Analysis, COP15
30 December, 2009

Cosmopolitics in Copenhagen

Sergio Abranches

My computer screen showed climate militants marching and facing police blockades over the streets of Copenhagen and in the neighborhood of Bella Center. On the TV screens spread all over the crowded Media Center journalists could watch a plenary session of COP15, where government delegates discussed the most pressing global threat of the 21st Century.

I pushed my chair back and looked at the numerous long tables, each seating around 40 journalists of all parts of the world, of all possible kinds of media. One glimpse revealed it all: government delegates debating their differences, the NGOs marching, peacefully trying to make their way into the negotiations, and the media watching, reporting, commenting.

And, yes, tweeting. About 7 out of 10 computers had Twitter opened on a window. With the right hashtag one could follow what journalists were reporting on Twitter in their languages. Several would tweet in their native languages and in English or French.

This was only one of several dramatic days. While in the plenary sessions delegates defended principled points, in the negotiation rooms intense, tense, and extensive negotiations were in progress. Or, sometimes, in regress. Militants marched protesting for access to the Conference and demanding that negotiators take meaningful action to respond to climate challenges.

Journalists jumped from one press conference to another; looked for exclusive info or insight talking to delegates.

This momentary view of the three international critical players of current climate politics simultaneously in action, like in a movie, made me start taking notes in a frenzy. They were gathered around the same agenda, but to play very distinct and relevant roles: governments, NGOs and the Press. They address climate issues from very different angles. Differences are central not only among these three sets of players, but also within each one. Individuals in each think in different languages. Groupings within and among them reflect diverse social, economic and political backgrounds. They display widely varied degrees of concern, knowledge and engagement regarding climate change.

To a professional political analyst and a journalist this was a very rich situation, a brain-storming event.

Arriving early in the morning every day at the Bella Center, I would immediately start to tweet many ideas about what was happening. Over the twelve days I was there, I posted several pieces to my blogs Ecopolitica and Ecopolity. I also made daily commentaries for the Brazilian radio network CBN. And I took notes all the time, to later help me think and write about the Copenhagen meeting, its aftermath and what’s to be done.

Back home, after some rest, I started reading my notes and browsing some books in order to design an analytical framework to organize my observations. But those intense 12 days of COP15 kept bringing back fragments of memory, snapshots of meaningful moments.

There was a sharp and annoying contrast between the aloofness of my academic readings and the liveliness of these fragments. The first book I picked was about the new transnational activism. For more than 40 pages all I could read was an endless conceptual argument. Academic minutiae seemed to obliterate a sense of relevance. I can’t see how it really matters whether an NGO such as Greenpeace should be called an NGO or something else; whether it is an international, transnational or global organization.

Form has replaced meaning. Formality is mistaken by precision. To be more formal doesn’t mean to be more accurate.

I am too fond of books to abandon reading them, though. I browsed, selected, dropped the useless, and kept reading what seemed relevant to me.

Like Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. Browsing it, I stopped at the paragraph below, on chapter 7, “Cosmopolitan Contamination: Global Villages”.

People who complain about the homogeneity produced by globalization often fail to notice that globalization is, equally, a threat to homogeneity. (…) (H)omogeneity, though, is the local kind. (…) In the era of globalization – in Asante as in New Jersey – people make pockets of homogeneity. (…) And whatever loss of difference there has been, they are constantly inventing new forms of difference: new hairstyles, new slang, even, from times to times, new religions. No one could say that the world’s villages are  – or are about to become – anything like the same.

To anyone who spent about 16 hours a day in the Bella Center, for 12 days, as an “embedded journalist”, covering every aspect of the Climate Summit and interacting with all the different tribes that crowded the conference site, Appiah’s contention is crystal clear and couldn’t be more accurate.

It describes and explains the contradictions of globalization, the encounters, exchanges and diversity that it entails. The Bella Center had become a “global site” gathering very different tribes, some with antagonistic interests, to deal with a major global issue.

We could see an NGO militant on a crash-demonstration in the passageways of Bella Center, marching over the streets of Copenhagen, debating technical issues with delegates and lobbyists, or passing the results of intelligence work to journalists.

This role differentiation develops while these organizations grow, become stronger, wealthier, and more influential. They diversify their political roles as they get more expertise, more organizational capabilities and enlist people with different skills, aptitudes and backgrounds. Through this process, these new actors of global politics are creating a global civil society even before the first pieces of what will become a system for global governance are put in place. Formal international politics, having governments as the main actors, is far behind, particularly as far as global climate politics is concerned. And we saw plenty of evidence supporting this hypothesis there.

Although the different tribes interacting at the Bella Center theater had the same agenda, it was their different approaches to this common agenda that mattered most. Differences were paramount. They allowed critical actors to play very different roles: as militants, negotiators, reporters, analysts, commentators, doing intelligence or sharing information. Differences were a source of diversity as well as a fuel to contentious politics. Diverse actors expressed distinctive perceptions of climate change as a threat, an opportunity, a hindrance or a hoax.

At the end, diverging interests were stronger than commonalities and the deal was watered down. This end to the summit has by no means diminished its historic dimension. Formal politics has stayed behind, but made a few steps forward. Civil society got out of there stronger and more enlightened about what to do next.

My own perception is that interests, conflicts, and different views became more visible and recognizable in Copenhagen. Like when the small and threatened Tuvalu confronted the giant and threatened China.

I can’t say whether other global meetings on other issues have gained the same political magnitude as COP15 did. What I know is that the Copenhagen Summit was unprecedented in all counts, when compared to the other COPs: the number of NGOs, the size of national delegations, the scale of media presence and coverage, or the number of chiefs of states and governments present to the last 2 of the 12 days of the Conference. This was beyond any doubt the larger and more cosmopolitan climate meeting ever.

It was, by far, the major display of strength, technical expertise and political capability by the global environmental movement in recent history. Large and small NGOs became critical actors in the negotiations. They had expert people doing serious policy advocacy. They fiercely confronted lobbyists and greenwashers. They aptly transmitted to the media technical information and intelligence on what was being negotiated within closed doors.

As far as climate meetings go it was the first time ever that the components of a future cosmopolity were assembled in full. What we’ve seen in Copenhagen was the first full scale emergence of a cosmopolitics that will very likely become a dominant feature of 21st Century global life.

Cosmopolitanism was clearly visible as the main element of climate politics at the Bella Center meeting. One could see Timothy Brennan’s “polychromatic culture” live at the atrium, passageways and rooms of the Center. Brennan is right when he says this multiverse culture is “a new singularity born out of a blending and merging of multiple local constituents.” The quote is from the essay “Cosmopolitanism and Internationalism”, published in Daniele Archibugi (editor) – Debating Cosmopolitics.

And it was possible to discern the seeds of cosmopolitanism as global governance in the dramatic exchange of visions, demands, interests and principles. The strength of global civil society, in situ and all over the world directly connected with their counterparts in Copenhagen, is clearly building momentum for the emergence of this sort of cosmopolitanism.

The unprecedented presence of world media and the width of media coverage, will certainly help to broaden the scope of cosmopolitan politics.

Finally, the unprecedented attendance of more than 100 heads of states and governments, among them the leaders of the major mature and emerging powers has contributed to give this first experiment of climate cosmopolitics strong political significance.

The citizenship of this future system of global governance is emerging before any new element of effective global governance is in place. Building such a governance regime will be a daunting endeavor. Its complexity should not be underestimated. It is not about building a world state, or a global government. There is too much risk for freedom and human rights in such a notion. It is about global governance without global government. It requires a considerable amount of institutional innovation and experimentation.

Ben Block from the World Watch Institute, pointed correctly that despite disappointment, the Climate Summit marks a high point for the activist movement. This part of global civil society has swelled in strength and recognition in recent years.

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 year ago.

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.

This history in the making gives full support and deep meaning to Jonathan Watts’s opinion that

Copenhagen will shape our lives for years to come.

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