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Eugene Weekly : Analysis : 12.10.09

 

Hopenhagen?

Eugene contingency lobbies for action, human rights

by John E. Bonine and Svitlana Kravchenko

“Please help the world.”

A young girl woke up from a nightmare, screaming. She had been watching the news about climate horrors and then, in a bad dream, found herself in a parched land. The earth was cracking beneath her feet. Next she was in danger of being swept away by a hurricane.

Rachel Kastenberg (left), John Bonine and Svitlana Kravchenko in Copenhagen this week
Conference youth with EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson
Baby Fransis

The girl’s father told her about this week’s climate change negotiations in Copenhagen, Denmark. The event’s website encouraged every viewer to “raise your voice.” She grabbed her dad’s video camera, turned it on herself, and made her simple statement: “Please help the world.” Following her action, hundreds of other children sent the same message.

The girl’s message was delivered on Monday to thousands of delegates here in Copenhagen who are working to forge a climate change agreement. The coming days will tell us whether the girl’s plea will melt the hearts of the hardened delegates. 

Some are calling the world summit on climate the most important international negotiation since the end of World War II. Progress until now has been spotty, however. 

As the world wobbles toward some kind of agreement on taking action to limit climate change, Copenhagen hotels have filled up with 15,000 delegates, ranging from governmental delegates to buttoned-up environmental professionals to street activists. A rally scheduled for Saturday is expected to draw up to 60,000 participants outside the negotiating hall.

A strong contingent with Eugene connections is here, working the hallways to obtain improvements in the treaties and other agreements to limit climate change. 

Alyssa Johl, a 2008 UO law graduate, heads a team of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) who are seeking to infuse human rights language into treaty. We two law professors are part of her delegation. In that role, we are helping draft language for NGOs to advocate to the government delegations.

We are also in Copenhagen wearing two other hats. We are working on language to submit to the negotiations in support of a “compliance mechanism” — an international body that would review whether countries actually do keep their promises. The U.S. has long resisted such a mechanism, but we hope that might change.

Finally, we are part of a worldwide rapid-response legal network called the Legal Response Initiative. In that role, our job is to answer urgent inquiries from NGOs on legal issues that come up. Available on call in person, or by cell phone, text or email, we focus on human rights issues and on advocating a compliance mechanism to ensure that countries actually keep their commitments.

Also working the NGO side of the street is Tim Ream, wearing the colors of Greenpeace International. He will complete his law degree at UO in May. Until two weeks ago, he was in a semester-long “externship” in the Climate Change Secretariat in Bonn, Germany.

Another attorney with Eugene connections is in the official U.S. delegation, with the U.S. State Department. Rachel Kastenberg graduated from the UO School of Law’s environmental law program in 2006. When we met her she was tight-lipped about specifics of the negotiations, as a government lawyer needs to be, but she nevertheless radiated hope.

Hope, indeed, is one of the moods here in Copenhagen.

At the opening meeting, Prime Minister of Denmark Mars Lokke Rasmussen told the delegates, “Hope is the starting point of all major efforts. The world is putting its hope in you, for a short while in the history of mankind,” he said.

In a similar vein, the mayor of Copen-hagen, Ritt Bjerregaard, said in her welcoming speech that for the next two weeks they had renamed the city “Hopenhagen.” 

The other mood here is frustration. By the end of the first day, participants from NGOs voted to give a “Fossil of the Day” award to the industrialized nations for their foot-dragging. On Tuesday, the award went to Ukraine, for claiming a “reduction” from 1990 levels that would actually mean a 75 percent increase over the country’s current emissions.

About 250 environmentalists vote each day on who should receive this dishonor. Fossil of the Day awards recognize obstruction of progress at the climate talks. 

Citizens from NGOs are called “observers.” but their role can be crucial. “The involvement of civil society is of paramount importance,” the Danish prime minister said in opening the conference. “The ultimate responsibility rests with the citizens of the world, who will ultimately bear the consequences if we fail to act.”

In that plenary session, Dr. Rajenda Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, called it an “historically important meeting.” He said that strong limits on greenhouse gas would cost only a 3 percent reduction in worldwide gross domestic product. The standard of living otherwise expected in 2020 would be postponed by “just a few months” as a result, he contended.

The meeting elected as its president Connie Hedegaard, the Danish minister for climate and energy. She called for the delegates to “open the door to the low-carbon age” and urged, “It is time to deliver!”

As is traditional, the president of the meeting called for approval of the ordinary rules. But the delegate from Papua, New Guinea, Kevin Conrad, its special envoy on climate change, rose to object. Attention was riveted upon him. Two years ago at a meeting in Bali he had dramatically said to an obstructionist U.S. delegation, “If for some reason you’re not willing to lead, leave it to the rest of us; please, get out of the way.” 

In Copenhagen, many NGO delegates are wearing their ID tags on bright pink ribbons emblazoned with the words “LEAD OR GO HOME.” 

The PNG representative in Copenhagen objected that the meeting should not work only by consensus, but by a three-quarters vote. After consulting with others at the podium, the president of the meeting said that there was not consensus for his proposal to abandon consensus. She would simply consult with others on the proposal later. PNG asked for the floor again, saying that it could not agree with that procedure. He wanted obstructionist nations to yield to the majority.

Then Brazil took the floor to support the meeting president, treasuring its right to block any consensus agreement. Saudi Arabia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sierra Leone all joined in, insisting that only a procedure based on consensus (which, in practice, means unanimity) is acceptable. A key question for these two weeks is how to move resistant delegations to listen to that little girl’s plea at the opening session.

After the plenary, the two of us went to a meeting of lawyers from NGOs and then to a meeting of the Climate Action Network (CAN), which consists of representatives from 450 NGOs around the world. 

Wearing business suits instead of tie-dyed T-shirts, these environmental activists have mastered the arcane language of the negotiations, such as “LULUCF” and “REDD.” At the daily meeting they report on lobbying contacts made with members of governmental delegations.

The activists publish a daily newsletter called ECO, which gives news of developments. The current newsletter is the descendant of one first published in 1972 at the Stockholm Conference on the Environment, when civil society descended on the first international environmental negotiations, demanding access and participation. The first issue in Copenhagen called for a “FAB deal” — one that is “fair, ambitious, and binding.” It said that a climate deal “must safeguard the climate and must be fair to all countries.”

Lawyers from the Eugene-based Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide, of which we are also members, are pursuing just such goals. ELAW lawyers from Australia, Bangladesh, Kenya, Malaysia, Mexico, Papua New Guinea, Peru, Sri Lanka, Ukraine and the U.K., as well as the U.S. and others, are here trying to make a difference. Our task is to do what we can to nudge the climate change agreement toward what future generations really need.

Following these negotiations, lawyers in the ELAW network will play key roles back in their home countries, ensuring that governments follow up on their Copenhagen commitments

The task at Copenhagen is enormous. By this fall the negotiating text had become a Christmas tree on which everyone wanted to hang their baubles. Nobody could agree even on where the baubles should go. The current text is nearly 175 pages long.

President Obama’s recent promise of a 17 percent cut, based on legislation pending in Congress, is a step forward for the U.S. and other industrialized countries, as is the call on Tuesday by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown for the European Union to offer a reduction target for 2020 to 30 percent.

On Monday, Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency said it would even start regulation of carbon emissions without waiting for Congress. On Tuesday evening, three high U.S. government officials briefed a room full of NGO delegates from the U.S. Although the briefing was off the record, it can be reported that the room erupted in applause when EPA’s Administrator Lisa Jackson was announced and she got a standing ovation. The U.S. citizens in the room asked tough, well-informed questions, including several from youth delegates, who proved themselves to be worthy interlocutors at their young ages.

Of course, tens of thousands of people coming to Copenhagen has meant tons of greenhouse gas emissions. To offset the carbon impact, the Danish government is supporting reconstruction of some factories in Bangladesh. Instead of handing out souvenir briefcases as is traditional, the Danes also announced they were using the money to support the education of 11 students from around the world as “climate scholars.” They will return to their countries to work on the problems that previous generations have created.

The UO has its own climate scholars in attendance. Bob Doppelt, Program Director of the Climate Leadership Initiative in UO’s Institute for a Sustainable Environment, is here. Undergraduates Jeremy Blanchard and Sarah Harbert of Powershift West and the Environmental Studies Program arrived as part of a team of 15 students and youth from the Pacific Northwest lobbying for their future.

Some 110 heads of state and government have announced that they will come to Copenhagen next week to conclude the conference and sign a final document. 

Let’s hope they have something worth signing. 

Bonine and Kravchenko are professors of law at the UO and members of the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (ELAW).