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December 17, 2009

Grassroots Climate Justice Groups Work for Results in Copenhagen

Brittany Shoot

by Brittany Shoot
- Denmark -

Copenhagen is an odd mix of frustrating inertia and vigilant protest as week two of the COP15 UN climate conference at the city’s Bella Center continues in tandem with Klimaforum09, the people’s summit, and the Climate Bottom meetings — the second set of alternative meetings in the hippie outpost of Christiania. The reports out of the Bella Center are consistently underwhelming as G77 countries and smaller island nations have felt ignored. Many were also insulted by documents leaked from Danish authorities earlier this week stating intentions by a powerful bloc including the UK, United States, and Denmark to lock out any agenda from the Global South. Recently, the Obama adminstration drew ire for making dismissive statements about the importance of the Kyoto Protocol, its relevance to the current discussions, and the United States’ intention to work cooperatively with other countries in an effort to retain Western power. This, in combination with rising hostilities, has further aggravated an already tense mood in the city.

A protestor carries a slowly deflating globe during a COP15 protest. Photograph by Brittany Shoot.
Locally, people are hugely disillusioned with COP15 marketing hype. Early last week, the news finally broke that the Hopenhagen campaign is funded by environmentally negligent companies like Coca Cola and Swedish energy giant Vattenfall. All over town, as meetings roll on, it’s clear that the best conversations and solutions continue to emerge from grassroots organizing and civil society meetings, not the Bella Center.

In response to the lack of commitment from world leaders — and the fact that time is simply running out to form sustainable solutions at the international level — a number of smaller coalitions have come together in Copenhagen. Carrying ideas born from their own experiences, many grassroots organizers have come to meetings like Klimaforum09 from areas of the world where climate change is disproportionately affecting large groups of people who often do not emit greenhouse gases, but bear the brunt of their burdens.

At the end of last week, broad coalitions of indigenous workers, activists, and representatives from communities all over the globe came together to finalize and sign the Klimaforum09 declaration, “System Change—Not Climate Change”. The product of a year’s worth of civil society negotiations, the declaration presents solutions to curb the effects of climate change and will be presented to COP15 political leaders as an alternative framework for creating ecological justice. Among other demands, the declaration calls for a complete abandonment of fossil fuels in the next 30 years, recognition and payment of climate debt by wealthy polluting nations to smaller, non-polluters; and real solutions to climate change, including renewable and sustainable energy sources, and food and water sovereignty for all.


Greenpeace provided protest signs at Saturday's mass demonstration.
Photograph by Brittany Shoot.

Talks in the Bella Center have been shaky this week, temporarily breaking down on Monday as everyone from scientists to journalists waited hours in the freezing Copenhagen winter air to pick up their credentials. Lines snaked down the block from the conference center, which has been massively overbooked beyond its limited capacity of 15,000 by allowing nearly 45,000 to register for the talks.

On Wednesday morning, further disruption occurred when the Danish Minister of the UN Climate Change Conference, Connie Hedegaard, resigned and was replaced by Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen. While Hedegaard called the move “procedural” and press reports indicate that the talks are stalled on issues of emissions reduction and financial aid to poorer nations, it is nevertheless frustrating that Hedegaard, a powerful and seasoned European leader in climate negotiations, feels that she must step down.

Across town at the people’s conference, indigenous groups from all over the world have come to Klimaforum09, with activists from Peru, Papua New Guinea, and Uruguay lining the hallways to discuss everything from ecological debt, gendered climate analysis and deforestation in the Global South to food sovereignty, ocean acidification, and false solutions from agrofuels and nuclear energy. Whether a photo exhibition from the Maldives, a film about the Himalayan “third pole,” or an Ethiopian farmer who can’t find water for his cattle, the stories of ordinary people’s struggles are given just as much prominence as the environmental luminaries who come in to speak. Island nations like Tuvalu and Kiribati have been particularly vocal over these last two weeks. As nations closest to sea level, they run the greatest risk of becoming climate refugees.

While some groups and NGOs have tried to build bridges, having been accredited to enter the COP15 talks as well, it’s obvious from the crowds gathering for informal discussions — and from the long list of signatures on the Klimaforum09 declaration — that the most invigorating debates are happening among everyday people, not diplomats and politicians. In a panel discussion last Thursday, Meena Raman of Friends of the Earth Malaysia addressed why women’s views are of particular importance in the climate change negotiations. “The voice of civil society has to be very strong and powerful,” she urged. “Women who struggle at the local level see what pollution does to them and their children’s bodies. When we get angry, nothing will stop us.”


100,000 COP15 demonstrators convened on Saturday at Parliament.
Photograph by Brittany Shoot.

Of the many topics being explored, few seem as salient to the planet’s collective health as food justice. A number of talks explained the health and environmental benefits of vegetarian and vegan diets. The award-winning documentary Meet Your Meat encouraged consumers to investigate the relationship between greenhouse gases, factory farming, and the chain of food production and distribution.

Throughout her many appearances, revered ecofeminist writer and activist Dr. Vandana Shiva repeatedly reminded audiences that once you begin to farm organically, you suddenly become aware of how much seed, water, and food belong to the commons. She believes reframing our food systems can be the model for reshaping cities and communities, as well as health and energy systems.

When I spoke to Dr. Shiva, she emphasized the importance of women’s work to end climate change. “We began with women’s knowledge,” Dr. Shiva explained of Navdanya, the organization she founded that promotes ecofeminism by honoring women’s diverse knowledge and experience, and supporting seed and food sovereignty. She explained that by trusting our “grandmothers’ knowledge,” as she has done in her advocacy, we could more effectively address the issues on the table at COP15.

“The crisis at Copenhagen is revealing a number of things,” Shiva says. “The first thing it’s revealing is that the giants think they will be around forever. The corporations and the big governments are displaying their most abusive arrogant power, with Denmark bringing a ready-made [agreement], with the [United States] trying to dismantle a twenty-year-old legally binding United Nations treaty, as if you can just blow the international community away.”

But she also explained that though she feels the UN meetings are failing, she still has hope. “The place where another voice is coming from is the small countries,” she says. “[They] are now building another world, just as movements are building another world, and I believe they’re building an ecofeminist world.”


Dr. Vandana Shiva sits for a brief interview with The WIP at
Klimaforum09. Photograph by Brittany Shoot.

Outside of organized meetings, planned and ad hoc protests have been increasing in size and frequency. On Saturday, the first approved demonstration drew nearly 100,000 people to the streets of Copenhagen. Alongside riot-proof Swedish and German police vans — which were brought in to supplement the small national Danish police force — the peaceful march made the five-kilometer trek from Parliament Square down to the Bella Center, the literal center of the UN talks. The following day, activists across the city created haphazard roadblocks when they tried unsuccessfully to close down a number of the city’s shipping harbors. On Wednesday, enormous protests rattled the talks as hundreds of demonstrators tried to push their way into the conference. I watched on local television that night as many peaceful protestors were beaten with clubs and gassed by the escalating police force.

A recently passed law in Denmark — one that was arguably pushed through specifically for COP15 and will likely be repealed by the European Court of Human Rights — permits preemptive arrest and detainment. Some media outlets have been reporting that the police have been rounding up groups of peaceful demonstrators just to prove a point.

While none of the Klimaforum09 speakers have advocated violence, Naomi Klein did encourage civil disobedience in a talk last Thursday, saying, “The conversation that has started here about the real face of environmentalism as a class war that is being waged by the rich against the poor, has never happened before. There has never been global media attention on this discussion. If we allow the media to change the discussion into broken windows in Copenhagen — which is the boringest [sic] discussion in the world — we have truly failed.”

As cheers erupted from the crowd, Klein continued. “I’m not saying there shouldn’t be direct action. There should be direct action.” She called on everyone to attend the protest planned for the arrival of the most powerful heads of state to Copenhagen, encouraging them “to go out, sit in the streets, and make our voices heard together.”

The days in Copenhagen are at their shortest this time of year — a mere seven hours of bleak sunlight — and amid snowflakes, traffic jams, and an ever-watchful and heavy-handed police, the safest and most invigorating place in the city is often within the confines of a civil society debate. The question is whether the powerful leaders in the Bella Center will listen to the people’s voices in this last week in Copenhagen.

About the Author
Brittany Shoot is an American writer living in Copenhagen, Denmark. A longtime member of the Feminist Review blog editorial collective, her writing has also appeared in a variety of print and online publications including Bitch, make/shift, WireTap Magazine, and Religion Dispatches.

Brittany earned concurrent Bachelor’s degrees in Women’s Studies, Communication, and Psychology, and has a Master’s degree in Visual and Media Arts. She likes to think of herself as a recovering academic but suspects that another degree in animal ethics might be in her future. A vegan and empathic animal advocate, she hopes to eventually operate her own farm sanctuary. When she isn’t taking photos with vintage film cameras and eating avocados, Brittany can be found moonlighting as a teacher, pet sitter, and farmhand. Visit her website at

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