Dispatch from Copenhagen

What's Fun about a Summit to Solve Global Warming?

I received an odd phone-call this week. Out of the blue, the alarmingly perky morning hosts of an Auckland radio station I've never listened to rang to say that they'd heard I lived in Copenhagen. They wanted me, live on-air, to tell their listeners "fun things about the Copenhagen climate summit".

(Side note: things must be pretty tough back home if a Radio Network station can't afford the price of a phone-call to warn somebody they are about to put them on air).

These two full-of-beans hosts were unimpressed with my suggestion that thousands of people getting together to solve global warming might, in itself, be rather exciting. So I settled for easy material: a joke about Nick Smith.

Truth is, despite the bitterly cold snow and the brief glimpse of daylight each day, Copenhagen is a pretty exciting place to be right now

I work for a think-tank engaged in debate about policy responses to global warming. Copenhagen, right now, is all about global warming. Forty-five thousand people were given accreditation to attend the United Nations-sponsored summit. Unfortunately, the venue only holds 15,000. Media and delegates have been given first access, so members of NGOs and civil society are left out in the cold.

One hundred and fifteen political leaders are arriving with their entourages in tow. Gordon Brown was desperate to be the first top leader to get here (it shows how much he cares), so moved up his trip. Arnold Schwarzenegger got a more excited reception from locals. Robert Mugabe gave the Danish hosts a headache because tradition dictates that, as the longest-serving leader, he should have the honoured place of sitting next to the Queen at the official dinner. Hugo Chávez, leader of gas-producing Venezuela, told delegates that capitalism was to blame for warming, while Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will use the summit to further Iran's argument for its nuclear programme. Hey, it's clean energy.

The UN event has even attracted celebrity activists like Leonardo diCaprio and Daryl Hannah (obvious joke: the mermaid star of Splash is concerned about the ocean acidification effect of warming. Actually, she turns out to be a pretty eloquent environmentalist).

The vast bulk of attendees are incredibly earnest people who believe strongly that this two-week talk-fest is the last, best hope of saving the planet. There are also visitors who do not believe in global warming (here's one trying to make fun of a Greenpeace supporter), and revolutionaries who find the whole idea of carbon trading outrageous, and even make fun of the likes of George Monbiot.

It's impossible to go anywhere in Copenhagen without seeing a contingent of Danish police in their Action Man outfits. Bolstered by reinforcements from all over the country, and with new laws passed to strengthen their powers, they have taken a tough line (and have attracted flak for it), arresting protest organizers, using pepper spray and tear-gas, and making ‘preventive' arrests of some activists. The protesters have arrived from all over Europe (and further beyond - there's even a few Kiwis).

The Bella Center, where delegates meet, has also had its fair share of drama over the week: sit-ins, dramatic resignations, and different blocs storming out or expressing outrage that the other side wasn't really willing to do the right thing. The most talked-about clash is between the United States, which is reluctant to make drastic carbon cuts, and developing nations - particularly China, India and Brazil - which might agree to slow down their emissions growth but don't want to agree to a monitoring mechanism to check their progress.

Some theorize that the United States delegation is just playing hard-ball so that President Obama can jet in and save the day. There are even rumours about that some delegates could walk out on Friday.

Although, on Wednesday night, the UN Secretary-General raised hope of something conclusive coming out of Copenhagen, most commentators seem agreed that there is a slim chance that this summit will result in a meaningful deal. On Thursday morning, Danish media reported that the summit's hosts had given up on a deal. It seems most likely that leaders will come up with a ‘political agreement' that will save face but disappoint many NGOs and activists.

This earnest effort to save the world, then, could end up postponing some of the most difficult decisions to another conference, in another location. For now, Copenhagen's loving its moment in the limelight - and, if the Classic Hits hosts find they can afford another phone-call to Denmark - I'd be happy to tell them that it's also quite fun.