U.N effectively locks out reporters, others in Copenhagen

COPENHAGEN For a year, the United Nations and national leaders have stumped around the world, championing the importance of the Copenhagen climate negotiations. It made this international conclave a must-see destination. And the UN responded by granting accreditation to huge numbers of government officials, UN officials, public-interest groups and journalists. In fact, to almost twice as many individuals as the Danish conference center could hold. And that led to pandemonium today as the UN confronted literally thousands of people waiting to pick up their security badges – people this organization couldn’t or wouldn’t accommodate.

Some of the especially early or pushy got in. But not many. And that left out in the cold – and it was a frosty 32 to 36 °F all day – thousands of people who had been led to think there would be room (and a badge) at the inn, so to speak.

To their credit, the throng behaved peaceably. They shivered together, at times sang songs together and shared what meager comestibles their pockets might hold with neighbors – people they came to know well after standing alongside them for up to 11 very miserable hours.

I know. I was among them. And I was in good company.

Behind me was a veteran Food and Agriculture Organization official – an American who had worked for this UN agency in Rome since the early ‘80s. Another fairly chipper Dutch UN employee, based in Bangkok (where she coordinates tsunami preparation and relief in Southeast Asia), stood next to me for 7.5 hours before someone finally came out of the convention center and rescued her. Good thing, too. She was 7 months pregnant and couldn’t take much more. And the worst of it: This wasn’t her first attempt to get badged. She arrived on Saturday and immediately got in line where she spent more than an hour, sleep deprived and jet lagged, waiting to register. When she pleaded that she was too weak (and pregnant) to wait any longer, the police cordon suggested she go to her hotel. So she relented.

A former Finnish environment minister, currently a member of the European Union’s parliament, was also stuck with us in line. Eventually, she hooked up with a member of the Finnish government’s delegation, a sweet woman who had been standing next to me for hours. They chatted amiably for several hours – between phone calls that the EU parliamentarian sent to contacts from her cell phone. She was anxiously trying to find someone in the Bella Center convention hall to pull rank and get her in for badging. Around 2:45 p.m. she succeeded.

Rumor had it that Al Gore was stuck in line behind us. The idea that he might be gave everyone a bit of a boost by suggesting that those who were famous, powerful or politically connected were just as stuck in this interminable wait – their feet increasingly tired and bone cold – with the rest of us. However, the rumor had to have been apocryphal. After all, when R.K. Pachauri, head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, arrived around 9:30 or so, he and his small entourage were ushered through the crowd to the entrance gate by a policeman. No waiting for him.

The crowd’s inhabitants tended to have kind words for the battalions of Danish police sent to keep the masses at bay. They were courteous and more than once offered that if they were in our situation, they would have found the day every bit as vexing.

It was the United Nations that lost a lot of political capital and good will with this fiasco. And that’s because in this day of über communications and a UN pledge to reach out to all stakeholders of events and communities, they bungled mightily the management of the crowds they had courted. For starters, they shouldn’t have accredited some 25,000 to 30,000 people when they knew the Bella Center could only hold 15,000.

They also shouldn’t have kept the registration desks closed yesterday when they had formally emailed accredited individuals (like me) that they could pick up badges all day – a day when negotiators and others were taking a break from their increasingly frenetic activities (this means the conference center would be relatively empty).

Today, the UN should have let people register and pick their badges on a first come, first served basis — instead of after every badged individual had gotten in, even those who arrived 2 to 8 hours after the waiting-to-register crowd.

Conference organizers should have arranged for those waiting to register to collect in a single, organized line. Instead, they let four lines develop and then spontaneously and chaotically merge as they approached the main entrance gate – allowing those who arrived after 9 a.m. to edge to the front along with those who’d been standing in the queue since 6:45 a.m. Tempers flared.

The UN should have regularly updated those out in the cold about their chances of getting registered that day (which was slim to none as the day wore on). For instance, around 11 a.m. an official announced that it could take 3 or 4 hours for those nearest the barricades outside the entrance to get in. In fact, the line was never opened up after about 10:30 a.m.

And representatives of non-governmental organizations – like groups aimed at saving the polar bears or boosting adoption of wind-energy technologies – should not have been given priority entrance over UN officials, government delegations and reporters. The first two groups aid the negotiators and the last group helps share news of the negotiations and related events – something the UN doesn’t (and probably can’t) manage well itself.

Many had paid a pretty penny to cover what could prove a momentous event – or failure. They arrived to get their badge and start work at the crack of the Scandinavian dawn. And were, for the most part, callously ignored and left to shiver without food, drinks, access to WC breaks – or access to information. Instead they huddled in a ever tightening international scrum.

If the UN can’t manage something as simple as getting already accredited attendees their badges (keep in mind, we’d already sent in our contact info, work affiliations and copies of our passports), how can it hope to manage the negotiations for consensus on a treaty to coordinate global climate action? It really makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

UPDATE (9:30 a.m. Tuesday): At dinner time yesterday, local time, the UN climate conference’s media affairs office conceded that logistics for registration yesterday had been bungled. Their explanation: “Over 45,000 people have applied to attend the conference, three times more than its capacity. An overwhelming number of those who applied arrived on Monday, causing congestion in the area outside the UN venue . . . The UN accredited a total of around 3,500 new delegates today.” Hmmm.

The good news for me: they regrouped, strategized and turned things around overnight. This morning, registration proceded like clockwork for me and many others. The UN planned to register 1,000 today. And then stop.

Meanwhile, we learned yesterday afternoon that entrance to the center is going to be increasingly restricted from today onward to NGOs–people representing nongovernmental organizations. Many if not most were going to have to leave 75 percent of their delegates outside the entrance gates beginning today.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

More Stories from Science News on Climate