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China's Assistant Foreign Affairs Minister Zhai Jun participates in a panel discussion at the 2009 UN Climate Change Conference. Courtesy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark

Copenhagen Days Four and Five

'This is about more than climate change'

By David MacDonald

I was having a quiet lunch alone when a middle-aged Scot asked if he could join me. Copenhagen is his first UN conference. He wondered whether they’re all like this. “There so much discussion, debate  and . . . so much hot air!” He questioned how anything could get done. I replied that it was like many large UN events that I had attended. Yet, I did agree there seems to be something different about this one.

He told me had had been a theatre director most of his life. But he felt he should be doing something more. So now he is studying climate change at the University in Edinburgh.

Then he said, “You know, I think this meeting may be about more than climate change.” I was struck how clearly he had perceived what might actually be happening in Copenhagen. While the topic is climate change from every possible angle, in fact there is a surprising amount of tough questioning about our economic and social system. The issue is not just about reducing consumption of fossil fuels. It is about how it will happen.

Will we be better off? And who will really benefit?

My companion noted that the official debate is cautious and conservative. Too often it is about trying to get almost 200 different governments to approve confusing and contradictory UN documents.

The discussions in the corridors and the coffee shops are much more far-reaching. There is increasing emphasis on the absolute urgency of changing lifestyles as well as finding ways to support those who are already affected by climate change or soon will be.

“Maybe this is a moment of transformation,” my companion concluded. “What if we were able to solve more than just the problem of climate change?” It is not likely that governments at this meeting will either want to or be able to take on this larger challenge. But, if like my Scottish friend, people leave here committed to the bigger questions, then future UN events will have to deal with them too.

This week we have seen early skirmishes and false starts. There were behind-the-scenes initiatives from China and Denmark. The small island state of Tuvalu desperately tried to promote its more dramatic solution, but it was rejected. The divisions between rich and poor nations are deep and wide.

Meantime, there are hundreds of specialized panels and thousands of spontaneous conversations on virtually all aspects of the challenge. This is the final preparatory phase before the high-level talks and negotiations that will start early next week. By the time over 120 world leaders arrive mid-week, we should have a clearer picture of how much we can really hope for in Copenhagen.

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