George Marshall argues that the carefully stage managed involvement of civil society in Copenhagen fails to speak in any meaningful way to the people who really hold the balance of power.
For many of us Brits the journey to Copenhagen has required the trials of true carbon penitence. We eschewed the £12.50 flight in favour of a far more circuitous and exhausting trawl through the Low Countries with regular tests of faith. Our Eurostar train broke down. At the Danish border we were forced to stand in the cold for hours whilst police frisked, groped and poked their way through every part of our bags and underpants.
When we got to Copenhagen we crawled between the various performance and exhibition venues like the Stations of the Cross before standing in the snow for over 3 hours – and horror stories abound of people waiting for five hours only to be told to come back the next day– for an accreditation to enter the actual COP15 holy of holies. As it set over our line of supplicants, the midwinter sun was in perfect alignment with the conference centre, a Potemkin windmill, and, on the horizon, a vast coal burning power plant.
Shivering in the dark in this slow shuffling queue I was reminded of how nightclubs will engineer a long queue outside (even when the club is half empty) to persuade people that this really must be the place to be. The UN has performed a similar stunt- deliberately offering vastly more accreditations than the venue can contain to anyone who applies including planeloads of American sophomores in various gap-experience youth delegations who mill about and perform lame stunts in Polar Bear costumes. (To be fair, there were parallel conferences and events that displayed all the freshness, vigour and inspiring vision that the official summit so clearly lacked. This was also the largest ever international gathering of climate change activists and progressive organisations and the new connections they formed will be a lasting legacy).
This open invitation to the world is part of an overall campaign of impression management that this is an open and accountable process conducted in full view of civil society. And, of course, it is nothing of the kind; the official negotiations invariably take place behind closed doors, and the real negotiations – the ones required for the self-serving compromise that will appear magically in the very last hour – take place in hotel rooms.
Our presence as invited delegates from civil society makes us complicit in this deceit- a ten thousand strong Greek Chorus circling the real action, and augmented by the thousands of participants from the ‘global south’ and indigenous groups invited by Northern Non-Government Organisations. More disturbingly, as I observed time and again in strategy meetings, the NGOs replicate the same inequalities as the larger process- the key decisions are made by a small clique of white specialists and presented to the unconsulted global representatives in the audience (effectively muted by the obligation they feel to their hosts for their free flight bed and board).
Outside the convention centre, the entire city of Copenhagen has morphed into a corporation sponsored climate change theme park. Every subway station and bus stop carries the slogan ‘Hopenhagen’ sponsored by Siemens or Coke. In the main town square, competing with the adjacent Tivoli Gardens funfair, a 15 metre wide illuminated globe projects energy saving tips alternating with the logos of the sponsors. Hey kids, don’t forget to unplug your mobile phone….and don’t forget who made it.
Circled by six vast banners asking ‘Where Do We Go From Here?’ (sponsored by BMW) or exhorting us to Bend the Trend, the Kongens Nytorv Square is cluttered with climate kitsch- a shiny climate satellite, fiberglass eco-globes by local artists, giant blow up faces of Colors-of-Benneton style indigenous people, a photo display of ‘100 places to remember before they disappear’ and a bizarre structure of scaffolding and flapping bed sheets which, on closer investigation I see are scribbled with pleas for political action. It is funded by the United Nations Environment Programme and is yet another example of the whole-world-is-here-and watching-trope.
Outside society may be permitted to speak in the streets around the conference- albeit in a suitably stage managed and marginal fashion – but the conference has absolutely no interest in how it speaks back. Not one of the official side events or briefings concerns the means for communicating the science or building public support for the decisions it makes. The one event I found concerned with ‘engaging the public’ could think no further than how to explain the official political process. As with all UN style public engagement it involved being lectured and powerpointed by a panel of bureaucrats before being allowed to ask a short and respectful question.
Nonetheless one member of the audience went tearing off-road with a question about how they would deal with the UEA e-mail hacking. It was a googly question from the real world where public trust in the science is in precipitous decline and self-promoting deniers roam the chatshows.
The panel looked dumbfounded and could provide no answer: these conferences occur in a constructed reality of concerned global citizenship and have no comprehension that the future of the world’s climate depends on winning over the voters of Oklahoma.
And so, looking back on Copenhagen, I have to ask: who were all those banners, posters, photo exhibits, polar bears, melting ice statues, video installations really talking to? Did they persuade the doubting heartlands that this was their issue, or did they reinforce the widespread suspicion that this is an inward looking and irrelevant faith? And why are we too absorbed by the pilgrimage to ever ask this question?
And finally a word from our sponsors….