Indiana University graduate student Denise Nogueira had a front-row seat in December for the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen -- as a member of the delegation from her home country, Brazil.
Nogueira, 24, a master's student in public affairs and environmental sciences in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs, was an intern last year with The Green Initiative, a São Paulo NGO that partners with the Brazilian government on reforestation and carbon-neutralization projects. When the president of the organization invited her to be part of its team at the climate talks, she readily accepted.
By the time the two-week conference ended with the nonbinding Copenhagen Accord, Nogueira was exhausted and coming down with the flu, but fascinated by the process she had witnessed. She answered questions for Perspectives on Policy.
Q: This must have been an extraordinary experience. What was it like?
A: It was very overwhelming, very intense. What you noticed right away was that there were two parallel conferences going on. There were the plenary sessions and closed meetings, the negotiations. Then there were a great number of civil society people, scientists, and NGOs that were there to network, to show their initiatives and establish new partnerships.
The first half of the conference, I did a lot of networking with the NGOs and the scientists, I met a lot of scientists in the field. I also learned about a lot of great initiatives going on in Brazil right now. For the last half, I just watched first-hand the intense negotiating as the politicians tried to get something out of it.
Q: Was the conference as chaotic as it appeared from news reports?
The Bella Center (where the conference took place) had a maximum capacity of 15,000 people, and they allowed something like 45,000 people to register. On the second Monday, I was going over to the center, and I was stuck in this huge crowd for like an hour; people were shoving and yelling, and it was super cold … Their solution was, from Wednesday on, almost all of the NGO members wouldn't be allowed in the building. I luckily was there as an official member of the delegation and was able to attend the conference until the end. I met a lot of people with the Brazilian delegation and I learned a lot of politics.
Q: What would you say about President Obama's final-day participation?
A: The rest of the world was demanding greater compromises from the U.S. The whole world had followed Obama's election -- people thought he's reasonable, he will do something. But he is one person and there was not enough support in the U.S. for him to make a big commitment. In Copenhagen, his hands were tied.
On the last day, when they had the presidential speeches, you could see it clearly. Lula, the president of Brazil, gave a very powerful speech, calling countries to act for one last time. At the end, everyone was applauding. Right after him, it was Obama's turn, and he wasn't very happy. What he proposed was shy of what the world expected and what we need to address the problem. He did not even stay in the plenary room, walked in and out from a side door, just to deliver the speech.
Q: At the end, the U.S., China, Brazil, India and South Africa hammered out a nonbinding accord, and the conference accepted it, but not without a lot of dissent. What was that like?
A: I was in there in the main room where the delegates were meeting, and a lot of them were mad, because this was something that the U.S. and China and three other countries agreed on behind closed doors. Finally, the Danish prime minister invited 20-some friendly nations to have one last meeting and put together a document to be voted that same night.
The plenary started at 2 or 3 in the morning, and it was very emotionally intense. I think Venezuela was the first to speak, and they were outraged; they said it was an anti-democratic process. What tickled me was that a lot of the countries that were most outraged about the lack of a democratic process, like Venezuela, Cuba and Sudan, are not democratic.
Q: There seemed to be consensus that climate change is a threat and the world needs to act. Why was it so difficult then to get an agreement?
A: I left the conference thinking the U.N. mechanism of consensus, where all the countries need to agree, is just not effective. There's so much noise, so many interests, so many little forces you don't even know of. People keep asking, "Is the science certain?" But I felt like the noisiest factor influencing our response to climate change is the politics.
What I think now is, everyone acknowledges there is potentially this threat, so are we, as humanity, going to be able to get together and do something about it? If climate change is happening, if forests need to be conserved, if green energy is the wave of the future, let's act.
It doesn't matter if we're not going to be 100 percent certain that it's anthropogenic (caused by human activity). What if we learn years from now that it's not? Forests will have been preserved, and we will have green energy, which makes sense regardless of global warming. It doesn't matter if the country next to me isn't doing enough. It's a race, and whoever starts earlier is going to be better off.
Q: Given the mixed results, did the conference accomplish anything worthwhile?
A: The conference was great as far as getting attention, making the public more aware. I felt like there was a consensus: carbon must be priced, forests must be conserved, and green energy is the wave of the future. And while the negotiators were stuck on wording, NGOs were getting together to develop projects, and the prime minister of Norway was saying, "We think the Amazon rain forest is important, so that is why we have given $1 billion to preserve it."
In the last few years, this awareness and willingness to act has increased so much. Once we reach critical mass, it's going to happen. Even though Copenhagen did not produce a comprehensive agreement, we're not very far off at this point.