Published December 7, 2009
Overwhelming global interest in COP15 ("Convention of Parties") led to a few glitches as conference attendees descended on Copenhagen over the weekend of Dec. 5-6. On Dec. 1 the organizers announced they were no longer accepting applications from media to attend, having already reached a maximum of 5,000 (later it was announced this was cut to 3500). 34,000 people in all were attempting to participate in the conference, but the Bella Center, a vast, somewhat makeshift conference complex just outside of Copenhagen, has a capacity of 15,000.
When "Easy Like Water" producer Steve Sapienza and I arrived to register on Dec. 6, we waited first through a security line and then more than an hour in an overcrowded registration room, where lines for participants, observers, and media merged into a general scrum. Some members of the international press corps, who had failed to provide the fairly demanding list of pre-registration paperwork early enough, were summarily turned away.
Interest spiked over the three weeks leading up to the conference, as first President Obama announced he would attend, then China and India indicated plans to talk serious turkey at the conference, and then Obama changed his date of attendance from early to late in the conference (which runs Dec. 7-18), suggesting that a serious deal must be in the offing. "Seal the deal" is the conference's ad line, and there is suddenly growing international expectation that some kind of a deal, so elusive in the past, may actually be in the offing. The global sense of urgency for the need to take action is much greater outside the U.S. Several participants have noted that the economic crisis in the U.S., particularly unemployment, has kept climate change on the back burner in the American consciousness.
The Bella Center itself is surrounded by empty dirt fields and metal barriers, with access controlled at police checkpoints. With an array of protesters who feel the outcome will not be nearly what is required to address the threat of global warming, the Center's remote location makes crowd control easier for law enforcement. Fortunately the site is just a 15-minute bus ride from the charming city center of Copenhagen, where most hotels are located. The conference is providing free access to all forms of public transportation for attendees, which includes metro, buses, and even bicycles for those hearty enough for the pedal out to Bella. (37% of Copenhagen residents, by the way, commute by bicycle.)
As the conference got underway on Dec. 7, security lines moved more smoothly, and soon an international throng of participants, many in traditional clothes, were mixing in Bella's many public spaces -- cafes, internet centers, and meeting rooms named for famous Danes (Tycho Brahe, Hans Christian Andersen, Elvira Madigan, Carl Theodor Dreyer, and so on).
International TV broadcasters set up their cameras in a long row on a catwalk and shot standups with the backdrop of a vast public foyer below, buzzing with participants. The welcoming ceremony featured Danish Prime Minister Lars Rassmussen, Copenhagen Mayor Ms. Ritt Bjerregard, and a terrifying video featuring a little girl having a climate change nightmare that brought to mind the current eco-thriller "2012." (We later saw the little girl featured in the film skipping happily through the Bella Center with her mom on one hand and a teddy bear in the other.) While much of the day was dedicated to meetings and press conferences, at one point a "flash dance" broke out in the busy main atrium, where young activists from the International Youth Climate Movement performed a "climate change action NOW" boogaloo, much to the delight of pretty much everyone weary of focusing so hard on how to deal with the reality of global warming.
This story was reported for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting as part of the Copenhagen News Collaborative, a cooperative project of several independent news organizations. Check out the feed here from Mother Jones.