Climate protests put pressure on talks

Dec 12 demonstrations notches up pressure on climate conference, says Jessica Cheam

The date 12/12 will now go down in history as a landmark moment which saw the world’s largest ever demonstration by civil societies across the globe on climate change.

From Indonesia to Australia, London to Copenhagen, climate change activists took to the streets of their cities to demand action from our world leaders. Here in Copenhagen, the atmosphere was electrifying as the largest contingent of activists (police say 50,000 participated but organisers said it was double at 100,000) assembled at 1pm on Saturday afternoon to begin a six kilometre march to the conference venue Bella Centre.

Coming from Singapore where demonstrations are forbidden, I lapped in the feast of sights and sounds on the ground as I made my way to Copenhagen’s Christiansborg Slotsplads, or Parliament Square, to cover the action.

“People power” truly took on a different meaning for me, as I revelled in the crowds. At the front end of the march, activists were carrying a huge flag that said: “Another world is possible. Another world is coming. Another world is reality.” People were banging on drums and other percussion instruments as they chanted slogans such as “we want action”: “When do we want it?” shouted an activist to a group. “Now!” the others screamed back.

The hairs on the back of my neck actually stood up as I listened to the rallying cries of the campaigners. The energy was infectious, and you felt that anything was possible. The camaraderie and sense of fellowship provided warmth for the campaigners who turned up in droves for the march despite the freezing 3 deg C weather and harsh winds.

I couldn’t help but be amazed at what people can do when they get together. The protests, I realised, were a remarkable display of passion by so many from all walks of life. From babies to grandpas, Chinese to Caucasians, I noted the demonstrations attracted such a huge melting pot of minds - all with one common purpose: to save the environment. It was refreshing, and a stark contrast to the apathy we get so used to back home, for example, where hardly anyone gets so excited about any global issue or at least, expresses it so rousingly.

One Singaporean student, Sharon Tan, 18, whom I briefly interviewed agreed. She was jumping up and down with excitement at the first protest she’s ever been to. “I am here for the solidarity with the international youth climate movement,” she tells me, “we want to do our part to show the world how important the climate conference is”. The student who just finished her A levels depleted her entire savings to pay for her air ticket to Copenhagen and accommodation.

It was great to see some Singaporean involvement in this landmark march. There were others like her, carrying signs that said: “There is no Planet B” and “Change the politics. Not the climate”. Then, one by one, well-known personalities from Bollywood actors to former ministers got up on the podium to make a speech, which were often interrupted by applause and shouts of “yeah!” from the activists.

After 2pm, the crowds finally began their slow march towards Bella Centre, where a special candlelight vigil was later held and petitions were handed over the UN bigwigs.

But shortly after, things got nasty. A group of youths dressed in black threw bricks into windows near the Danish foreign ministry’s office. It didn’t happen near me, but there was a heightened sense of tension in the air as police, who were stationed in almost every street, looked sternly at the demonstrators.

The entire demonstration, however, was largely peaceful. Which is why it was strange that Danish police then arrested some 970 demonstrators just outside the Bella Centre. A lady I befriended here said she was arrested while trying to get into the Bella Centre and she was just literally standing outside, not doing anything, when police approached to handcuff her and made her sit on the cold, tarmac floor for hours before releasing her.

The actions of the police (who have since released the majority of protestors) have been slammed by NGO groups and the local media. The authorities seemed too heavy-handed in their anticipation of trouble. The Danish, for all their commendable efforts in hosting the conference, is getting such bad press from that. But perhaps it is understandable that they took a harsh stance since far-left groups were rumoured to be staging a hijack of the climate demonstrations to advance their own causes.

Still, the demonstrations are continuing into the second week of the negotiations, which began today (Monday 14/12). While protestors continue to demand action from negotiators, talks have come to a standstill at Bella Centre just shortly after the mid-point of the summit.

African nations have just walked out of the negotiations as they feel that the talks have focused too much on a new deal, which they feel will disadvantage them. They want a firm commitment by developed nations to continue a second period for the Kyoto Protocol, which legally binds developed countries to firm cuts in their greenhouse gas emissions. Developed nations seem to prefer a new international agreement to replace the Kyoto treaty.

While the “suspension of talks” has caused a sizeable commotion at the conference, experienced analysts tells me that this is “typical of a COP” (Conference of the Parties, the Copenhagen one being the 15th) and that negotiators ALWAYS leave it till the last minute to make compromises and decide on texts.

One even told me how government delegates love the attention they get while at the Cop, issuing statements, negotiating texts which give them a sense of self-importance, that they drag it out until the very last possible moment. “It’s an annual party for the delegates, the highlight of their year - like a free holiday, with some work thrown in,” said one.

It’s disappointing to see how little progress has been made at the talks so far - save for some decisions on deforestation, for instance - despite the sheer number of delegates present at the conference.

But the pressure at Cop15 has visibly gone up a notch, especially after the weekend’s protests. Delegates know that the stakes are high with four days to go, andwith heads of states due to begin arriving tomorrow.

As the climate talks chief Yvo de Boer said today at a press conference, “I think the demonstrations certainly have an impact. Events like that are encouragement for leaders to come to Copenhagen not to talk, but to act and sign a robust agreement at the end of our discussion.”

In a few days, we will know soon whether the “people power” shown here in Copenhagen this weekend was enough to move the world’s politicians.

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