A personal journey to Copenhagen and back

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Los Alamos High grad finds hope in an obstinate world

By The Staff

Editor’s Note: One of the biggest international stories of the year was the United Nation’s Climate Negotiations in Copenhagen, which brought the year to a close on a mixed note. Marielle Remillard, a 2005 graduate of Los Alamos High School and now a graduate student at Johns Hopins University in Baltimore served as the Monitor’s special correspondent in Copenhagen, sharing her thoughts and opinions from the experience. Remillard was one of a group of 26 students competitively chosen to participate in a program called SustainUS Agents of Change. As her journey began earlier this month, it was already obvious that the nations of the world were not going to come to a full and binding agreement.


Stage-setting doubts

The agreement of major world leaders including President Barack Obama and the Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussens to accept a politically binding rather than a legally binding agreement in Copenhagen indicated the nations of the world would not be held accountable for carbon emissions. To amplify the problem, the leaking of e-mails from climate researchers ­— commonly referred to as the “Climategate” scandal  — cast doubt on their published work, and by association, the work of thousands of legitimate climate researchers who are producing ethical and valuable results. Undeniably, there is an element of uncertainty to climate research.

Yet, the slowness of the United States in responding to climate change is having international repercussions. Several countries are looking to see that the United States commits to stronger carbon emissions reductions before an international treaty is negotiated. Economically, reducing carbon emissions will not be easy for any country, but I believe the United States has the capacity to be a stronger leader on the issue.

Some lessons learned

My initial interest in attending the 15th conference of the parties (or COP15, as the Copenhagen meeting was known) was predominately academic. I hoped to understand how science gets turned into international policy, how the United Nations functions to address international environmental concerns, and I was hopeful that I would witness the evolution of a climate agreement that would replace the climate framework agreement from the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, when it expires in 2012. I found myself confronted a convoluted problem intertwining not only science and politics, but also finance and ethics in an every increasingly tangled knot.

Most days, I felt like I was attending a circus. On an average day, I would try to get to the conference center by 8 a.m. The line to go through security took about an hour. There were two programs each day, one for the plenary sessions where the new documents were being prepared and one for the side events. Side events were hosted by a number of countries and brought together scientists, economists, business leaders, youth, local politicians and indigenous people to speak on issues pertaining to climate change.

I attended lectures ranging from NASA satellite archeology to nuclear power to the practical ways to finance forest carbon programs for developing countries.

Meanwhile, I attended meetings with a group of international youth to develop an adaptation policy, including international aid for the least developed and most vulnerable states. Then, in the afternoon, there would be meetings for the U.S. youth to prepare lobbying statements for the government. About 500 U.S. youth attended the conference in order to call for stronger climate legislation. Every other day, we had meetings with Jonathan Pershing, the U.S. negotiator, where we were briefed on the U.S. policy stance and had opportunities to ask questions.

Protests were common. Outside the conference center a group of people advocated vegetarian lifestyles. A troupe of people dressed in red called for climate justice, and Green Peace handing out coffee. Inside the conference center, people would be protesting with signs and costumes and parade through the hallways.

By the second week, chaos turned to pandemonium. Security became much tighter and NGO’s access grew more restricted. I was one of the few who had managed to get access to the building, and I remember watching the news of the activities going on outside the Bella Center, while thousands of people tried to get in. It turned pretty violent and the police finally had to pepper spray the crowd to break it up.

During the second week, however, some major ideas began to crystallize for me. What began as an academic pursuit turned into a stark realization of the magnitude of the problem. Forty island nations will be gone, washed away into the sea, within my lifetime. Entire cultural identities will be erased. My children may never see coral reefs or glaciers. The inaction of our leaders now will contribute to problems my generation will be dealing with for a lifetime. It’s disgraceful and it’s frightening.  

Returning home

I arrived back from Copenhagen on Sunday to a cold and snowy world in New York. With two feet of snow on the ground, it was easy to make jokes that I helped solve global warming. Unfortunately, the fact of the matter is that we still have a long way to go and we are not acting quickly enough.  The outcome from COP15 left much to be desired.

Despite a rather depressing outcome, I did manage to find a beacon of light in the darkness. I am so impressed with the youth I’ve met at this conference. I’ve been surrounded by inspired, passionate people who are ready to see a change in the world; youth ready to step up and lead in a much needed environmental revolution.