Two Views from Copenhagen
Reflections on the 15th United Nations climate change convention
April 1, 2010
Brett Shollenberger ’11 connects in the main hall of the Bella Center. “The globe is missing the Maldives and the Cook Islands, two low-lying nations that are at risk,” he notes. “The Maldives in particular held a cabinet meeting underwater (in a submarine) in October to illustrate the danger they face from climate change.”
Finding the Light
By Brett Shollenberger ’11
In early December, I traveled with 30,000 other people to Copenhagen, Denmark, and, strangely, travel agents around the world didn’t note the coldest mass vacation choice in recorded history. Up in the air, we talked of potential carbon offsets to mitigate the impact of our flight, reviewed the positions of parties to the convention and dreamed of goals we’d personally like to see achieved.
At about 1 a.m. (7 a.m. in Denmark, according to that snappy world clock built into the seatback in front of me), I could see the entire United Kingdom lit up beneath me, and I was astounded. From 38,003 feet, (again, snappy computer screen), the country that had once seemed impossibly large—which I had previously seen only on maps, and what sense did those really give a person of size or distance anyway?—now fit into my window that measured no more than a foot across.
There they were: England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, outlined in thousands of tiny lights. Individ-ually, the lights told their stories: a British family with the porch light on, a Scottish business burning the midnight oil. Together the lights were pointillistic—enough little blips of paint to render the profiles of each country in finer detail than the map of my guidebook.
You don’t have to be a child to be astounded by such a sight. It is amazing. In the dead of night the fact that I could see anything at all, much less four countries, bespeaks a single sentence that mad scientists have longed to say: We have taken over the world.
We have the power to change everything. One hundred years ago I could not have seen such a sight; today I can. But here’s the kicker: We don’t just have the power for global change; we’ve used it. The planet is covered in our lights.
That morning I wrote a few sentences in my journal: “If this convention is about this experience, this looking out the plane window and recognizing that we’ve covered the Earth in lights, then I think we stand a chance. Then I don’t think the lights are a bad thing.”
We’ve been reluctant to acknowledge that we’ve changed the world, perhaps even a little scared to admit it. The planet always seemed too vast or too old, its systems literally unchanged since the beginning of human time. How could we possibly change the wind? The tides? The sun? Those realms were reserved for deities alone. But the world is smaller than it used to be.
I left Pennsylvania and arrived in Denmark within seven hours, minus some hellish hours in airport security, and when I arrived I spoke with friends in Italy, Germany and the United States in a matter of seconds. I saw their faces projected on video screens, and they saw a conference center hundreds or thousands of miles away.
I kept thinking how four countries fit in less than a foot of window. That sight filled me with confusion. I was simultaneously terrified and relieved.
Thirty thousand people cared enough to sojourn to Copenhagen, and only 15,000, one-half, were allowed into the conference. Fifteen thousand people knowingly jumped in planes, trains and automobiles to stand outside or protest in the city as a symbol of solidarity. Thousands of teenagers and young adults sported bright-orange T-shirts begging the question “How old will you be in 2050?” as a reminder that individual delegates’ decisions would change the lives of an entire generation. Church bells rang 350 times every day throughout the city—a constant acknowledgement of the safe number of parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere. And as the president of the Maldives reminded us constantly in his speeches, we’re currently at 385.
A binding agreement in Copenhagen was infinitely pressing; time is running out, and the deal we reached was far too weak to be effective, but this simply means we must work harder. The time is now to acknowledge our influence over the world, and in that sense, I think we’ve started down the road to success.
If there’s one thing to take away from this conference, it’s the classic rehab mantra: The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. While acknowledging the problem delivers the potential for recovery, it also provides the potential to make an Earth far better than we’ve ever known. Let’s dream the big dream; let’s be the generation to make our lights into something different, not a symbol of what we’ve destroyed but a symbol of what we’ve made. Together we can.
Brett Shollenberger ’11, an English major from North Wales, Pa., was among 15 students who joined Center for Environmental and Sustainability Education staff members Neil Leary and Sarah Brylinsky for two weeks in Copenhagen. All take part in the yearlong course, Kyoto to Copenhagen: Negotiating the Future of the Planet, which focuses on policy development, climate change and public communication.
Shaping Our Future
By Danielle “Doni” Hoffman ’10
The what? My friends’ curious grins indicated their confusion when I told them about my attendance at an official United Nations conference in December. “You know, the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15),” I explained, “The international climate-change negotiations in Denmark, where delegates from all over the globe converged to discuss how the nations around the world might respond to the looming crisis posed by global warming.” My explanations proved futile. Many friends hadn’t been exposed to information that would lead them to understand the caliber and importance of COP15; they were barely impressed.
I have always been a firm believer in the power of grass-roots, human-scale change and am a self-proclaimed skeptic of top-down, large-scale decision-making and action. In my 20-some years, I’ve found the latter usually to be a symptom reliever that covers up the roots of some of our deepest problems. Accordingly, I was apprehensive about finding myself in Copenha-gen’s Bella Center with 15,000 people, many of them VIPs from all around the world.
Although I had doubts about a positive outcome, I remained optimistic and was excited about the learning opportunities within the center’s walls. My 14 classmates and I spent our days running around the center, trying to balance our attendance at side events with interviewing delegates, scientists and other experts in their fields; wandering around the hundreds of constituent booths; and attending plenary sessions, all while keeping our eyes peeled for a free bite to eat. Every day, we saw actions—visual communication about key issues such as sea-level rise and Reducing Emis-sions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD).
We heard firsthand how Kiribati and Tuvalu, two of the lowest-lying islands in the world, will lose land due to rising seas within the next decade. We saw how tirelessly indigenous people from forests around the world are fighting to maintain their social and civic rights as REDD gains momentum. I would return to the hostel each night full of new information, hoping for a 10-minute reprieve so I could process what I had learned and make some sense of it.
All that I experienced and discovered in those two weeks—and the preceding semester in my course, Kyoto to Copenhagen: Negotiating the Future of the Planet—is difficult to quantify, translate and share so soon after the COP15. I’m quite sure I’ll continue to digest and process what I learned for many years to come.
After attending the conference it is clear to me that scientists and politicians from around the world agree that global climate change is real and acknowledge that, if unchecked, the changes will have unprecedented, disastrous consequences for humans. We can’t know exactly what will happen, but the scientific community can predict possible scenarios with measurable accuracy. If we continue business as usual and do nothing to decrease our cultural dependence on carbon-based energy, our future appears grim indeed.
It is easy to overlook the severity of our situation when it is presented in words—droughts, severe storms, flooding, waves of heat and cold, desertification, sea-level rise. All are frightening terms, but how will they really affect us? In the United States, we have other things to worry about, like rising unemployment rates, health insurance, feeding our families and heating our homes. Climate change, with all of its promise of disaster, is ethereal. But we cannot afford to ignore the truth any longer: Climate change is real and will exacerbate our current problems while creating a mess of new challenges. It is imperative that we use the opportunity we currently have to shape our future.
My experience at COP15 has further solidified my belief that change must begin with us: with families, schools, communities, towns, cities and states. Assemblies like COP15 are important, but their reach achieves nothing without the will and resolve of everyday people. Our friends, neighbors and communities must be introduced to climate change and its dire implications, taught about the solutions we currently have and provided with the tools and creative license to dream up new, innovative lifestyle changes and appropriate technological answers.
I hope that next year, at the mention of COP16 and Mexico City, both my friends and yours will have a solid understanding of its importance and a curiosity they express with more than a smile.
Danielle “Doni” Hoffman ’10, an environmental-studies major, has worked with local foods movements, first at the College Farm, and more recently in her native Honesdale, Pa., at a farm owned and operated by a group of young farmers dedicated to creating sustainable lifestyles on local and regional levels. She is an intern for the Center for Environmental and Sustainability Education and house manager of the Center for Sustainable Living (Treehouse).
View video footage of the students’ experiences in Copenhagen.
Doni Hoffman ’10 (right) and Philip Rothrock ’10 pose with Claire Spoors from Global Witness after interviewing her about REDD issues. In the Bella Center’s exhibition area, Philip Rothrock ’10 and Doni Hoffman ’10 interview He Yi, marketing and development director of Shanshui (China) Conservation Center.