The Austin Chronicle


Local participants, activists in Denmark for U.N. climate summit

By Katherine Gregor, December 11, 2009, News

This week the world's eyes are upon Copen­hagen, during the 15th United Nations Climate Change Conference Dec. 7-18 (aka "Conference of the Parties" or "COP15"), and at least five Austinites are on hand for the occasion. University of Texas student Rachel Ait­kens, UT biology associate professor Camille Parme­san, activist and former Austin Climate Protection Program Manager Jake Stewart, and EnviroMedia principals Kevin Tuerff and Valerie Davis are soaking up the Copenhagen vibe – learning, schmoozing, advocating, photographing, blogging, and tweeting away. They've joined a throng that includes 110 international heads of state, negotiators from 193 countries (about a dozen of them crucial), an estimated 20,000 official participants, and thousands of other observers, activists, and hangers-on from around the globe, all converging for the big climate-action meet-up. The urgent goal is an international agreement on the basic terms for a binding treaty to replace (and improve) the Kyoto Protocol, the current global climate-pollution-reduction agreement, which expires in 2012.

President Barack Obama now will appear as the "closer" on Dec. 18; the White House hopes his presence on the final day of negotiations will increase the odds that COP15 yields terms for an agreement acceptable to the U.S., China, India, the European Union, and other key countries. The Environmental Defense Fund defines a "successful summit" as one resulting in a final 2010 treaty that is effective, measurable, inclusive, and adequately financed. But Obama is limited in what he can promise now; the final version can only be negotiated and adopted after the U.S. Senate acts on a bill to cap carbon pollution.

Tuerff and Davis are attending COP15 as official delegates, representing the U.S. Business Council for Sustain­able Development. (In fact, they believe they're the only member business attending – while major corporations like Dow, Shell, URS Corporation, and Veolia Environmental Services sit it out.) The two Austinites lead two related firms: EnviroMedia social marketing, founded in 1997, and Green Canary Sustainability Con­sult­ing, founded in March 2008. They consider what they'll learn firsthand to be invaluable for their own knowledge, in consulting on climate-change solutions and issues, and for their clients. High on their agendas: visiting the World Wildlife Fund's Arctic Tent; Copen­hagen Business Day, which offers a chance to interact with executives from around the world; and hearing Barack Obama and as many U.S. cabinet secretaries as possible.

Aitkens is a co-director of UT's Campus Environmental Center, run by the student government. Active in the local chapter of the Sierra Student Coalition, she was selected by the Sierra Club in late October to attend COP15 as one of 16 student leaders from around the nation. In her application, Aitkens highlighted her active efforts through the Campus Environmental Center to call for the city of Austin to divest itself from the Fayette coal-fired power plant and to address national action on climate change and international legislation.

Talking about the trip – her first travel outside the U.S. – Aitkens fairly glowed with excitement. She had to raise more than $2,500 to participate and received contributions from "friends, grandparents, a lot of students I've never met, and five people I've never even heard of!" The entire Sierra student group will be staying together in a youth hostel and attending as official observers. They'll be part of a larger Sierra Club delegation that includes about 50 top leaders, policy experts, and activists nationally.

If the small-world effect prevails, Aitkens may hear in Copenhagen the findings of Parmesan, a lead author for the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Third Assessment Report (for which she shared in a 2007 Nobel Peace Prize). Parme­san's research focuses on the current impacts on wildlife and their habitats resulting from climate change that already occurred in the 20th century. Her work on butterfly range shifts, for example, was featured in the BBC film series State of the Planet with David Attenborough. As a scientific policy advisor, Parmesan has given seminars in Washington, D.C., for the White House, government agencies, and environmental organizations.

Parmesan is presenting at two events organized by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and by a Norwegian university. Her global summary of research studies shows that 52% of wild plant and animal species (including marine species) are already changing their habitats and distributions. In addition, scientists are seeing the first major declines of species, among exactly the ecosystem groups projected by Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change scientists 10 years ago – polar and mountaintop species. Climate-endangered animals now include ringed seals and emperor penguins, both sea-ice dependent species.

But Parmesan is also carrying two positive messages to COP15. Through assisted recolonization, she says, we can help species create new colonies outside their historic habitats, and through ecological restoration, we can create more habitat. She is especially bullish on restoring native American prairie; studies in Minnesota and California have shown prairie grasses to be excellent carbon sinks (absorbers), and she said the grasses offer the most truly carbon-neutral source of biofuel. "It's a huge win-win, both for conservation of biodiversity and for alleviating our energy problems and reducing [greenhouse gases]," said Parmesan of prairie re-creation. She added, "It's fun to finally be able to say some positive things at some of these meetings, because up to now, it's mostly been that we're all going to hell in a handbasket!"

Stewart, having devoted his professional life to climate action, said he just couldn't stay away from COP15. He made a final decision to go at the last minute, using frequent-flyer miles and an invitation to stay with a friend in Copenhagen. "This is such a pivotal, critical period, I just want to be part of that energy, in any way I can," said Stewart. "Everything looks and feels normal, in this period of time we're in right now. But the scientists are screaming at us to pay attention." He'll represent a group he founded, Green Veterans, as a voice for climate security. Green Veterans works to connect returning vets with clean-energy jobs and training opportunities. "As resources become constrained and climate change accelerates," he says, "it's going to be our armed forces that have to deal with those conflicts." Stewart used to work with the National Secur­ity Agency and, according to Green Veterans' website, "received prestigious commendations for meritorious intelligence service and contributions to energy security." Now a consultant, Stewart left the Austin Climate Protection Pro­gram earlier this year after becoming disenchanted with the slow pace of its progress; he continues to advocate as a community member for a more rigorous program that commits to higher standards and results.

Up Close and Personal

This conference was initially supposed to confirm a new binding international treaty, as it will take at least two years to work out the specific details before the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012. But largely due to the failure of the U.S. Congress to pass climate legislation, that ambition has been scaled back; negotiators now hope for a two-part process to begin in Copenhagen and conclude next year.

COP15 will be Davis and Tuerff's third year blogging from the U.N. Council of Parties talks; they also attended COP13 in Bali, Indonesia, in 2007, and COP14 in Poznan, Poland, in 2008. Earlier this year they participated in business briefings with the U.S. Department of State's chief climate negotiators, Todd Stern and Jonathan Pershing. Attending in person makes all the difference, they said. "What you can learn and the people you can meet – you can't do that over the Internet or by watching CNN," said Tuerff. Before departing, he looked forward to getting briefings directly from the U.S. negotiators and observing firsthand whether U.S. leadership, with the change in administrations, is noticeably stronger than in prior years. Tuerff and Davis are attending on their own nickel; they hope to justify the expense by coming home with a like-minded new client, as they did at COP14 in Poland, where they picked up Climate Savers Computing Initiative. Like Stewart and Aitkens, they also feel a personal sense of urgency about U.S. and global climate action.

"Sitting here in our office in Austin, Texas, there's no real way we would learn the details about things like adaptation and deforestation," said Davis. Some of her favorite experiences at former climate talks have been the informal conversations with other global activists: "I sat on a train next to a whole group of people from Ecuador, who are working so hard on saving the rain forests. In Bali, I shared and talked for 20 minutes with a man who was one of the founders of cap and trade. He invited us to one of the sessions, where I learned even more." Davis also said it was eye-opening to see the extensive media coverage that other countries provide on the U.N. climate talks, compared to the paltry trickle available in the U.S.

Manufactured Doubt

Tuerff and Davis said their concerns were deepened by a Pew Research Center national poll conducted of 1,500 people in early Octo­ber, with results released Oct. 22. Compared with an April 2008 poll, it showed a sharp decline – from 47% to 36% – in the percentage of Americans who agree that there is solid evidence that the earth is warming "because of human activity." The survey also showed a drop of 9 percentage points, to 35%, among those who consider global warming a "very serious" problem and an increase of 6 percentage points, to 17%, of those who say it's simply "not a problem." The decline was across party lines, but steepest among independents. Among the poll's findings: More than half of Americans say they've never heard of "cap and trade," the market system for controlling carbon dioxide emissions which is under (not very accelerated) consideration in Congress.

Davis believes the shift reflects gains by the manufactured-doubt industry, a well-financed effort by vested interests to fuel climate skepticism. (See Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming, by James Hoggan; Doubt Is Their Product: How Industry's Assault on Science Threatens Your Health, by David Michaels; and The Heat Is On: The Climate Crisis, the Cover-Up, the Prescription, by Ross Gelbspan.) In late November, a group of 26 climate scientists (14 of them members of the U.N.'s Intergov­ern­ment­al Panel on Climate Change) issued a grim report: "The Copenhagen Diagnosis: Updating the World on the Latest Climate Science." It documents climate destabilization occurring much faster than the IPCC's landmark reports have so far shown. As reported from the UK by The Guardian: "The new diagnosis finds that Arctic sea ice is melting 40 percent faster than the panel estimated just a few years ago. Another startling finding: Satellites have found that the global average for rising sea levels was 3.4 millimeters per year from 1993-2008. The IPCC estimated it would be 1.9 mm for that period – short by 80 percent."

Yet most media have ignored that report in favor of following "Climategate" – a derisive nickname for the furor over e-mails exchanged among a handful of British scientists that were illegally hacked, then broadly celebrated by Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, et al., as "proof" that global warming is a scientific fraud. An orchestrated smear campaign, abetted by mainstream media sources, has trumpeted passages in the e-mails that suggest suppression of contradictory evidence and collusion among climate scientists. While that's a serious charge, another reading is that the scientists were so fearful of the climate-skepticism machine, they feared the release of any data that might be twisted to its ends – like, ironically, these e-mails.

Tuerff said that as communicators with expertise in the issues and in educating people to create behavioral change, he and Davis see an opportunity (and a moral obligation) to help provide accurate information. "The major­ity of Americans have heard nothing about policies being considered to address global climate change," Tuerff said. After returning home from each conference, "We've absolutely become more invested in doing something about these issues," said Tuerff. "We've been blogging about it. We're doing everything we can to continue the dialogue, everywhere we go."

Heading into COP15, they decided to use their marketing expertise to create a website (as a self-financed public service effort) that could engage and help educate the American public. Together with their staff, they spent months creating, which launched Nov. 30. It features a friendly Green Detectives Decoder, with short videos in which Tuerff and Davis personally explain the language, terminology, and issues at COP15, in easy-to-understand terms. For example, Davis illustrates how cap and trade market plans work by pouring "climate pollution" from a pitcher to fill two glasses to their "cap," then explaining that an energy-intensive company can "fill its glass" by purchasing more rights to pollute from the other company.

All the local COP15 participants hope to fire up the folks back home – for whom they're posting impressions, photos, and breaking news daily. "We need a national educational campaign," said Tuerff. For now, he has a simpler request of Austinites: "Just give us 15 minutes on the website."

Follow Tuerff and Davis in Copenhagen, blogging at and at Stewart and Aitkens are blogging at Follow Aitkens and the Sierra Student Coalition on Facebook and at

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