Samantha Hoeffler '09
Through the National Wildlife Federation, I became a delegate at the UN Climate Change Summit. The atmosphere in Copenhagen was so alive and filled with energy; tens of thousands of people saw the meeting as a pivotal moment in history—a potential tipping point. Immediately, I was overwhelmed with hope and excitement: all around the city, everywhere I looked, there were advertisements demanding action and change from our world's most powerful leaders. At the airport there were billboards; on the metro there were videos about turning Copenhagen into Hopenhagen; in public squares there were showings of climate-themed films; at night there were Hopenhagen Live concerts with young musicians who genuinely believed in the power of our generation. The city was spinning with action and brightness.
It was this tone of optimism and perhaps idealism that seemed, in a way, incongruent with the rigidity and gravity of the summit itself. The stark contrast between the optimism outside the negotiations and its absence within was not only fascinating but also difficult to reconcile. For example, while in Copenhagen, I witnessed organizations proposing positive ways to address the climate change problem. And yet when I left I was convinced that our current approach is not taking these innovations into account.
This December marked the fifteenth Conference of the Parties (Cop 15), the negotiating process sanctioned by the United Nations. And this year's meeting was particularly important because its focus was creating a treaty that would replace the Kyoto Protocol, which was adopted in 1997. The press coverage surrounding the meetings was unprecedented and Copenhagen was thought to be a critical point in the narrative of climate change.
I arrived in Denmark with great hope in this process and its outcome. However, once I glimpsed how absolutely political and bogged down the process was, I quickly became discouraged. The developing countries had less of a voice than the wealthier and more powerful nations. The negotiations seemed to be less about the good of our world and more about cutting costs while maintaining the façade that we were doing something about climate change.
Nevertheless, the overall event demonstrates the momentuum of change. Quite literally right in front of the door, there were knowledgeable, concerned citizens, who were not a part of the decision making process, but still wanted their voices heard, through high-profile protests, marches, and vigils. Mostly their themes were related to climate justice and immediate action. In another part of the city, there was an alternative site where people from all over the world had gathered to brainstorm solutions themselves, called the Klimaforum. It was an inclusive place for people to exchange ideas, inspire each other, and learn new things concerning climate change.
These two ends of the spectrum—loss of confidence in the UN process, and the optimism of my peers at the protests and at the Klimaforum—were hard to resolve. After a few days I wanted more to be outside protesting than I wanted to be inside as an accredited member of the conference. This realization was both sad and exciting. If we could learn from the challenges and shortcomings within the UN process and add more of a significant, meaningful civil society sector, then the approach to climate change could be improved in a way that would not only hold governments accountable but also involve the people who will inevitably be affected by the issue.
In all, I was so happy and grateful to be in Copenhagen. I witnessed the Summit and the events around it, meeting people who are dedicating their lives to this cause. I saw Copenhagen as a city come alive to the challenges of climate change in those two weeks. And even at the dissappointing end, I was energized by resilience that many so admirably showed.
With respect to climate change, I truly believe that the UN is headed in the right direction, but that we need to work together—parties, NGOs and average citizens alike—to be more inclusive and address the complexities of climate change so that we can create and maintain a sustainable world for all.
Samantha Hoeffler graduated in 2009 as an International Studies Major. She now works for the National Wildlife Federation.