When you arrive to Copenhagen in December, you could be forgiven for believing that the issue of global warming has been somehow exaggerated. This is a typical winter month: cold air, snow, short days and long nights. After all, we have been told that by scientists the temperature is increasing and that we are likely to have more hot years in the future.
However, things are not that simple. And you only need to listen to the delegations of developing countries to realise that global warming is happening and that a normal northern European winter does not justify scepticism.
In the case of Denmark, summers have been hotter than usual in the last decade and winters have been less cold. So, to have a “normal” winter day or week does not make a difference tp the argument.
You don’t need to go to Bella Centre, where the official delegations are discussing a possible agreement, to find out about climate change-induced suffering in the real world. Many organisation that haven’t got accreditation passes around their necks have a lot of important things to say. A sporting complex has been turned into a debate forum in the centre of Copenhagen and representatives from grassroots organisations and NGOs are discussing the solutions that they have found on the ground to help them to survive, despite the indecision of their political leaders. There is a huge range, from cow-dung systems that generate electricity in rural Tanzania to underground manual irrigation systems in India that mean that they don’t have to use petrol-fuelled machines which emit CO2 and are expensive.
“Climate Change Violates Human Rights”says one publication. “The solution we now need” claims a magazine about renewable energy. The big slogan that is emerging is: “System Change, not Climate Change”. Indeed that was the most popular slogan heard during the big demonstration at the weekend.
Critics in the Danish media say that the alternative forum is no more than a fringe group of lefties with nothing better to do with their time. And yet the meeting halls are always full and people who would not have bothered to think about climate change before attend the talks and ask questions.
Indigenous organisations from Paraguay or farmers from Argentina have stands where they tell you that their lands are drying out and that their communities are shrinking to small villages because they can no longer grow what is needed to feed the cities.
They call all this the People’s Summit. The name may sound pretentious and exaggerated, but it rings true when you hear their stories.
As happens on occasions like this, there is always an element of irony.
I am staying with a small community of people who have built an alternative way of life by building houses that try to avoid the use of fossil fuels to keep out the cold Danish winter, by producing their own vegetables in tidy allotments and by shopping in a small community shop instead of in the big Danish supermarkets which are 10 minutes walk away. But, when you stand in the middle of the road, reality hits you. Not far away, big chimneys from power stations emit a white steam that goes to the atmosphere. “It’s not smoke”, I am told, “it’s vapour”. And yet, though many of them do not know it, that vapour is also a greenhouse gas.
Nobody knows at this stage if there will be an agreement a few kilometres away in the Bella Centre. But there are too many stories being told in the People’s Summit by those who know for me to doubt that what is at stake is hugely important. Uniquely important. We ignore these stories at our peril. Despite the cold nights and the snow.