The University of Texas at Austin
  • A student's experience at U.N. Climate Change Conference

    By Rachel Aitkens
    Rachel Aitkens
    Published: Jan. 27, 2010

    In the photo: The Conference of the Youth gathers before the 15th United Nations Climate Change Conference. Courtesy of Rachel Aitkens.

    The Conference of the Youth gather before before COP15

    Copenhagen, Denmark, has gone completely crazy with COP15 (the 15th United Nations Climate Change Conference). An influx of tens of thousands of activists, delegates, heads of state and many more, has helped turn the city into a police state trying to preserve its identity throughout all the chaos.

    Why am I here among all of this?

    I am the director of the Campus Environmental Center at UT, but am also very involved with the Sierra Student Coalition, the student branch of the Sierra Club. I was chosen to be an NGO (non-government organization) observer for the 15th Conference of the Parties. Only 16 students were chosen nationwide to attend with this organization.

    Arriving in Denmark was definitely an experience worth remembering. This is my first trip to Europe and first real interaction with the United Nations. There were advertisements begging for action all over the city. There were huge displays everywhere. There were people from all over the world making the trek over to the Bella Center to receive their credentials.

    Before COP15 started, I attended COY5, the 5th Conference of the Youth. This is a small, two-day conference for youth before each COP to solidify their message. A plethora of organizations went to COY and emerged as a cohesive International Youth Climate Movement.

    On Monday, Dec. 7, I attended the opening day of COP15. Everything happening in the Bella Center felt staged and fake. Everything was planned. Everything had to be secretariat-approved, which meant that it would also show up on the calendar. Any youth actions, like flash mobs, which would normally appear impromptu, were known by everyone in attendance.

    There were calls from a few countries to have a binding legal agreement with enough emissions cuts to reach 350 parts per million (ppm), which would mean 1 degree Celcius of temperature change. Tuvalu, a small band of nine islands in the Pacific with a population of 12,000, called for 350 ppm because much more of an increase in temperature threatens the existence of their islands. There was so much disagreement over the issue that the COP was suspended.

    After the first week of COP15, with very little happening in terms of negotiations, the situation became much more serious. The number of arrests started to rise.

    On Saturday, Dec. 12, there were more than 1,000 arrests at a march I participated in. The Bella Center started locking people out on Monday. NGOs have had several privileges taken away. The police are everywhere, making arrests for no reason whatsoever, putting people in makeshift cages in abandoned warehouses. It truly has turned into a police state.

    On Wednesday, Dec. 17, Connie Hedegaard, the President of COP, resigned. The Danish Prime Minister will step into her place. There are rumors that the Danish Prime Minister’s goal is to push the developed nations agenda of forcing developing countries to reduce their emissions. The resignation of Connie Hedegaard is said to be procedural, but it doesn’t sit well throughout the youth community.

    On Friday, Dec. 18, President Barack Obama was at COP15 in an attempt to have something come out of this conference. We need a Fair, Ambitious and Binding treaty.

    As of Dec. 19, I still had hope that something legally binding, fair and in line with the science would come out of these negotiations. The heads of state from around the world made that hope feel completely unwarranted. Now that I have seen the deal that has emerged, I am incredibly disappointed. The deal is nowhere near as good as it needs to be. I don’t blame any one state in particular, but the developed countries are not doing their part. Congress has also weakened the ACES (American Clean Energy & Security Act) bill so much that it’s hardly worth passing.

    All in all, it wasn’t a complete failure, in my opinion. It is disappointing, for sure, but I think it will be a rallying cry for the International Youth Climate Movement. We obviously need to work much harder. All of those sleepless nights and hours upon hours of planning are not enough. We will go into COP16 with more fight in us to make sure that something is passed and we can all feel good standing behind. Mexico City won’t know what hit them.

    Rachel Aitkens is a junior in government in the College of Liberal Arts.

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