A planet-saving climate fest
BY Isabel Hilton
It looked like a glum Christmas season in Poznan, Poland's second city. Some 8,000 members of the global climate tribe were in town, but, in a restaurant near the old town square, two waitresses divided their bored gaze between just three customers and a large flat-screen television, on which a succession of American pop singers gyrated in a high wind. Outside, the damp street was all but deserted.
"Has the economic crisis hit Poland?" I asked Arek, a professor at Poznan's most important university. He shrugged. "Yes, but that's not why the town is dead," he said. Poznan, he explained, normally has 100,000 students, who pack the usually raucous bars and cafes. "But the universities sent them home for two weeks," he said. "They wanted to let out the students' rooms for the conference."
Few of them were likely to return for the final week before the Christmas break. Arek was indignant. "They just announced it--no discussion. They wanted to make money." And, no, he also said, there had not been many takers for the rooms.
The 14th Conference of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol--COP 14--held in Poznan between 1 and 12 December, was certainly a large event, but hardly big enough to occupy the space vacated by the students. As they were absent, there were no climate-related debates at the university, no boisterous demonstrations demanding a rethink of Poland's dependence on coal. The people of Poznan went quietly about their diminished business, paying no more attention to the countdown to Armageddon than they would to any passing trade fair.
COP 14, like its predecessors, was the trade fair of the climate business. Off a nondescript highway heading into the suburbs, Poznan's vast conference centre comfortably swallowed scores of side events, press conferences, closed and open meetings, delegation offices and coffee-bar conspiracies. Camera crews conducted interviews at the crossroads of two huge indoor avenues lined with stalls promoting everything from the UN itself to a Korean plan to save the planet with algae. Men and women burdened with bundles of handouts hurried to distant meeting rooms named after Poland's wildlife, from the mysterious Alpine Accentor and Aesculapian Snake to the Woodpecker.
There were witty events daily, some aimed at the cameras, others at the resolve of the negotiators, as activists competed to provide arresting visuals for catastrophic climate change: a row of life-sized ice maidens slowly morphed into headless ice spikes; a high-spirited youth group batted a lump of coal with hockey sticks, a flimsy excuse for their slogan "Don't Puck It Up"; down-and-out polar bears held placards begging for change, or "confessing" to lives ruined by oil addiction.
Saudi Arabia, declining rehab, sent its oil minister to lay a compensation claim for any loss of business that saving the planet might cause. Canada, which has missed its mitigation targets by several miles, issued a stirring call to action. The outgoing US negotiators sat on the shrinking ice floe of the Bush presidency, unsmiling but unrepentant, and, in a parallel reality, talked of their years of climate leadership. The man from the Maldives pointed out that back home the rising tide was lapping at people's ankles. Country after country …