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A Hitchhiker’s Guide to COP15 Climate Talks

3p Contributor | Tuesday December 15th, 2009 | 0 Comments

The COP15 corridor dance: A yellow badge-wearer chats up a pink badge-wearer.

The COP15 corridor dance: A yellow badge-wearer chats up a pink badge-wearer.

By Lee Barken, IT practice leader at Haskell & White, LLP

Wish you were here? Allow me to draw a picture.

We’re now well into week two of the COP-15 Climate Summit in Copenhagen and the diplomats, activists and media representatives are fully engulfed in a whirlwind of activity.  Beyond the maze of the Bella Center’s million square feet, 60 meeting rooms and winding pathways lies another maze comprised of diplomatic maneuvering, backroom gamesmanship and good old-fashioned guerrilla marketing.  Knowing where to go and what to do depends mostly on who you are and why you are here.

In a nutshell, COP-15 is an oversized bundle of energy that can best be described as “organized chaos.”  It’s helpful if you think of it as two different conferences wrapped up in one.  The first conference is for the people who make decisions.  The other is for people who are trying to influence the people who are making the decisions.

What Color Is Your Parachute?

The first strategy to understand at COP-15 is the game of name badge color-coding.
Yellow badges belong to members of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), such as a non-profit forestry alliance, a youth organization or some other kind of other advocacy group. These folks number in the thousands—22,000 have registered. They spend each day running around the halls trying to make sure their presence is felt and their message is heard.  An entire pavilion is dedicated to NGOs who each have their own booth and literature which they distribute.  On the outer perimeter of the NGO pavilion is a series of large conference rooms where these groups give presentations that are open to anyone and everyone who will listen.

The NGOs have come to Copenhagen with a wide range of group sizes and political savvy.  Some are small and disorganized.  However, others are coordinated, hold twice daily status meetings and mobilize hundreds of people who roam the halls in matching T-Shirts and marketing literature.  As you might imagine, many of the participants at the foot-soldier level are college age or younger.

Pink badges are issued to those within a “party to an agreement”, a.k.a. an official country delegation. Pink badge-holders are in a separate wing, holding dozens of simultaneous meetings in various meeting rooms.  Some rooms are small and hold a few dozen, while other rooms are enormous, holding several hundred.

Most rooms are equipped with individual “push to talk” microphones at each station.  The pink badges hold closed meetings that are only open to other pink badges. Sometimes there are subgroup closed meetings that are only open to certain groups of pink badges.  For example, closed meetings are held by “AOSIS,” the Alliance of Small Island States” and the “G77 + China.”  These are essentially lobbying groups that have figured out that they will have more impact as a team and then band together to improve their chances of moving forward a shared agenda.  This is also known as strength in numbers.

Finally, members of the media are issued an orange pass.  COP-15 closed the press registration when it hit 5,000 people and it is rumored that a wait list includes another 10,000 who would like to run around with an orange badge.  Press organizations from around the world have converged on the scene to report news and provide updates to their readers and viewers.

All the World’s a Stage…

Here’s how the COP-15 dynamic works: Pink badges try to get work done, move their agendas forward and lobby each other for changes to document language.  Orange badges try to find something interesting or salacious to report on.  Yellow badges run around trying to get attention from both groups.

In one particularly enlightening conversation with a college-age NGO volunteer, I learned that her goal was to intercept pink badges walking around the Bella Center, sitting for lunch or just waiting in a line and then present them with a pamphlet and share the story of the NGO.

Other yellow badges are focused on media attention and utilize every opportunity to descend upon the orange badges with a story pitch or other promotional activity.  A popular strategy is for yellow badges to position themselves directly outside the press room (which they are not allowed to enter) and try to catch media folks entering or exiting.

In the connecting corridor between the NGO pavilion and the Publication Distribution Center (the first place you go each morning to pick up your copy of the “Daily Programme”) is an area designated specifically for publicity stunts.  Listed simply in the Daily Programme under “Other Events,” the NGOs schedule mini-presentations where they stage skits with dramatic flair.

These productions always draw a crowd of curious onlookers who take photographs with their mobile phones and camcorders.  As you can imagine, they are usually quite entertaining and include elaborate, costumes, props and antics such as a team of performers dressed up as doctors trying to save 10 foot half-inflated earth.  One person shouts “Clear,” while charging up the defibrillator paddles and attaching them to the limp planet.  Another person holds up a sign advocating a particular climate change strategy.

A large number of yellow badges think they’re on some kind of altruistic Disneyland vacation.  It’s like spring break for people trying to save the planet.  While you may question their effectiveness, you have to admire their passion.

On the other end of the spectrum, the tactics of the more politically sophisticated NGOs are impressive.  Many are well connected and can frequently be seen in conversation with pink badges and reviewing or marking up pages of texts.

Center of Attention

All of this hyper-attention seeking is a major cause of the chaos.  Imagine a sprawling convention center with 15,000 people all running around shouting “Look at me!”  Is all of this advocacy work really improving or hindering the process?  Is it working?  On a bus ride at the end of a long day of activities, I happened to sit next to a member of the UN support staff (blue badges) who was serving as an interpreter.  I asked him if these NGOs were making any difference.  After all, if the pink badges are top notch attorneys and skilled negotiators, did he really think that some college kid waving a flyer around was really going to change anybody’s position?

His response surprised me.  While most advanced countries are sending top notch negotiators, there are some less wealthy countries in attendance that simply lack the resources and talent to mount a strong policy agenda.  Some of these countries have populations of 10,000 or fewer people, so you have to imagine that their “best of the best” pole vaulter, chess player or climate change negotiator may feel like a small fish in a big pond.

At the end of the day, it’s hard to say if the activities of the NGOs are having an impact.  While some smaller countries may be influenced, it’s unlikely that the negotiating positions of the large industrial countries are being shaped by sideshow antics.

On the other hand, since there are so many reputable media outlets in one location, it’s an alluring opportunity to reach the masses and get your message “out there.”  The issue is that so many people are competing for attention from the orange badges that you end up with a high noise ratio and breaking through the clutter becomes a real challenge.

False Alarms

The other problem, as observed during the first few days of the conference, is that not having something newsworthy to write about is a recipe for disaster.  On a slow news day, writers and producers get tense and trigger happy.  On day 3, the news was flowing about details of a “secret agreement” circulating called the Danish Text.  This “closed door agreement” included terms very unfavorable to less wealthy countries and a suggestion to link the process more closely with the world bank and break away from the United Nations.

As it turned out, the story was a non-story as the text was one of many drafts that had been made public over a week ago.  There were no secret meetings and nothing new in the text that hadn’t already been disclosed.  Reports of a “leak” were overblown and suggest that with nothing sensational to report, the risk of misinformation wildfires will always go up a couple notches.

Closed Meetings and Open Content

It’s interesting to note that although the yellow badges cannot attend the pink badge or orange badge closed meetings, many of those sessions are webcast and archived.  You have to wonder why these meeting are closed if the content is later made public and open to the world?  I can only imagine what kind of disruptive “episode” occurred in the past that resulted in the decision to exclude yellow badges from negotiating sessions and press conferences.

In addition, as the conference begins to wind down, the number of yellow badges will be restricted.  On Tuesday of the 2nd week, yellow badge allowances were cut in half.  On Thursday, only 1,000 will be allowed.  By Friday, that number will drop to 90.

World Leaders Arrive

Starting Tuesday evening, world leaders will begin arriving in Copenhagen.  Of the nearly 200 participating countries, over 130 have their heads of state in attendance.  While the news from Copenhagen has been largely disappointing, one has to wonder if the arrival of world leaders will have a positive influence on the momentum of the climate talks.

After all, world leaders like to be associated with successes.  Coming to Copenhagen and being branded with a failure will not play well on the world stage. As the number of dignitaries in the Bella Center slowly increases, the hopes are high and the stakes are higher.

Lee Barken, CPA, LEED-AP is the IT practice leader at Haskell & White, LLP and serves on the board of directors of CleanTECH San Diego and the U.S. Green Building Council – San Diego chapter. Lee writes and speaks on the topics of carbon accounting, green building, IT audit compliance, enterprise security and wireless LAN technology.  He is currently in Copenhagen attending the COP-15 conference.  You can reach him at 858-350-4215 or lbarken@hwcpa.com.


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