Grist's coverage of Copenhagen climate talks

Crowd outside Bella Center.Tired, poor, huddled masses, yearning to get in.Photo: Australian Science Media CenterCOPENHAGEN–What requires more stamina? Childbirth or standing outside COP15′s Bella Center for five solid hours in sub-freezing weather in a line of hundreds trying to pick up badges to enter? They’re both ravaging, but at least childbirth has a payoff.

On my first day in Copenhagen, after a sleepless red eye, I and thousands of others — including delegates, business leaders, and other accredited journalists — were prevented from entering the conference center because the event has been way overbooked. Word is that more than 45,000 people have registered to attend, but only 15,000 can actually fit into the event location. You do the math. Many of us had paid thousands of dollars and traveled thousands of miles to get here. Despite the miserable weather, lack of food and toilets, and obvious mismanagement of the proceedings, U.N. officials seemed unable or unwilling to deal with the problem.

My co-sufferers had some choice words to describe the situation: “Profoundly miserable.” “The day of the living dead.” “The slowest torture imaginable.” I arrived at 12:30 p.m. and left at 5:30; there were plenty of people who had come at 8:00 a.m. and were still there at 5:00 p.m., blue lips angrily curled.

From time to time, a beady-eyed guy in a plush winter coat came out with a bullhorn and made feeble attempts to quell the restive crowd. “I’d like to offer my personal apology …”  He was quickly drowned out by furious shouts:

“Shame! Shame!” 

“What do we want? Entrance! When do we want it? Now!”

“Let us in! Let us in! We’re cold and hungry! Let us in!”

“Reimburse us the thousands we spent to get here, you mongrels!”

Three hours into my vigil, I tried some aerobics to keep the blood going and spirits up. During a frantic set of jumping jacks, a heavyset stranger came over to me, opened up his overcoat, and pulled me in. Instead of being weird, it was an unforgettable moment of commiseration.

In sum, my first day at COP15 was an overwhelming morale-buster, on a day when the conference itself took a serious blow — African delegates left in a huff before eventually agreeing to rejoin the talks. I hear morale tends to plummet halfway through two-week conferences like this, and things should pick back up.

In the end, I made lots of nice friends, but never made it in the building.  “Sorry, the credentials office closes at 6:00,” said the bullhorn. So tomorrow morning I’ll go and try the whole routine again.

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