Just as Stanford was diving into another dreaded finals week, a small group of 60 faculty, students, and administrators were getting ready to take part in one of the most important multilateral negotiation conferences of the new century: the Copenhagen climate change conference. From December 7 to December 18, the 15th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Conference on Climate Change (COP15) dominated international headlines for its high-level climate change negotiations, but this Stanford flock got to experience truly diverse facets of this groundbreaking event.
A city mobilized
The Stanford delegation consisted of an eclectic mix of students, ranging from undeclared sophomores to doctoral engineering students, catching a few law and business school students in between. Some came with the ambition of conducting research, while others simply came to watch “history in the making” (or so they thought).
Upon arrival, the transformation the city underwent for the event was immediately apparent: banners with the event’s logo lined the streets, the subways were squeaky-clean, and environmental exhibits and sculptures permeated the city’s landscape. Preparations did not confine themselves to appearances: half the nation’s police had descended upon Copenhagen, and cages designed to hold rowdy protestors were set up in abandoned brewery warehouses.
The Bella Center
Held inside the gargantuan Bella Center on the outskirts of the city, the conference was plagued with nightmarish registration procedures. Upon entry, however, one had access to representatives from hundreds of NGO’s, nations, and intergovernmental organizations at stations in the entrance hall. Elaborate, environment-themed decorations adorned the central hall, saturated with food stands to accommodate the nearly 50,000 attendees. Though students were not privy to the negotiations, plenary rooms meant for the delegates from the 191 United Nations members were within reach; but, to tell the truth, the excitement of the conference lay elsewhere.
Stanford Professors Stephen Schneider and Terry Root, both lead authors of the famed Intergoventamental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report, convened meetings every morning for the Stanford delegation, often inviting notable guests such as environmental journalist Andrew Revkin of the New York Times, and Jean Pascal, the Belgian vice-chairman of the IPCC. These morning meetings with prominent figures of the environmental world provided students with the unique opportunity to gain an insider’s perspective on the ongoing negotiations.
After this daily gathering, the group scattered throughout the Center in search of stimulation. Popular among students were the side-events put on by various nations, meant to expose facets of each nation’s fight against climate change. Indonesia, for example, spent an hour outlining the various initiatives it has undertaken to bring an end to deforestation. As a plea to the world to find a solution to climate change, the threatened island nation of Kiribati held its own side-event to illustrate its cultural richness. Events hosted by NGOs, sometimes featuring such noted figures as former Vice President Al Gore, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, and Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke were all widely attended by Stanford students as well.
Stanford students also attended the civil society briefings by negotiatorsinforming the public on progress of the talks. Most fascinating was the briefing by Ambassador Lumumba Di-Aping of Sudan, chief negotiator of the G77 group of developing nations, who proceeded to oddly harangue Western civil society for causing dissension between developing nations, and posing unrealistic demands on the West such as giving up 5% of GDP to combat climate change in Africa. How over 300 people gave a standing ovation to the representative of a government carrying out genocide today confounds this writer, and anyone in that room on December 11 could see that there was already minimal hope for any comprehensive Copenhagen agreement.
When not at any particular event, the Bella Center remained full of entertainment. Students could walk around and observe activists dressed up as polar bears or trees (or both at once), buy an apple from a Dane biking around with cartloads full of them, or even strike up a conversation with a negotiator while in line for lunch.
An unexpected (and welcome) setback
At the beginning of the second week, the UN decided to restrict NGOs’ access to the Bella Center due to overcrowding, despite hundreds of representatives spending thousands of dollars to come to Copenhagen just for the second week. As a result, only a few Stanford delegates were able to attend the final days of the conference. It was unfortunate that we missed the excitement created by the gathering of over one hundred heads of state.. This setback nonetheless pushed students to seek out many of the interesting happenings around the city.
Events abounded in exciting venues outside of Bella, including landmarks such as the Carlsberg brewery or the internationally renowned amusement park, the Tivoli Gardens. Recent alumni John Mulrow ’09 and Amanda Chiu ’08 helped plan an exciting event entitled “Natural Gas, Renewables and Efficiency: Pathways to a Low-Carbon Economy,” put on by their employer, the Worldwatch Institute, emphasizing the world’s growing need to rely on natural gas to combat climate change. Other highlights included the Renault Café, serving free chocolates and drinks while showcasing the brand new Renault electric vehicles due to hit the automobile market in 2011 and 2012.
The Copenhagen climate change conference will almost certainly go down in history as one of the greatest disappointments of diplomacy in the modern era. By any standard, the Copenhagen Accord is insufficient in laying out practical multilateral steps to restrict the temperature rise by 2°C by 2050. Nevertheless, Copenhagen was a success in that it brought unprecedented international attention to the failures embedded in the Kyoto Protocol, and it served as an extraordinary educational experience for Stanford students and many others in attendance at COP15. The proximity of the negotiations, the overabundance of educational outlets, and the sheer excitement that existed for these two weeks rendered this trip unique. Let us hope that Stanford can continue to provide students with the opportunity to be part of such multilateral conferences for many years to come.