Center Director Reports from Copenhagen
Thomas Litwin, director,
Clark Science Center, reports from the United Nations climate
change conference in Copenhagen. .
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
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.
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."
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
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
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
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.
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
The difference in positions between the developed and developing
nations is a central debate within COP15 and among social
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
We will know at the end of the week if they drank.