Copenhagen: Inside the circus

COPENHAGEN, Denmark — In Copenhagen these days you can meet princes, presidents and Amazonian panther women.

One moment you can listen to New York's Republican mayor extolling the virtues of wind farms and bike paths, the next chat with a Japanese girl dressed as polar bear, or be urged to save one of Australian's much-loved marsupials by joining the Biosphere Bandicoot Buddies.

In and around the climate change summit, there are dictators, earnest young activists who want to bring down the capitalist system, and corporate suits eager to explain how their cars, airlines or double-glazing are all helping to save the planet.

"This is an historic moment. I can only appeal to you to listen to the cries of those who are already suffering from the impact of climate change," Britain's Prince Charles told the conference.

"As our planet’s life-support system begins to fail and our very survival as a species is brought into question, remember that our children and grandchildren will ask not what our generation said, but what it did. Let us give an answer, then, of which we can be proud," said the heir to the throne.

Charles' sentiments were not so different from those of young Satoko Nakasugi, as she peaked out from beneath her polar bear mask.

"The white bear lives in the North Pole and he is in trouble," said the activist from the Japan Network for Earth Environment and Prevention of Pollution.

"Mr. President Obama and Mr. Prime Minister Hatoyama please don't think just about profit, please back a climate future," urged Nakasugi at the Klimaforum, an "alternative summit" run by activists in downtown Copenhagen well away from suburban venue of the main event.

Japanese activist
A Japanese activist at the Klimaforum in Copenhagen.
(Paul Ames/GlobalPost)

Over 320 organizations from around the world are involved with the Klimaforum. They range from eco-villages in Norway's northern Lofoten Islands to Argentine anti-bio-food campaigners and Bangladeshis concerned their low-lying land is increasingly suffering from global-warming induced flooding.

"To stop the climate crisis, not only do we need a global binding agreement, you also need new green values, and that can only come from the population, you need to get ordinary people involved from around the world," said Niels Fastrup, a spokesman for the Klimaforum organizers.

A group of South American women dressed as panthers performed street theater outside to promote a message claiming that women are often the principle victims of climate change.

Panther women aside, the Klimaforum in many ways resembled the goings-on in the exhibition sector of the main conference center. The vast summit venue has more suits and ties and fewer woolly hats, but it is also filled with colorful displays from NGOs, tired looking delegates snacking on apple juice and carrot cake, and floors littered with flyers promoting a mind-boggling array of environmental causes. It too had a polar-bear impersonator warning of the ever-diminishing ice cap.

While snow fell on Christmas shoppers in downtown Copenhagen, things inside the summit were decidedly less jolly Tuesday as the United States and China clashed over issues ranging from financing for poorer nations to international monitoring of climate targets.

With three days to go before the talks are due to wrap up on Friday, the gulf between nations on a complex tangle of issues has left many worried that the conference touted as essential to averting planetary disaster could end without a deal.

"We are balancing between success and failure," said Connie Hedegaard, the Danish minister chairing the talks. "Success is within reach. But ... I must also warn you: We can fail."

The summiteers got some high powered support summit from California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who delivered a speech insisting that cutting global warming was not incompatible with a thriving economy.

"We have economics on our side. Since the supply of wind or sun or algae is unlimited, their prices will not jump. That cannot be said of oil, the supply of which is limited and declining. That cannot be said of coal, whose costs of extraction, labor and transportation are bound to rise," Schwarzenegger told the conference.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was at another of the Copenhagen side events — a conference of big city bosses organized by the Danish capital's government. He expressed admiration for Denmark's off-shore wind farms as a way of reducing U.S. dependence on oil imports and cited Copenhagen as an example for encouraging city cycling.

However his appearance came under fire from Brooklyn bikers who blame the mayor for removing cycle paths in the borough.

Boris Johnson
London Mayor Boris Johnson at the Copenhagen climate conference.
(Paul Ames/GlobalPost)

Mayors from London, Hong Kong, Dar-es-Salaam and dozens of other world cities looked at ideas ranging from electric police cars to low-energy street lights and high-tech bikes.

As the talks intensify, world leaders were beginning to fly into Copenhagen for the summit's finale on Thursday and Friday. One of the first to arrive was Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, not renowned for his commitment to fighting climate change, but keen to show that a United Nations invite overrides a European Union ban on him traveling to the 27-nation bloc.

With over 100 other presidents and prime ministers also expected, including those from the U.S., China, Russia, Iran and Venezuela, negotiators were increasingly desperate to hammer out the framework of an agreement before high politics begins to play too big a part.