People — and worlds — converge in Copenhagen

December 11, 2009

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    Haja Nirina (flickr)  </span>
    Photo: Haja Nirina (flickr)

The UN Climate Change Conference has started in Copenhagen, and it is overwhelming. Bella Center, an efficient and vast venue, is chockablock with the 15,000 people it can hold — amid rumors that more than 40,000 people have registered. Security is smooth and polite. Among the cavernous halls and corridors, myriad Internet spots and meeting rooms, the hosting is friendly, unflustered and chirpy; most first timers to Denmark are thinking of returning one day for a holiday to really see the place properly.

The flow of humanity, from almost every nation on Earth — women and men from seemingly every ethnicity, religion, age group on the planet — flow past each other from event to meeting to rest stop at a frenetic pace. It brings home the message that, whatever the outcome of whatever form of agreement emerges from this conference, climate change as a threat unites us as no other in history.

This is a historic event.

Two parallel universes seem to exist here. The negotiators, between the forums and country booths to which they retire to regroup and head out again, exist in the same space but barely the same context as the plethora of side events that run across the Bella Center and other nearby venue spots in Copenhagen. The world outside of the conference center has a better overview of the deals and promises, raised hopes and disappointments than those in the side events.

The side events arise from non-governmental organizations (NGOs), campaigners, practitioners and others from civil society involved in the climate debate, as well as the actions already being taken to counter its impacts across the world.

Mercy Corps was directly involved in one of these today. Pramita Harjati, an urban planner from our Indonesia program, presented her work with ACCCRN (the Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network). ACCCRN — funded by the Rockefeller Foundation — joins us with sister programs in India, Thailand and Vietnam. Together, they share experiences in analyzing how the challenges that the urban poor already face will be exacerbated by climate change. They discuss how they work with government and the private sector to find solutions.

Pramita talked about how increased storm frequency and intensity have immediate impacts on human life and — in the longer term — their livelihoods as houses are damaged and shrimp and fish farms are destroyed. Other members of the network and the wider audience then heard complementary reports from India about how in Surat, the diamond and textile industries can close for extended periods because workers lose their homes and belongings to flooding. And then we heard similar tales from Vietnam.

It was a microcosm of what these side events are about. Numerous small conferences sharing reports of climate impacts and possible solutions across sectors including government, the private sector and agencies like Mercy Corps.

Together, these events represent the collective knowledge of millions of people, and give voice for advocacy for the negotiators to come to a deal that sets the world on a direction to take on the climate challenge we have created for ourselves. These parallel universes may merge yet.