Climate Change Denial

December 18, 2009

CARBON SUPPLICANTS ON THE COPENHAGEN PILGRIMAGE

George Marshall @ 5:16 pm

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).

Another lame polar bear protest

Another lame protest in Polar Bear costumes

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.

Right On Banner Clutter in Kongens Nytorv

Right On Banner Clutter in Kongens Nytorv

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….

Polluters and financial speculators promote market their worldview

Polluters and financial speculators promote their worldview

CARBON SUPPLICANTS ON THE COPENHAGEN PILGRIMAGE

Feelings, impressions and snapshot observations of the Copenhagen climate conference that provide insights into our truly screwed up attitudes and psychology.

For many of us Brits the pilgrimage 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 traul through the Low Countries with regular tests of faith. Our Eurostar train broke down. At the Danish border were 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. This includes planeloads of American sophomores in various gap-experience youth delegations to mill about and perform lame stunts in Polar Bear costumes.

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-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 to the conference- albeit in a suitably stage managed and marginal fashion – but the conference has absolutely no interest in how it speaks back to them. 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.

15 Responses to “CARBON SUPPLICANTS ON THE COPENHAGEN PILGRIMAGE”

  1. hugh says:

    Why be so harsh on sophomores in bear costumes. They are at least willing to look foolish for a good cause they believe in. Why the sophomoric cynicism of your blog? Being realistic doesn’t mean you have to disparage everyone else. College students, in my experience, oscillate between cynicism & optimism. At least you could show some degree of optimism.

    George says: Dear Hugh, it’s a fair criticism, but this is not just a slick cynicism on my part: there is a context for this observation. I believe strongly (and am supported by extensive social research) that the identification of climate change with environmentalism is a problem for speaking to wider society. The aesthetics of green protest, and Polar Bears in particular (far away and irrelevant) greatly assist people in their natural desire to detach from the issue. I put the argument slightly more coherently in http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sn2S00_xp4M

  2. Nick Perks says:

    It sounds hideous and I am glad I didn’t go, but I am not surprised. I wish that decisions were not concentrated in the hands of elites. I wish that the process was not sponsored and corporatised. And yet, I think it is extraordinary and inspiring that so many countries are meeting to try and tackle the challenge of climate change. Of course countries are still negotiating primarily from national interest, but its not that long ago the idea of any global environmental agreement was pie in the sky. Whatever is or isn’t decided, and however it is spun, the work will need go on – at a policy level, and at a community level.

  3. Mike Roselle says:

    Thanks George,

    You nailed it. I would have been less diplomatic. I mentioned this same point to many of my US friends in the “Climate Industry”, but heck, no one wants to miss a party! That’s why the US movement came out in force last May for a protest against the small coal burner in Washington DC and few of them came to the action in Charlotte, North Carolina three weeks later to stop the construction of a much larger coal burner at Cliffside. They came for the party.

    But I do believe you are on to something when you speak of complicity. Just going through the motions are not enough when you should be able to see that you are either not going to have an impact or that you will actually have a negative one. A reasonable chance of success is necessary, and anyone could see this coming. How much money was wasted sending the US environmental delegation to Copenhagen?

    I want to challenge them to now come to the coal mines of West Virginia and face the brutality of the coal industry instead of the “brutal” Danish Police. After all, COP 15 was a meeting between the leaders of nations, and we sent our president to Copenhagen with no cards to play. Our work is here, standing with the communities who are on the front lines in the climate struggle and are faced with inhalation as their homeland is destroyed.

    And your right also about this issue being decided by people in places like Oklahoma, not in the streets of foreign capitols. Trying to recreate Seattle and resurrect Karl Marx will do little to calm their fears that the solution may be worse than the problem.

  4. Liz Reason says:

    George, Sadly, I think you are right that this is all horribly cynical and that the NGOs participate in essentially a kind of fraud. How can we justify the thousands of flights that were taken to Copenhagen? If people were there on a needs basis only, with other kinds of activity undertaken at home, could we not make it more real?
    Civil society….
    Our Town Council had to decided whether to switch streetlights off in the middle of the night. “Why should we be taking action when those leaders over there in Copenhagen are too frightened to lead us and take the big decisions?” And in the next breath,, in full indignant voice: “They’re be making us switch off the lights before you know it.” Next breath: “We won’t do it until the make us.”

  5. Excellent post George, and as someone who wasn’t there, I am glad to hear this from someone who was. Your first reply, from Hugh, accuses you of cynicism. I would have thought it was obvious that the cynicism comes from Coke, Siemens and the various nations and corporations on show in Copenhagen. And also, in my view, from some of the NGOs, who are playing along despite knowing damn well that the game is up for this party.

    ‘At least you could show some degree of optimism’, suggests Hugh. Why? Just for the sake of it? To make you feel better? This gets to the heart of it for me. There is bugger all reason to have any otimism at all about this process, and until we admit that we won’t get beyond it. It’s a corporate circus; its very power structure militates against it being able to do anything. These people are the problem; and so, complicit in it, are we. What do we do about that? Dressing up as bears, painting ourselves blue or feeling ‘optimistic’ for the sake of it make things worse.

    The first thing we could do is admit the impossibility of this approach, and then we might start to get to the heart of the matter. The green movement has surely been pretending for too long now. I don’t want to sound like a Trot (perish the thought) but where’s the analysis of power and capital in the mainstream line? Why are we pretending to ourselves that this kind of process, in this kind of world, is amenable to nice, middle class NGO delegates in branded T-shirts making ‘demands’ they can’t back up with anything?

    OK, I’ll stop now… But there’s more on this here for anyone interested:

    http://www.dark-mountain.net/wordpress/2009/12/07/the-inadequacy-of-hope/

  6. Excellent post George. The reassertion of power by climate deniers in the Opposition here shows we have exactly this problem in Australia. On the other hand it is partly fuelled by general suspicion of our Government’s CPRS (Continue Polluting Regardless Scam).

    We’ve had “truth movement” hecklers at recent rallies but interestingly they claim to be anti old growth logging and pro green tech including windmills even though they “love CO2″ as their Tshirts proclaim. They are fiercely opposed to ETS scams which they say are just another financial bubble. Couldn’t fault them on that.

    So we still need to get the somewhat subtle point across that the science is real, but the politics, at least so far, really is a fraud.

  7. Jamie says:

    Great post. And brave to say it as well. As someone in Copenhagen, I am glad I came, but definitely agree with all of your points.

    The problem for me is also that the NGOs don’t have a common position, except berating the leaders. Whilst we do need to berate the leaders, we need to do so whilst demanding a coherent alternative. Then the the tens of thousands of people in the city would have been a true political force rather than a dispirate group of sideshows.

    If you want to read my further thoughts, see http://jamieandrews.name/blog

  8. Annie says:

    I think the 350.org people deserve a lot of credit and worked really hard.

  9. Roly says:

    I’ve been as pessimistic as Paul Kingsnorth for a while but after reading Nicholas Stern’s Blueprint for a Safer Planet can at least see a way forward that reduces greenhouse gases and helps the developing world out of poverty.

    I haven’t swung from pessimism to blind optimism but it does show a way forward without totally dismantling the current structures. At least it could be a stepping stone and I now feel a bit less like Reg from Life of Brian – “We’re giving Pilate two days to dismantle the entire apparatus of the Roman Imperialist State”.

    Yours (in hope!)

  10. Derek Wall says:

    Yes we need to be more strategic, this is from todays Morning Star which may be of interest http://another-green-world.blogspot.com/2009/12/climate-sceptics-are-like-alcoholics.html

  11. Derek Wall says:

    more optimistically I remember how Earth First started in the Uk with two people and kicked off a direct action movement that helped stop the biggest road building project since the Romans….George, you were involved in that if I remember rightly, long time ago now.

    and while nobody else seems to have heard of them outside Peru…aidesp continue to win the battle.

  12. There is one big advantage about the decisions (or lack of them) being in the hands of power politicians. At least no one has the excuse of complaining they’re being preached and moralised at. By the way, is it now time to switch campaign attention to Chinese and Indian governments, especially as they will have plenty of leverage on the West anyway?

  13. Martin Vermeer says:

    > on the horizon, a vast coal burning power plant.__
    If you’re referring to the Hvidøvre plant, that one burns waste.

  14. Diana Trimble says:

    George, I totally agree that environmentalism must be wrested away from the new climate change umbrella term. It makes it too easy for people who distrust the science of carbon emissions to ignore the rainforest being ripped down. My Dad is a climate denier yet claims to be an environmentalist – how that works I don’t know, but I’d sure rather collaborate with him on a shared vision than argue about crap I don’t fully understand myself and which seems almost besides the point. Can we get a coalition to work on this. I also had an absolutely rotten time in Copenhagen by the way. In addition to being denied entry to the Bella Centre at the last minute, I also managed to miss all the protests – which wasn’t hard as they were tightly managed, corraled, controlled and contained by the cops. I’m writing an entire account of the weirdo experience I had, which I’ll send to you, but to summarise: after Eurolines screwed me over on my return journey and told me there were no seats back to London until January 2nd (!), which was more than 2 weeks, I was forced to FLY home on a budget airline after spending 2 days in an overpriced hotel because my accoms had run out! I was so broke by that point that I had to eat fast food to survive – (I had somehow ended up in one of the few places more expensive and colder than London). And that, my friends, is how the system makes itself so hard to resist: the alternatives are currently extremely unpleasant AND expensive.

  15. Byron Lee says:

    @Diana your Copenhagen sounds terrible. Nice post George. I agree with Diana that the term environmentalism must must be a separate entity when it comes to climate.

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