Media audiences across the world took notice as Copenhagen police arrested hundreds of activists at the peak of the United Nations climate conference that ended last Saturday.
The variety of non-violent actions, from candlelight vigils to hunger
strikes, as well as the sheer size of the demonstrations, served as
constant reminders that a concerned public expected the conference to
result in dramatic action to confront climate change.
"The standard way of doing activism is not working. We need dramatic
action and personal action and to do what we can as individuals," said
Anna Keenan, an Australian Youth Climate Coalition organizer. "Writing one more petition is not going to change the world."
The two-week U.N. conference may have ended in disappointment for most
climate activists, who travelled from nearly every continent, but the
gathering marked a historic high point for a movement that has swelled
in strength and recognition in recent years.
An estimated 45,000 people attended the climate negotiations. This
included greater participation from government delegations, business
groups, and academics, in addition to larger turnout from campaigners.
The "youth" delegation, representatives of the below-30 age group,
increased its presence at forums that were once attended only by
bureaucrats and scientists. Youth organizers said that their volunteers
registered some 1,000 attendants, twice the participation compared to a
The activist crowds were relentless: they raised their voices during
negotiation sessions, press briefings, and lunch breaks; they scattered
in the corners of conference rooms and gathered in mobs to block
passageways; and they screamed loudly for adaptation aid, among other
demands. Activists also made subtle suggestions about the
ineffectiveness of carbon offsets, for example by using tricks to show
airplanes vanishing magically in the same way that carbon offsets make
emissions "disappear," they said.
Negotiation leaders acknowledged that the demonstrations captured their attention.
"It's very important that you're here," said UN Framework Convention on Climate Change
Executive Secretary Yvo de Boer in an address to the youth delegation.
"You're taking a very strong position, you're holding leaders
responsible for their decisions, and, at the least, you're making it a
lot less boring."
The activists' "strong position," broadly, was a demand for climate
justice. The term refers to aid that industrialized nations provide to
developing countries to help them transition to low-carbon economies
and adapt to damages caused by climate change. Such funding is
justified, activists said, by the fact that the majority of greenhouse
gas emissions are produced in the world's wealthiest nations yet the
worst damages will disproportionally affect the developing world,
women, and indigenous populations.
"We are the creditors, and the debtors have to pay their debt!" shouted Wahu Kaara, a coordinator with the Kenya Debt Relief Network, at a press conference. "Not anymore are our lives going to be sacrificed at the hands of market economies for their profit!"
Activists rallied around Tuvalu,
in particular. The future of the low-lying Pacific island nation is
threatened by rising sea levels and more-extreme weather events.
Demonstrators pressed negotiators throughout the conference to "listen
to Tuvalu" and support the nation's demand that global temperature rise
be limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius rather than the 2-degree rise
accepted by wealthier nations.
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Keenan, the Australian climate activist, was one of several participants who fasted
during the lead-up to the conference and throughout the negotiations.
She, as well as Sara Svensson of Sweden, denied themselves food for 43
"It's a way of showing leaders that we want more, we need more," said
Matthew Ballé, a French solar panel installer who heard about the fast
in November, joined the next day, and continued the protest action
through the conference.
Even when the United Nations reduced access to the conference hall to
keep the number of government delegations, media, and non-governmental
observants within building capacity, activist organizers continued to
attract attention through a series of marches and sit-ins.
"If people can't get into the negotiations-indeed, we are getting kept
out-then the only way we can express ourselves is right there, on the
streets," said Beverly Keene, co-coordinator of Jubilee South,
a network of social movements, who organized a march from downtown
Copenhagen to the conference hall, where police prevented the
Some analysts have speculated that the antagonistic nature of the
protests, as well as the constant distractions caused by demonstrators
inside the conference hall, may have further alienated the climate
movement from the politicians and negotiators they were attempting to
persuade. The violence of some climate protestors may have also further
politicized the climate debate, at the cost of progress, some have
But the restrictions on civil society suggest that the movement has
grown to the point that leaders have become intimidated, said Bill
McKibben, a leading U.S. environmental author and activist.
"At Kyoto, there was no need to lock civil society out of the
conference room because there was not enough civil society to lock
out," McKibben said. "Now there is. Now there's something for them to
be scared about."
As the negotiations drew to a close, many of the remaining activists
and organizers gathered for a climate justice "vigil." The somber
meeting, in honor of the lives lost due to climate change, also served
as a rally to uplift the mood of a movement that felt somewhat trapped
in a losing game.
"We've felt a lot of disappointment, but within a few years we've
mobilized world leaders-110 heads of state sitting at a table talking
about climate change-that is incredible," said Deepa Gupta, co-founder
of the Indian Youth Climate Network.
"As long as there is hope in the world, there is inspiration. As long
as there is inspiration in the world, there is change. And we will
defeat climate change."
In addition to the crowd of demonstrators who filled the streets of
Copenhagen during the riot protests-estimates range from 25,000 to
100,000 protestors, according to organizers-some 5,000 people worldwide
volunteered to join the climate fasters for a day without food, and 12
million people signed a petition by TckTckTck,
a partnership of several environmental and social welfare groups at the
Copenhagen summit, to demand a legally binding treaty.
"The result has not been the treaty we need, but we were never so naïve
to think we would get it," said McKibben, organizer of the 350 movement,
which coordinated 5,200 rallies in 181 countries in October to demand
climate action, at the vigil. "Power does not surrender power easily.
Privilege does not surrender privilege easily. It takes people like you