debacle were of developing nations and China walking out of the negotiations to protest political and financial proposals of developed nations. Also, of developing nations arguing that the climate change we are seeing is due to centuries of carbon dioxide emissions by the developed nations. As a result, developed nations, in their view, should make the largest cuts in emissions and commit greater funding to help developing nations transition to low carbon economies.

Developed nations point out that in the coming centuries, developing nations as well as China and India will be the greatest emitters of carbon and should have equal emission reductions.

The difference in positions between the developed and developing nations is a central debate within COP15 and among social justice advocates.

Much of what unfolds over the closing days of COP15 will hinge on how this negotiating gap is closed and if the architecture for a binding treaty can be agreed upon. UNFCCC Executive Yvo de Boer described the process as "bringing 193 horses to water."

We will know at the end of the week if they drank.


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