What Really Happened in Copenhagen? The iron fist of the market versus iron in the soul of the social movements

When the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) “negotiations” ended in Copenhagen, a colleague from ATTAC France remarked that we might have just witnessed the tipping point of the end of capitalism and the New World Order.

On one hand, there was the official conference representing a corporate- and market-driven system being propped up by governments responsible for this crisis. On the other, there were the thousands that gathered from across the globe to protest false solutions and promote real ones. The road to Copenhagen for many activists began on September 18, 2008 when over 100 people from 21 countries came together to discuss mobilizing for Copenhagen. Over the next year, meetings were held in Poznan, Poland (2008 UN Climate Conference), in Belém, Brazil during the 2009 World Social Forum, and in Copenhagen. Somewhere in the midst of those meetings, Climate Justice Action was formed and became the major network for organizing the demonstrations in Copenhagen. Other Danish organizations pulled together the alternative Peoples’ Summit Klimaforum09, which featured workshops, debates, art, and serious discussions that a new world was not only possible, but necessary. An estimated 10,000 people took part each day in Klimaforum09 activities.

The Negotiations

Outrage, confusion, and disgust were the reactions around the Bella Center when Barack Obama waltzed into the main plenary of the UN climate talks on December 18 to announce that the U.S. had struck an accord with the governments of China, Brazil, South Africa, and India. Accord? What happened to the official process?

In typical U.S. fashion, after years of global negotiations to bring all of the countries of the world into a consensus on how to combat climate change as part of the second round of commitments under the Kyoto Protocol, the imperial U.S. bypassed the Kyoto Protocol and its legally-binding commitments to reduce emissions. In his speech, Obama stated, “Here is the bottom line: We can embrace this accord, take a substantial step forward, and continue to refine it and build upon its foundation…. Or we can choose delay, falling back into the same divisions that have stood in the way of action for years….”

Fidel Castro criticized the undemocratic process of Obama et al., stating, “[This] was an antidemocratic and practically clandestine initiative that disregarded the thousands of representatives of social movements, scientific and religious institutions and other participants in the Summit.”

After the Copenhagen Accord was announced—the result of the private meetings of 26 unnamed countries—the push was on to get the rest of the countries to agree to it so that they could claim success. There was outrage among the excluded countries. “After keeping us waiting for hours, after several leaders from developed countries have told the media an agreement has been reached when we haven’t even been given a text, you throw the paper on the table and try to leave the room,” stated Venezuelan delegate Claudia Caldera.

Hugo Chavez explained what was at stake: “In Copenhagen, from the beginning, the cards were on the table for all to see. On the one hand, the cards of brutal meanness and stupidity of capitalism, which did not budge in defense of its logic: the logic of capital, which leaves only death and destruction in its wake at an increasingly rapid pace. On the other hand, the cards of the peoples demanding human dignity, the salvation of the planet, and for a radical change, not of the climate, but of a world system that has brought us to the brink of unprecedented ecological and social catastrophe.”

It required significant arm-twisting and blackmail of developing countries to try to get them in line. The government of Lesotho, head of the Least Developed Countries, was told that decisions on extending $7 million in aid would be decided depending on its cooperation with the Accord. Likewise, Palau was told negotiations on a funding package with the U.S. would be decided soon, so it should support the U.S.’s emissions reduction target. Meanwhile, the UK told Bolivia its eligibility for funding could be determined by its cooperation, and it told Bangladesh that money for adaptation was dependent on its agreement to financing going through the World Bank.

Media crowds around television in the Bella Center to watch President Obama address the high level plenary session. Only a small pool of the 3,500 accredited media present was allowed in.

Accredited UN observers blocked by police while on their way to the Peoples Assembly during the Reclaim Power protest

An accredited UN observer is shoved off the bridge during the Reclaim Power action after he and others marched out of the Bella Center

An estimated 50,000 to 100,000 people took to the streets in Copenhagen on December 12, an international day of action for the climate. There were over 900 arrests.

African groups march through the conference chanting, “Two Degrees is Suicide,” “One Africa, One Degree,” and “No to Climate Colonialism,” in response to a leaked secret proposal between rich countries

Clayton Thomas-Muller, from the Indigenous Environmental Network, chants and drums while attempting to leave the Bella Center for the Reclaim Power action

Despite these strong-arm tactics, the U.S., UK, and EU did not get the outcome they wanted. The exact text of the final agreement was as follows: “The Conference of the Parties takes note [emphasis added] of the Copenhagen Accord of December 18, 2009.” With the refusal of Venezuela and Sudan to knuckle under to U.S. pressure, the COP was unable to “adopt” the flawed Accord—and was relegated to “taking note” of it. In other words, there was no agreement in Copenhagen.

Earlier in the week, some text leaked from secret meetings held by the Danish government, initially dubbed the Copenhagen Agreement, led to a spontaneous protest by the African delegations. They marched through the Bella Center on December 8 chanting, “Two degrees is suicide. One Africa, one degree.” This referred to a section of the leaked text that would allow for a global temperature rise of two degrees Celsius. The Copenhagen Accord cabal responded, and on December 15, French President Sarkozy organized a meeting with Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles. After this meeting and a phone call from President Obama, Meles announced that he was speaking for all of Africa when he agreed to the U.S./EU position.

Mithika Mwenda, of the Pan-African Climate Justice Alliance (PACJA), responded, “The IPCC science is clear—2 degrees globally means 3.5 degrees in Africa. This is death to millions of Africans. If Prime Minister Meles wants to sell out the lives and hopes of Africans for a pittance, he is welcome to, but that is not Africa’s position. Every other African country has committed to policy based on the science. That means at least 45 percent cuts by rich countries by 2020 and it means $400 billion fast-track finance, not $10 billion.”

The language in the Copenhagen Accord guarantees continued runaway climate change. It contains no legally binding targets for emissions reductions, which are selected by each country independently. In the U.S., for example, the target being bandied about in the Senate is for 17 percent emission cuts below 2005 levels by 2020. This translates to less than 4 percent emissions cuts below 1990 levels by 2020. (By comparison, even the grossly inadequate Kyoto Protocol called for 5.2 percent reductions below 1990 levels by 2012.) On top of that, there are many provisions for allowing use of forests and soils as carbon offsets and the introduction of new market mechanisms to create the appearance of emissions cuts. The UNFCCC Secretariat has calculated that the Accord’s provisions will lead to a 3-degree rise in temperatures and CO2 levels of 550 ppm. In addition, the Accord calls for a pathetically small $10 billion per year for 3 years for adaptation and mitigation actions in developing countries. There are no references to Indigenous Peoples’ Rights or the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The media made a lot of the announcement by Hillary Clinton at the COP on December 15 of a plan for the U.S. to contribute $100 billion toward adaptation and mitigation for developing countries. As usual, they didn’t listen very well. What Clinton actually said was that the U.S. would participate in raising $100 billion per year by 2020 from a variety of sources—including the carbon market and even World Bank loans. Developing countries, meanwhile are calling for $400 billion in public funding (outside of the World Bank) to begin immediately.

The inclusion of forests in the carbon market under the Accord will greatly intensify forest carbon projects and speculation, which critics charge will undoubtedly lead to land grabs, increased violations of Indigenous Peoples’ rights and human rights in general, including forced displacements. It will also result in the rapid expansion of monoculture tree plantations (including genetically-engineered trees) as so-called carbon sinks.

In a bitter irony, on December 11 in the midst of the climate conference, U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced that the Obama administration had approved Royal Dutch Shell’s plan to drill for oil off Alaska’s northwest coast as early as next summer, endorsing drilling for fossil fuels in the climate-effected ecosystems of the Arctic, where global warming already impacts Alaska natives and entire villages are in danger of losing their lands and ways of life.

The Anti-Empire Strikes Back

While it is doubtful anyone predicted the Obama administration would so blatantly throw out the UN process, Climate Justice Action had wisely mobilized around the understanding that the talks would not, and could not, come up with any real, effective, or just solutions to the climate crisis. They mobilized to expose COP15 for the profit-driven, trade-focused sham that it had become. For Climate Justice Action, “no deal is better than a bad deal,” a sentiment echoed by climate scientist James Hansen.

Even prior to the Copenhagen Accord, after the first week of the talks, disgust over the behavior of rich countries spilled over into the streets. On Saturday, December 12, an estimated 100,000 people marched the 6 kilometers in the bitter cold to the Bella Center in support of effective action on climate change. Climate Justice activists formed a bloc called “Change the System, Not the Climate.” The only incident of the day occurred when police vans swooped in suddenly to surround several hundred black bloc marchers. They were corralled on the frozen street for several hours before being taken to jail. This was not the first pre-emptive arrest, however. Police had already raided several of the meeting and sleeping spaces of Climate Justice Action. By the end of the two weeks, approximately 2,000 people had been arrested—nearly all of them having committed no crime.

Four days later, thousands of people again marched through the streets of Copenhagen to the Bella Center, this time as part of the “Reclaim Power” protest organized by Climate Justice Action and Climate Justice Now! (networks that encompass organizations, social movements, farmers, and Indigenous Peoples from both the global North and the global South). Also, between 200 and 300 COP15 delegates marched out of the Bella Center to join the protests outside. The objective was not to close down the summit, but rather, for one day, to open a space for a People’s Assembly where real solutions to the climate crisis and ways to expand the global climate justice movement could be discussed. When the group from inside attempted to cross a footbridge to meet their thousands of compatriots on the outside, however, they were met by police swinging truncheons. Accredited UN observers were beaten while chanting, “We’re non-violent, why aren’t you?”

Stine Gry Jonassen, a spokesperson for Climate Justice Action, explained, “We have no more time to waste. If governments won’t solve the problem, then it’s time for our diverse people’s movements to unite and reclaim the power to shape our future. We are beginning this process with the people’s assembly. We will join together all the voices that have been excluded—both within the process and outside of it.” Stine and Tannie Nyboe, another Reclaim Power organizer, were brutally attacked by police while speaking from a sound truck. They were thrown off the truck and arrested.

Global Justice Ecology Project (GJEP) accredited Stine for the UN climate talks. She and another organizer, Dr. Tadzio Mueller, participated in a GJEP press conference the day before the action took place. Upon leaving the UN building, Mueller was grabbed by three plainclothes police, arrested pre-emptively, and taken back into the Bella Center to await transport to jail. He was released four days later.

Indigenous Environmental Network Director Tom Goldtooth explained why Indigenous Peoples led the march out of the Bella Center: “It’s a sad situation that world leaders representing industrialized society have lost their understanding of the sacredness of Mother Earth. Before we can achieve global action, there needs to be international awareness of why we are really here. We marched out in support of our brother, President Evo Morales of Bolivia, and his demand that the rights of Mother Earth be recognized in the negotiating text here in Copenhagen.”

Hundreds of UNFCCC-accredited observers were denied access to the Bella Center on the day of the Reclaim Power action, including the entire Friends of the Earth International and Via Campesina delegations. Anyone who participated in the Reclaim Power action was also banned from the Bella Center. In the days following the action, the exhibition and side event space where many of the NGOs had congregated was eerily quiet and empty. Many of the NGO booths were stripped of their materials and had simple white print outs posted that read “Civil Society Has Been Excluded From The Negotiations.”

Climate Justice Now! issued a statement after Copenhagen which reads in part: “The only discussions of real solutions in Copenhagen took place in social movements. Climate Justice Now!, Climate Justice Action and Klimaforum09 articulated many creative ideas and attempted to deliver those ideas to the UN Climate Change Conference through the Klimaforum09 People’s Declaration and the Reclaim Power People’s Assembly. While Copenhagen has been a disaster for just and equitable climate solutions, it has been an inspiring watershed moment in the battle for climate justice. The governments of the elite have no solutions to offer, but the climate justice movement has provided strong vision and clear alternatives. Copenhagen will be remembered as an historic event for global social movements. It will be remembered, along with Seattle and Cancun, as a critical moment when the diverse agendas of many social movements coalesced and became stronger, asking in one voice for system change, not climate change.”

What Are The Next Steps?

In response to the Copenhagen fiasco, Bolivian President Evo Morales announced that a world conference of social movements would take place in Bolivia on April 22, 2010—the International Day of Mother Earth. In Detroit, Michigan this summer, climate justice and other activists will come together for the U.S. Social Forum. Many hope that social movements in the U.S. will unite as an alternative to the farcical “democracy” in this country and work together to find real and just solutions to the climate crisis.

Despite the heavy handed and violent repression of the Reclaim Power action, participants considered it a tremendous success. “The solidarity we experienced today in the face of police intimidation and repression shows that people across the world are standing together to expose the failure of the COP to address the real causes of the climate crisis, and our determination to work together to bring about the changes needed to tackle climate change. The people feel strong together and we will go back home to build the movement for climate justice and for real solutions,” said Kingkorn Narintarakul of the Thai Working Group for Climate Justice.


Anne Petermann is executive director of Global Justice Ecology Project (GJEP). Orin Langelle is the co-director/strategist of GJEP. They took the photos in this article. GJEP co-founded Climate Justice Now! in 2007 in Bali, Indonesia and Climate Justice Action in 2008 in Copenhagen. GJEP has its main office in Hinesburg, Vermont with desks in Berkeley, California and Porto Alegre, Brazil. GJEP is the North American Focal Point for the Global Forest Coalition.

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