Skip to main content

By some counts 100,000 demonstrated and marched for climate action today in Copenhagen. It was about heart not numbers.

By Keith Schneider
US Climate Action Network

COPENHAGEN – Great social movements are about the intelligence and vision of individuals, and the compelling strength of crowds. Both have been in abundance throughout the first week of the United Nations Climate Change Conference, and especially today.

Wearing polar bear costumes, red suits and dark glasses, black jeans and matching black tee-shirts, and carrying a multitude of colorful signs aimed at speeding the pace of negotiations and results – "Bla, Bla, Bla. Act Now," "There Is No Planet B," "The World Wants A Real Deal" – tens of thousands of people crowded into Parliament Square for a rally this afternoon, and thousands more joined them for a 4-mile march to the Bella Center to present negotiators with demands as potent as their numbers.

The swelling crowd, variously estimated by the police and organizers, as measuring between 60,000 and 100,000, was peaceful, insistent, and cold. Temperatures were just above Fahrenheit freezing, and a wind tugged at upturned collars. Those in attendance wore pins and badges and carried banners indicating they came from all over the world.

Ride From Australia

One demonstrator, Kim Nuygen, said he took 16 months to bike here from Australia. Most of those who attended today were young. A trio from Paris said they’d come to organize a film festival that next week features former Vice President Al Gore. A group of students from the University of Michigan said they wanted to see how theories of dispute resolution, climate science, and chemical engineering actually worked when subject to the vagaries of political ideology and social differences. Their conclusion: It ain’t pretty.

"I’d like to think that something good will come out of the next week," said Aubrey Parker, a University of Michigan student who was raised in the Traverse City region. "But I’m a little pessimistic. There’s a lot of bureaucracy. A lot of countries have come here with plans that are not progressive enough."

Marcia Lee, a 27-year-old graduate student in dispute resolution from Marquette University, in Wisconsin, said,  "I really wanted to see how negotiations work on the international scale. I just wanted to gather people’s stories and learn and understand what really breaks peoples hearts. If we can reach that heart level it is possible to start the conversation of how to heal that broken heart."

When pressed about what she meant, Lee said:  "There are four elements that everybody needs: The need to love and to be loved. The need to belong, and to be of use. If we can reach people at that level then a lot of things that separate us are changed. There is a lot of overlap to being human."

More Around The World

The Global Day of Action here coincided with thousands of other gatherings of climate activists around the world. Five thousand people demonstrated in New Delhi. Paris decorated its North Station yesterday and dispatched the Climate Express, which carried hundreds of people to join demonstrators in Copenhagen. Tweets from Melbourne said the climate action demonstration there attracted 50,000 people.

The purpose of the Copenhagen rally, march, and the candlelight vigil that ended the day was to amplify that essential sense that young people brought here, the idea that there must be a better way, and to provide mass to the individual voices of concern that have made the planet’s changing climate the signature issue of this generation. Speakers at the large and noisy rally pointed out time and again there is a vast difference in perception and language between those marching today, and those inside the Bella Center, where negotiators from 192 nations are racing a December 18 deadline to reach agreement.

The Heart vs. The Numbers

Inside, for the most part, the ornate language of diplomacy joins with complex science to set an often confusing table for talking about numbers. There are differing views among delegates about how much carbon should be removed from the emissions of industrial and non-industrial nations; 20 percent? 40 percent? 0 percent? And when: 10 years? 25 years? 50 years? How much should be invested to do that: $10 billion annually; $195 billion annually within a decade? How many acres of forest need to be preserved? How should uses of land change? And can the world hold the level of warming to 2 degrees Celsius, an increased viewed by many here as manageable, or will the climate shift be 4 degrees or more by late in the century, a level thought to be a threat to the species?

Outside, in the streets of Copenhagen, the words and phrases shouted through loudspeakers and in the mix of song and music carried in the wind was of people facing urgent consequences of climate change, and calls for an end to delay. A woman from Ghana opened the rally with a story of how her village, economically robust at the start of the decade, and easily able to feed itself, had been under siege in recent years by killing floods that gave rise to plagues of mosquitoes. The two growing seasons that used to exist have been cut in half to an uncertain one. After the floods came droughts and then floods and erosion and an end to bountiful harvests. Sickness has brought unexpected deaths. She blamed the fluky weather and its sober consequences on climate change. Not once did she use a number to describe the compelling misfortune of her family and her village.

Vigil and a Plea Heard Globally

The plaintive and plain spoken messages seem to be heard inside the Bella Center. The march today concluded there with a vigil. Sails that demonstrators carried from Parliament Square were ceremoniously handed to Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the conference’s organizer.

Early in the week, Tuvalu, the tiny Pacific Island nation of 12,000 residents, three of whom are here as climate negotiators, raised its voice to insist on faster action on climate that was legally binding for all nations. The proceedings slowed considerably, but did not stop, as the issue was elevated by a nation that lies four feet above sea level and understands that its fate will be determined by what happens in Copenhagen.
Indeed, the competition is fierce between developing nations that are the first to confront the immediacy of climate change, and the industrial nations that have varying levels of conviction about the consequences.

Negotiators found a way later in the week to work through, at least temporarily, Tuvalu’s concern and a draft text of a final agreement was circulated on Friday that was met greeted favorably by many nations. Environment ministers arrive this weekend to carry the negotiations closer to a final agreement next week, and the UNFCC is telling NGO representatives that a number of heads of state are planning to arrive days earlier than planned.

That is an indication of the anticipation building here that something worthwhile will come out of these two weeks in December.  The Bella Center itself has gotten so jammed that its capacity of 15,000 people is close to being exceeded. The UNFCCC yesterday alerted participants that it will initiate a new system of issuing what it called "secondary cards" to keep the packed center from being too full. The new badging requirement will take effect on Tuesday.

"Fate of My Country"
As demonstrators and negotiators converged at the Bella Center at the march’s end today, the text became public of a dramatic statement in the plenary session late in the week by one of Tuvalu’s diplomats. Circulated among NGO groups and read on Blackberrys and IPhones, the clear-headed plea for action by one man from a little-known nation reflected the will of many of those who’ve come to Copenhagen.

"This is not just an issue of Tuvalu," he said. "Millions of people around the world are affected. Over the last few days I’ve received calls from all over the world offering faith and hope that we can reach a conclusion on this issue.

"Madame President, this is not a media trip for me. I have refused to take media calls on this issue. As a humble servant of the government of Tuvalu, I have to make a strong appeal to you that we consider this matter properly.

"I woke this morning. I was crying. That’s not easy for a grown man to admit. The fate of my country rests in your hands."

Keith Schneider, a journalist specializing in environmental policy, is the media and communications director at the US Climate Action Network. Reach him at

Originally posted to keithschneider on Sat Dec 12, 2009 at 10:31 AM PST.

Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags


More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

Click here for the mobile view of the site