Tag Archives: environment

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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Blame Canada

Today was my second day of research and it met with mostly the same outcome as Day 1. My collaborator and I decided to split duty — I went off to the Bella Center with the hope that an early departure would mean admission to the mainstage, and he went in search of grassroots excitement, joining our research assistant at Klimaforum for some activist action. Apparently about 3,000 other hopeful delegates and observers had precisely the same plan as me — after 2.5 hours in the cold, I pulled the chute early and joined the others across town.

The big buzz among the people whom I spoke to in line was the public relations bashing that Canada has been suffering during the past few days. Our home and native land has not had a good week.

1. First, there was the daring Greenpeace banner stunt on parliament, and then reports today about a noisy protest at the Canadian Embassy in London, where environmental activists removed the Canadian flag and soaked it in oil to express their displeasure with the government’s promotion of the Alberta oil sands.

2. Canada also found itself on the butt end of a very clever and brilliantly conceived hoax yesterday by the Yes Men, those merry pranksters from the U.S. who have made a big name for themselves by impersonating high profile corporate executives and government officials. I’ve blogged about the Yes Men in the past. The only thing that could have made this most recent situation even worse was over-reaction and hyperbole from the PMO. Here’s a link to last night’s piece on The National:

3. Canada has been a high achiever in the Climate Action Network’s “Fossil of the Day” awards, a daily ceremony that celebrates the “climate failures” of the worst behaving nations. And we’ve been running neck and neck with Australia, the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Iran. Don’t want to jinx our chances, but it’s looking good for a strong overall placement. Maybe this will take some of the pressure off of our Olympians.

4. Also yesterday came news about a leaked Cabinet document that provides compelling evidence about a government scheme to abandon some of the greenhouse gas reduction goals set out in its own 2007 green plan and allowing weaker targets, specifically for the oil and gas sector. The document reportedly states that the oil barons of Alberta would “appreciate” the government’s softer approach to emissions regulation.

5. Guardian columnist and environmental activist George Monbiot has had Canada in his cross-hairs for weeks. Whether it’s in his writing or in public commentary (live and on television), Monbiot has not held back his criticism of the Harper government and the oil sands project. In a recent column he described Canada as an “urgent threat to world peace” and a “thuggish petrol-state” that was placing global survival in peril. In a talk I heard him give today at Klimaforum, Monbiot urged Canadians in the audience to “go do the only responsible thing–get yourselves to Alberta and occupy the oil sands machinery.” Not surprisingly, this generated a roar of applause.

In isolation, these problems likely wouldn’t amount to very much. The Copenhagen conference is full of environmentally naughty nations and there are countless NGOs and activist groups working hard to bring their ecological transgressions to light. Yet combined these events (or more appropriately the actions and agendas they spotlight) invest activist criticism with empirical credibility. And let there be no mistake: the focus of these stunts and announcements is not our government and its delegation, but the media and, in particular, Canadians back at home.

In the end this may prove to be a bigger PR problem for the Canadian government than they may be willing to admit. I say this for a couple of reasons:

First, they illustrate that our government not only possesses an embarrassing record for dealing with GHG emissions. It also possesses an embarrassing capacity for dealing with criticism. Aside from the obvious intelligence and security gaps they reveal, these events show a government that appears wholly inadequate at the art of public diplomacy. Instead of providing a carefully considered response to what are evidently principled criticisms, they’ve taken the bully’s path by calling into question the patriotism of their own citizens. I suspect most Canadians will find the strategy distasteful and unnecessarily defensive. Loyalty is a cherished Canadian value; but so is honest and impassioned dissent.

Second, they reveal what is likely a concerted effort on the part of international activists and NGOs to focus on Canada as a country that may be vulnerable to domestic pressure if enough outside political pressure can be applied. It’s the blitzkrieg model: hit them hard, hit them fast and hit them often.

In the short term, I expect this isn’t going to amount to very much because the last thing any government will do is fold its hand in the face of such pressure. A well-oiled machine (yes, pun intended) such as the Conservative government is almost guaranteed to become even more entrenched while making very minor concessions (although whatever it chooses to do will almost certainly depend on the U.S. strategy). Yet, not even this government will be able to dismiss the impact these events are having on its image at home and abroad.

Tomorrow is a big day: Reclaim Power! Push for Climate Justice! is a morning long demonstration that is expected to turn out protesters in the thousands. There are rumours of a major police presence and it’s expected there will be a virtual lockdown of the public transit system to disrupt population flow. This could get very interesting, very quickly. We also have a few more interviews to do and some others to schedule for later in the week.

Dispatch #3 tomorrow.

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