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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 12/14/2009

A climate of mixed expectations in Copenhagen

* Briefly mild: D.C. Area Forecast | Climate change photos on exhibit *

COPENHAGEN -- As the U.N. climate summit enters its second and much more high-profile week, and as talks stall this morning, the atmosphere in this city contains a curious mix of enthusiasm and skepticism. I'd call it "enthusicism."


Thousands poured into the streets on Saturday in a spirited call for world leaders to agree to an ambitious climate change treaty. In contrast, the people I encountered as I wandered around the city Sunday, an off-day for negotiations, exhibited tempered expectations. Perhaps it was just the previous day's excitement wearing off. Or maybe a long year filled with depressing financial and other world news has led to a more cynical outlook for some.

Either way, the ubiquitous billboards here with "Hopenhagen" plastered on them seemed to be ringing only partially true, at least so far. The ads, which are part of a larger campaign by the International Advertising Association to support the United Nations, feature bright, smiling young faces and are meant to convey optimism regarding the conference's outcome.

For example, a group of young Swedish activists who came here to march in Saturday's largely peaceful protests told me that although they are urging leaders to take action, they don't really expect major change to come out of this summit.

Speaking about the protests, one young woman in the group told me she is looking to her peers, rather than those in power, for inspiration. This seems to be a rather common message I hear in conversations with youth activists on climate change and other issues before world leaders today. It's a message based on a lack of trust of those in charge -- 'we don't trust you to do the right thing, so we're going to push you until you act.'

"The politicians have to do something, but they can't do anything much without us," she said.

Copenhagen offers many encouraging signs for those who are seeking a clean-energy, low-carbon future. This small city is essentially the epicenter of the clean-energy world right now, and every company, nongovernmental organization, and government in the climate and energy game is represented here.

At the Bright Green Expo, for example, dozens of companies and governments exhibited new technologies they are already making available in the marketplace, from new types of electric cars to wind turbines and water filtration systems. Vestas, the Danish wind power giant, had the flashiest booth. (The expo, by the way, featured U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu and a supposedly popular Danish band; unfortunately they did not appear on stage at the same time.)

Until this point the negotiations themselves have been almost a sideshow, in part because so few of the roughly 35,000 registered participants at the talks have access to the sessions (although they are webcast), and an even smaller number know the diplomatic lingo well enough to understand what the delegates are talking about. (I thought I knew it, but I too became quickly overwhelmed by the amount of information to take in and analyze).

The negotiations will increasingly take center stage this week, with swelling ranks of high-level government representatives and their entourages arriving with each passing day. By Friday, about 100 heads of state, including President Obama, are expected to have addressed the conference.

By that point it should be clear whether the activists' efforts and cautious optimism will have translated into concrete action, or if world leaders are just too far apart to agree on a comprehensive plan to combat global climate change.

The author is in Copenhagen while on assignment for Climate Central, a nonprofit science and media organization. The views expressed here are the author's alone and do not represent any position of the Washington Post, its news staff or the Capital Weather Gang.

By  |  11:00 AM ET, 12/14/2009

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