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Early Days, Late Days 

Hope and trepidation at the opening of the UN climate change summit


Being at COP 15 (officially, the Fifteenth Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) in Copenhagen is an experience for which there is no adequate precedent. Today (Tuesday, Dec. 8) is the second day of a two-week conference that will reach its apotheosis only on the last days, when many of the world's leaders arrive, including Barack Obama. It is far too early to have developed anything resembling a cohesive view of the procedures but it may be worthwhile to make a few observation.

COP 15 operates intellectually, as it must, on a grander scale than perhaps any human endeavor ever. The physical dimensions of the place inspire awe. The room in which I sit preparing this report, the Media Center, is 375 feet long and 125 feet wide. Long tables fill the full length of the room. On each table are rows of evenly spaced laptop computers, almost 1,000 of them, to be used exclusively for reporting about this conference. (The ratio of reporters to conference attendees approaches 10 to one it is an aberrant moment when at least one person within view is not being interviewed.)

Immediately outside this room, there are halls upon spacious halls where tens of thousands of people mill around engaged in earnest conversation. Or they are sitting through long meetings in one of the endless side rooms, all working together on different pieces of the same puzzle and all in a single structure almost as broad as an Iowa farm. It is indeed humbling.

Beyond humbling to the point of mild intimidation is the extreme reliance on absolute state-of-the-art communications technology. The symbol of the conference is a globe cross-hatched with lines running in many directions, looking otherworldly, like the canals of Mars. It is a space-age abstract that would be entirely cold if it weren't impressed softly on the page, making the whole seem ethereal and delicate. It is a quietly captivating design, but if one seeks for meaning in these things, one can't ignore the implications of an earth overlain with circuitry and reduced to electronic vectors.

It fits well in the rarified medium of this climate-controlled high-tech hall given over these two weeks to those who would save the world with Blackberries and laptops and digital cameras, all of which intersect and can be synchronized to give one at least the illusion of accomplishing the work of planetary survival.

Meanwhile, nearer to downtown Copenhagen, there is another event altogether that runs coterminous with COP 15. It is called Klimaforum, and some refer to it as the Peoples' Forum -- a formula that implies that COP 15 is more corporate, cautious and business-driven, which it no doubt has to be, given its political environment and sources of support.

Klimaforum happens on an odd sprawling physical exercise facility called DGI Byen that has one of the world's all-time great swimming pools, among other distinctions. Clearly established as the purveyor of alternative perspectives, the Klimaforum seems to be motivated by the sense of urgency about climate change that seems to be felt by environmentally oriented people who live, if not closer to the Earth, at least with less money and less insulation -- more aware, perhaps, of the reality of our vulnerability.

Which brings us to the central issues at both COP 15 and the Klimaforum. These are lumped generally under one or another of two terms: "mitigation" and "adaptation." "Mitigation" is the catchword to describe what the developed nations are going to have to do about of their own Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHG's), which are already destabilizing climate systems worldwide and especially in the global south. The hope is that carbon dioxide levels can be reduced sufficiently to avoid the absolute calamities that runaway emissions will surely bring. "Adaptation" is what the developing nations are going to need to do to help them avoid greater suffering under the climate-induced damage that is already happening. Also, it takes in the idea that their development is going to have to follow cleaner lines than did our own.

These issues are generally understood and accepted by the parties. What is not agreed upon yet is where the money is going to come from to make them work. The developing nations, especially those in the global South, believe that the wealthier nations should not only reduce their emissions dramatically but also pony up a significant share of the costs of adaptation, since they are the architects -- albeit unwittingly -- of much of what others are now suffering. They have, on their path to wealth, overloaded the atmosphere. (Tonight there was a demonstration on the main hall at COP 15 by the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance, which demanded that the developed countries take the steps necessary to reduce carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere to the point where temperature increases do not reach the level of 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels.)

Above all this fray, though, when you look more closely at the people themselves on the opening days of COP 15 and the Klimaforum something large and positive begins to take shape. Here are individuals from every far-flung corner of the world (193 countries) quietly at work, business-like, intent on solving this shared puzzle. Seeing all of these people gathered together working to assure our future, the future of our children and grandchildren, has been impressive. The stages of disagreement, partisan divide and rancor are still ahead -- the long hours of tedium, the wading-through of disagreement and self-interest. During the hopeful opening days of the summit, it seemed like these obstacles could be overcome with enough effort. The big question is whether they can be overcome in time.

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