Tag Archives: COP15

A Nation of Shopkeepers?

With the climate talks now monopolized by senior political officials, and NGOs essentially excluded from the process of consultation, we decided to hit the streets of Copenhagen to gauge the reactions of ordinary Danes to the do or die event happening in their midst. But on a bitterly cold and damp winter day, the prospect of staying outside for more than a few minutes was simply too unappealing. The result? Talk to people working in the various stores lining the main route from our flat to the central train station about their thoughts on climate change, COP15 and the violent reactions of police to recent protests, particularly yesterday’s melee at the Bella Centre where the official meetings are taking place.

Reactions were mixed on some of these items but less so on others. And some of the responses came to us as a surprise, while others were probably expected. It is certainly the case that the climate change conference “is all anyone is talking about right now,” said a manager of a women’s clothing shop, a women in her mid-50s.”It’s entirely unavoidable,” said another, the owner of a local groceria, “unless you choose to shut off the TV.”

The biggest point of agreement was that although the police’s rough tactics have been discomforting, they have been mostly justified in using heavy force. Video footage from various protests and police raids of activists over the course of the last two weeks leave little doubt about the willingness or ability of the Danish police to use strong-arm tactics against (mainly youthful) activists. Check out the clips from my previous post, and here are two new ones:

Source: EUX TV

Source: CYDCopenhagen

If the local retail sector is anything to go by, the heavy-handed police tactics seem to be accepted as both inevitable and unavoidable, particularly against those who are seen as “trouble-making outsiders,” as one merchant put it. As for the conference, those we spoke to saw it chiefly as an inconvenience at best, and disruptive at worst. Business has been bad because of the global recession, but at this time of year there should at least be a faint hope of an uptick in sales as people warmed to the season of gift giving.

“Why not hold it in January, after the Christmas season when we hope to do significant business,” said the owner of a local flower shop, a man in his late-30s.

“My customers are scared and not spending any money. This conference has been a nightmare for my sales,” exclaimed another.

“All I care about is paying for my electricity, paying my staff their salary, and providing for my kids. I have no time to think of anything else,” stated a third.

And the issue of climate change itself? Danes have an international reputation for being easy-going, compassionate, tolerant, and (most environmentally telling of all) bicycle loving. Even in sub zero temperatures with a generous coating of snow on the ground, Copenhagen is full of cyclists riding to work, to shop, and to school.

If nothing else, this should be a nation of people keenly interested in climate change and its mitigation. Although the issue did spark some interest, for the most part the general view from the petite bourgeois class is that people have enough on their hands worrying about getting by and making a living on a daily basis. “Honestly, I don’t give it very much thought,” said the clerk of a high end furniture store, a man in his late-20s. “Of course, it’s important to be worried about the climate, but we have other problems.”

As for concern about the impacts of climate change on the developing world (a dominant theme of the talks)? It barely registered on the radar. For us this was both surprising and disquieting, but it was a consistent thread in the discussions nevertheless.

When Napoleon Bonaparte dismissed the English as a nation of shopkeepers, he meant to suggest that because they were fixated on short term financial gain, they would not offer much resistance when push came to shove. But as he learned to his regret, shopkeepers can be highly resistant.

Although we are careful to avoid generalizing from these discussions to the broader population, there’s a potential lesson to be learned for the climate change movement and their supporters in the political class: it is important to continue making the case that climate change is fundamentally a moral and social justice issue that has far-reaching and dangerous consequences, particularly for vulnerable people in the developing world. However, it is also crucial to pay attention to the concerns, economic or otherwise, of ordinary citizens in those countries that will bear the lion’s share of the financial cost of fixing a problem that they may well only be partially responsible for creating. The longer climate change is treated as an either/or issue, the longer it will take to mobilize the domestic support in those countries that have the power and ability to make a difference.

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Welcome to the new Denmark

Frustrated by our lack of access to the formal meetings at Bella Center we took to the streets this morning as participant observers at the Reclaim Power! protest. This was a demonstration organized by Climate Justice Action, a Danish umbrella group that has been responsible for many of the spontaneous acts of civil disobedience during the past week.

According to the activists, the demonstration was designed to draw attention to what many here are describing as the “systematic exclusion” of civil society groups from the discussions. We’ve met with numerous people who have expressed  frustration over what they call an “unjust and undemocratic UN process.” They feel  passionately that developed countries, working in consort with the UN and under corporate pressure, have intentionally sidelined discussion of their top issues and denied them an opportunity to be heard.

The march began downtown early in the morning and gathered momentum over the course of a few hours. By the time we linked up with the protesters around 10:30AM they were an estimated 4,000 strong and were making their way to the Bella Center. The stated objective, very well publicized in advance, was to “reclaim the climate talks” from those with no interest in meaningful action but whose only motivation was the protection of corporate and political power.

The mood was forceful but peaceful. There was a massive media turnout and the police appeared to be cooperating.

This all changed very quickly.

By the time the demonstration reached its destination, a suburban corridor approximately 1 kilometre from the Bella Center, protest leaders began directing the crowd to push against the police line and to join their “brothers and sisters” at the main event.

Don’t be afraid, we are strong in our numbers, demand your voices be heard!

The whole world is watching, demand justice now!

And our personal favourite:

You’re sexy, you’re cute, take off your riot suit!

Equipped with billy clubs, helmets, pepper spray, and tear gas, police responded with brute force. After surrounding the protesters they declared the demonstration “illegal.” Next, they informed the crowd they would be moved forcefully if they did not leave on their own. As the police vans advanced, the protesters linked arms. Skirmishes ensued, pepper spray was shot indiscriminately, organizers were targeted and captured. Within minutes the demonstration had been transformed from a peaceful march into a violent and ugly mess.

We were fortunate enough to evade the worst of the melee. Observing from approximately 50 metres behind the police line, we struck up conversation with a very friendly local Dane who had also come to observe the demonstration. He was clearly distraught by what he had been watching.

“Welcome to the new Denmark,” he said.

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Freezer Burn

My collaborator and I arrived to our rental flat in Copenhagen late last night after 14 hours of red eye transit. It was exhausting – little to no sleep, runway delays, lousy food and the in-flight drama of a fainter (the poor fellow turned out just fine after a little rest and some water). I also happened to run late for a dinner meeting with a Carleton colleague who generously offered to spend his last night in Denmark briefing me on his observations from week #1. Fortunately my very trusty research assistant was already here and able to keep him in good company until I arrived.

The plan for today was to get ourselves grounded and focused: pick up our access badges, meet up with some of our NGO contacts, arrange meetings for later in the week, get a feel for the ‘scene’ and context.

You know what they say about the best laid plans…

In a classic paper on the practical challenges of qualitative research, Clint Sanders described the fears and anxieties that ethnographers feel when they set out to conduct fieldwork. Sanders conceptualizes the process of experiencing fieldwork discomfort using the metaphor of “rope burns”.

Inspired by Sanders’ article the theme for the day’s frigid fieldwork is “freezer burn.”

The locus of all the major political activity at COP15 is the Bella Centre, a 122,000 m2 conference and convention space that is hosting the high profile diplomatic talks. The website boasts the capacity to hold up to 20,000 participants — unofficial reports from today suggest that as many as 40,000 delegates and observers had been through the Centre by 4pm local time.

Unfortunately I was not among them.

My collaborator and I arrived to the Bella Centre around 11am where the local temperature hovered slightly above zero degrees celsius. I expected we would wait one, two, maybe even three hours before getting inside. As a veteran of sleep-outs for Grateful Dead concert tickets, this  did not seem like a very big deal. The lineup snaked approximately 800 metres and contained an estimated 1,500 people from all parts of the world: Australia, Canada, the U.S., Britain, Israel, Brazil and Mexico, to name just a few. We were researchers, scientists, NGOs and  citizens without any institutional affiliation.

After 2 hours we progressed about 200 metres; another hour and another 200 metres. By 4:30pm local time we were within 10 metres of the entrance threshold but now part of a massive swarm of people all huddling together to stay warm.  It was then that we finally received word that there would be no more delegate passes handed out today. A collective groan and then off we went in search of warmth and some food.

While this experience left me feeling numb from both the cold and frustration the day wasn’t a total bust. Thanks to intermittent WiFi access, I was able to periodically check my Twitter feed and had the good fortune of sharing news about how Canada’s Environment Minister got Punk’d (very clever stunt, indeed) the protest by African delegates inside the meetings, and other side-shows. Of particular interest was a team of anthropologists from the University of Copenhagen who were interviewing people in line about their use of mobile media. Apparently they had been hired by the technology firm that designed this website to see whether people were using it and how.

We also made some very useful research connections. We spent a great deal of time talking with Julia Olmstead, a senior associate with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. ITAP is a Minnesota-based NGO that is doing some great work on agriculture and climate change policy in the U.S., and Julia is a graduate of the highly esteemed J-School at the U-C Berkeley where she had the good fortune of working closely with Michael Pollan, author of the critically acclaimed books Food Rules, In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma. We had a stimulating conversation about the strategic dilemmas involved in establishing and maintaining campaign partnerships and the importance of evidence-based research for sound public policy.

The focus of my trip is to examine activist and NGO communication strategies, so I was particularly interested in the demonstrations taking place. One demonstration caught and sustained my attention. It was led by a small contingent of youth climate justice activists and took place approximately 10 metres from where the photo above was taken.

I was especially fascinated by the ‘production work’ of the camera crew, whom I assumed to be members of the organization. After a very quick chat, I learned that they were not in fact activists but Australian journalists who had come to Copenhagen to shoot a documentary. The audio is a little low so what you are unable to hear is the coaching by the journalists, advising the activists to “walk slowly” and “chant with more passion.” The segment runs 1:48 minutes long — it was the third take.

(Ed. note: you’ll have accept your humble blogger’s apologies for the shaky camera work — I was freezing by this point — and for the inverted viewing, apparently caused by something wonky with the Daily Motion upload — I’ll try to correct tomorrow).

We are hopeful for a more fruitful second day of research. An NGO contact has reportedly secured a badge for Bella Centre access, although it’s unclear whether I’ll have to stand in line again to pick it up. All the political galacticos start arriving tomorrow and security will only get tighter, and the lineups longer.

We also have other options. There is the parallel event at Klimaforum, ground control for most of the international NGOs that has already hosted talks by Naomi Klein and Elizabeth May, and will tomorrow feature George Monbiot. And there is Fresh Air Centre, where the world’s “top bloggers” spend their nights filing the day’s stories. Wednesday we are attending a full-day of direct action called Reclaim Power! Push for Climate Justice!

There is lots for us to see and plenty to do – stay tuned for more news, pics and properly uploaded video. And please share your comments and feedback!

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Global Warming and the Problem of Public Opinion

We hear references to “public opinion” all the time but we rarely reflect on what it is, and why it’s important.

Political thinkers have struggled over the meaning of public opinion since antiquity. Plato was deeply distrustful of the public, while Aristotle believed “the many … may yet taken all together be better than the few.” To Macchiavelli, “public opinion” had no moral value, yet strategically it was crucial for political leaders to pay attention to it as a failure to do so could imperil one’s rule.

Around the turn of the 20th century, the political commentator and journalist Walter Lippmann argued that public opinion has little conceptual utility because most citizens have neither the time nor interest to truly understand issues in their complexity. The philosopher John Dewey disagreed, arguing that citizens are perfectly capable of understanding their world – nevertheless, their ability to do so is subjected to different forms of “organized manipulation” (i.e. advertising, PR, etc.).

All of these thinkers were writing about “public opinion” long before polling became a ubiquitous feature of the political and media landscapes.

Whether we are talking about environmental issues, foreign affairs, health-care reform or national security, actors on all sides commonly deploy “public opinion” as a weapon to advance their arguments, as if to proclaim that they speak on behalf of “the public” where others do not. Most agree upon the strategic benefits of such an approach, but has anyone considered the consequences?

Take the issue of climate change.

In 2008, Health Canada commissioned the polling firm Environics to survey Canadians about their understanding of climate change. The resultant report suggests that climate change will have a direct effect on the health of Canadians. Given that “most Canadians” believe climate change is taking place and that “a significant proportion” can see evidence of it in their own communities, the time for the agency to act is now.

Such findings are routinely challenged by others claiming to speak for the public. The Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente argued recently that citizens are “cooling” to the notion of global warming and that politicians ought to carefully pay attention to public opinion in advance of meeting to discuss binding international agreements. Wente cites several polls that show, for example, how concern for the environment in Canada has fallen relative to other issues (e.g. crime, the economy). She then proceeds from the national to the international scale, arguing that citizens around the world have acquired weak appetites for action, especially for endorsing what she calls “Kyoto-style” international agreements.

The environmental community also uses “public opinion” for its side. Take for example Jim Hoggan, a well-known Canadian PR professional, environmentalist, and author. In March 2009, Hoggan argued that “over 90 per cent of Americans agree that the U.S. should act rapidly to combat global warming, including 34 per cent who feel the U.S. should make a large-scale effort even if it costs a lot of money.” The David Suzuki Foundation (on whose board of directors Hoggan serves as chair) reported in 2006 that Canadians were totally confused about the causes of climate change, attributing the problem to the hole in the ozone layer more than any other factor. A big part of the problem with public understanding about climate change, Hoggan asserts, is that citizens get unreliable information and no longer know whom they should trust. In his recent book, Hoggan reports survey data that shows that 82 per cent of people polled trust scientists, while 66 per cent trust environmental organizations and television weather reporters equally. By contrast, only 47 per cent trust the mainstream media. For Hoggan “the media—print or broadcast—have not succeeded in transmitting even the most rudimentary explanation of the actual cause of climate change.” Hoggan also notes that a whopping 81 per cent of people believe that PR experts deceive the public. Surely this can’t be good news for a PR man on a mission to change public perceptions about environmental issues.

What is one to do in the face of such competing claims about the state of public opinion? I suggest that the best thing we can do is ignore the polls altogether. Indeed, the fundamental problem with the debate about public opinion is that it’s a zero-sum game that only leads us down a path to ambivalence.

In a provocative critique, the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argued, “public opinion does not exist.” By this he did not mean public opinion does not come to have objective qualities – rather, his instructive point was that public opinion is a social construction, and a dangerous one at that. Bourdieu’s chief concern was with how polls are reported and the fact that they often carry more weight than they should. This happens, he argues, not only because the media are incapable of dealing with complexity, but also because we do not reflect carefully enough on how “public opinion” is shaped and represented. In other words, his concern is not with the inherent worth of polls but with how they are used. For Bourdieu, “public opinion” is at best a projection of what the media and political elite think about. At worst, it is a rhetorical tool that organized groups (in politics, the economy, and civil society) wield in their respective efforts to exert power and control over public discourse and policy.

I do not believe that polls have absolutely no role to play in how we talk about urgent issues like climate change. Nor do I endorse a nihilistic argument that we ought to just tune out entirely and let the chips fall where they may. The problem is that “public opinion” has been invested with a scientific power that obscures its social and political context – it has been granted far more value and authority than is deserved.

As the sociologist Earl Babbie might have put it, the idea of “public opinion” is probably useful in the context of scientific research, but in the world of culture and politics it could only ever be a “figment of our imaginations.” He did not mean that such concepts are entirely useless, just that we need to remember that the important question is: what do we do with our concepts?

Rather than assenting to what “public opinion” data tell us citizens want our political leaders to do, I think we desperately need to generate new forms of public expression, to raise critical questions about climate change instead of simply responding to those questions posed by others. Until we do so, we are liable to be governed only by the polls, and by those who sponsor them.

** Note: this column also appears under a different title in The Mark News here

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