D-Day for Climate Change - COP15 Opens in Copenhagen

Maurice Strong and actress Li Bingbing. Image Adam Deane.

In less than two hours – 1 p.m. Copenhagen time, 8 p.m. local – a special opening ceremony will officially launch the most important environmental conference since the 1997 convention that established the Kyoto Protocol, which will expire in 2012. Over the next week and a half, COP15, short for the 15th United Nations Climate Change Conference, will bring together officials from 193 countries, including at least 65 heads of state, in talks to reach an agreement to cut global greenhouse gas emissions.

Almost everyone agrees that our current carbon dioxide output is unsustainable, but how much we should reduce emissions is a divisive issue. The COP15 discussions will likely be contentious and embroiled with politics. And constructive? That’s to be determined.

All eyes will be on the U.S. and China, the world’s largest carbon emitters, neither of which signed the Kyoto Protocol. It was only on November 25 that President Obama committed to COP15 (he’s recently changed his travel plans to have a bigger presence during the conference), with Chinese premier Wen Jiabao following suit a day later. Both countries have made and will reiterate their carbon-cutting commitments, but the success or failure of COP15 largely rests on the extent to which these two countries follow through.

Setting aside the skepticism in some quarters, in Beijing this morning, a not-for-profit organization called 51Sim (“I Want” Sustainable Innovation Movement) hosted a press conference to raise awareness of COP15. “I really want to focus on inviting more foreign media friends to take a little bit of their time to contribute to the whole climate change [issue] by reporting on what we are doing in China,” said Hiu Ng, co-founder of a carbon-friendly microfinance platform called 51Give. “Because when the global community understands how many people are concerned in every single country, then they are more likely to feel that this is a stronger group.”

Among the attendees were Daniel Foa, co-chair of 51Sim, and representatives from the business world. Actress Li Bingbing gave a short pre-taped video message in which her message was basically, Go git’em.

The star of the event, though, was Maurice Strong, a renowned environmentalist who was Security-General of the seminal United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in 1972, which laid the foundation for a sustained environmental movement. That year, Strong spoke about global warming – he also said in a separate BBC interview that “doomsday is a possibility” – and was largely ignored; well, people are listening now.

Before hurrying away to catch a plane for Copenhagen – the timing of the press conference was symbolic though not necessarily practical – Strong fielded questions from four university students. Here’s what was said.

Student 1: Why are you still so passionate in engaging in programs for public good, such as stopping climate change, [even] after you have retired?

MS: Who said I had retired? [Audience laughter] How can anyone retire when the world faces its greatest risk ever? And there’re so many young people working hard that still need my generation to help them clean up the problems we have left them. [Applause]

Student 2: Can you say something to Chinese youth, as we are the new generation of the biggest developing country in the world?

MS: I have been coming to China for longer than most of you have lived. And I have great love of China. And I have seen many important moments in Chinese history. [But] I have not seen any initiative that impressed and encouraged me more than the initiative of 51Sim in bringing together the bright young people of China to work for the better future of China. If China has a better future, so does the world, because where China goes, that’s where the world is going to go in the period ahead.

Student 3: Do you consider the restriction of the emission of carbon dioxide a core method, and what’s your opinion on radical solution of global warming?

MS: The fact is that this is very simple science, but as you know, for most of the earth’s history, it has not been able to support a kind of life that we know. It’s only for a short period, and within very narrow margins. And we are now changing that. And if you change the filter, then you change the climate – get more storms, more droughts, more floods – and life itself is affected.

Already, China [has been affected] – Chinese farmers having to move away because of perpetual droughts, the rivers of China being affected by the reduction in the glaciers in the Himalayas. China is going to be one of the biggest victims and already the Chinese is experiencing these [problems]…

I congratulate the leaders of China for their initiative to commit China to developing a harmonious society guided by science for the benefit of all its people. And the leaders can lead, but it is the rest of China [who must also bear responsibility], and particularly the young people, because it’s in the lifetime of the young people here that the fate of the world and the future of China will be decided.

Cophenahagen is not the only step, but it is the main step. If we cannot make progress in Copenhagen, then the chances of success are very much reduced. [Applause]

Student 4: Some people say that many countries use this climate summit in Copenhagen to limit other countries’ politics. So what do you think of that view?

MS: Well, climate change has a political dimension everywhere. [In] some countries, the people are pushing their leaders, and this is why this [event] is so important. Here you have very important media people, they help to get the messages to the public, and it’s the public that influences leaders.

I hate to say, [people in the U.S. are] not so supportive. President Obama [is] very much committed to the issue but still has not convinced his people, and this is not a good sign for Copenhagen.

I am personally friendly with the United States, but we have to realize the United States and my country, Canada, and other industrial countries, they’re the ones that have created this climate change crisis. They’re the ones who have brought the greenhouse gas emissions up to the levels where they create the risk to the future of all.

China has had remarkable growth and now it is the biggest emitter of carbon, but overall, by the time China started to grow… the United States and others [had] put one trillion tons of carbon into the atmosphere. China is already taking action to restrict the growth, but China cannot be expected to bear the main responsibility. I think China’s leadership is very encouraging, and I know this generation, your generation, will continue that leadership because it is in your generation that the future will be decided.

But we old people, we cannot abdicate, we cannot go away as long as we can help you do your job.

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