What are the delegates actually doing at the climate change conference in Copenhagen?

What are the delegates actually doing at the climate change conference in Copenhagen?

What are the delegates actually doing at the climate change conference in Copenhagen?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Dec. 8 2009 6:08 PM

A Day in the Life of a Climate Change Delegate

What are they actually doing in Copenhagen?

A man watches an animated projection showing the different acidity levels of the oceans, inside the U.S. Center 09 during the second day of the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2009 on Dec. 8, 2009 in Copenhagen, Denmark.
A man watches an animated projection showing the different acidity levels of the oceans, inside the U.S. Center 09 during the second day of the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2009 on Dec. 8, 2009 in Copenhagen, Denmark

The United Nations Climate Change Conference opened in Copenhagen, Denmark, on Monday and will last until Dec. 18. For all the hoopla, most observers don't believe that any legally binding agreement on emissions will come out of the summit. What is it that delegates do for a week and a half while they're not actually setting compulsory reduction goals?

Talk, interpret, spin, schmooze; repeat. Not only does no one expect a firm global plan, but many delegations submit their proposals long before the conference actually begins. The European Union, for example, announced its intended position on emissions reductions almost two years ago and passed an internal energy deal in 2008. Still, delegates will try to set the stage for a new agreement, scheduled to kick in when the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012. Right now they're dealing with a 200-page draft, with frequent bracketed sections indicating unresolved issues. In the first week of the conference, all the delegates will comment on the text and provide suggestions. Then representatives from a core group—the United States, China, the European Union—will get together to work out deals on their own.

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Whenever someone floats a major proposal—either for the framework as a whole, or for a smaller issue like deforestation—the other delegations and NGOs have their economists and strategists to "crunch the numbers" and determine an appropriate response. Whether they support it or not, they'll make their case to other delegates—and the press corps—in the corridors of the conference center or over lunch. Actual deal-making mostly takes place in private rooms accessible only to negotiators with red badges.

You don't need a red badge to attend the back-to-back lectures and roundtables that fill the schedule between around 8 in the morning and 8 at night. (Though some of these events are press only.) Organized by the United Nations itself, and by various countries and NGOs, these are populated by a mixed crowd of unofficial but interested observers and delegates—who take notes and represent their countries' interests during Q&A sessions. There's a wide range of talks, from Greenpeace's "Yes, He Can! How Obama Can Deliver Stronger Emissions Reductions" to daily briefings from China and the G77.

As a sideline to this official business, members of various interest groups try their best to get media attention. Greenpeace organizes protests and often has someone scale a wall to hang a sign. This year, the World Wildlife Fund set up two mock gateways: One red, symbolizing the dangers of climate change, the other green, representing a climate accord to address it. (The Explainer knows this because the New York Times covered it. Hence the verdict: successful stunt.)

There's also some downtime for delegates and observers alike—though probably not for the press, since they have to cover the R&R, too. After all, the annual U.N. climate change conference is sort of the Woodstock for eco-activists and bureaucrats. At night, there are receptions, and local universities put on shows for all the tourists. On Saturday, there's a forestry issues convention that's not technically part of the conference but which is well-attended. On Sunday, an open day, many delegates and unofficial observers are planning to visit Samsø, an island community that gets 100 percent of its electricity from wind power and 75 percent of its heat from solar power and biomass energy.

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Explainer thanks Thomas Legge of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

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Juliet Lapidos is a staff editor at the New York Times.