THE HAGUE, Netherlands

The Hague, with its constant drizzle, qualifies as one of the gloomiest cities I’ve ever visited, and the tense, uncertain busyness of the convention center doesn’t add much to the atmosphere. But a 20-minute train ride from the hall brings you to the one truly hopping spot in town, a youth hostel that has been taken over by Greenpeace for the duration of the conference.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Students ready to rile things up.

Photo: Greenpeace USA.

In a way, it’s almost more accurate to say that it’s occupied by Ozone Action, the D.C. environmental group that began planning a year ago to bring 225 American students to the conference. When John Passacantando left the helm of Ozone Action to take the top spot at Greenpeace USA seven weeks ago, he shut down OA, brought most of his organizing staff with him — and mailed out Greenpeace badges to his corps of student campaigners, who come from 140 campuses in 40 states.

So far, in just two days in the convention hall, the students have managed to: drape themselves in American flags and cover their heads with bags in an attempt to shame the U.S. congressional delegation; crash a reception of the Global Climate Coalition and a speech by climate skeptic Fred Singer; send hundreds of emails to CNN inquiring about their lack of coverage here; get interviewed by half the radio crews roaming the halls; unnerve the many security guards wandering the corridors; and in general change the entire tone of the proceedings.

“The real challenge is to walk the razor’s edge between being an insider and being an outsider,” Passacantando told them at dinner this weekend. And that’s precisely what they’ve done, many pinning their credentials to suits and skirts (“I can’t believe how underdressed I am,” one young man said the first morning of the conference) along with buttons and hand-drawn signs.

And inside the convention hall they’ve spent at least as much time at careful lobbying as at staging “actions.” I sat with one group of students from Grinnell, Iowa State, and the University of Iowa as they chatted over lunch with an aide to Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). They were deep into an analysis of tillage practices, a coal-fired power plant in Ames, the wind farm in the state’s northwest corner, and the future of agriculture. “Just the possibility of having the world’s breadbasket migrate north to Canada scares me as an Iowan,” said one, with all the aplomb of a Cargill lobbyist. As soon as the lunch was over, they were on cell phones arranging to smuggle some fake pig noses inside the convention center so they could bird-dog representatives of the American Farm Bureau who are working the hall arguing for more credit for carbon sinks.

It’s as if the protesters at Seattle had managed to break through police lines — and once inside, sat down and started rewriting trade policy. Last night, after a hard day at the convention hall, they adjourned to one of Greenpeace’s ships, which was moored in a nearby harbor for the occasion. They drank beer, ate vegan fare, and listened to veteran shareholder campaigner Sister Pat Daly salute them for their work. Back at the hostel they danced late into the night, and then awoke at 7:00 to a cheery voice over the loudspeaker saying, “There is still no line at breakfast.” Soon there was.

The students have clearly annoyed the U.S. delegation, and stiffened the spines of other environmental groups here. They have served notice that Greenpeace USA, after years of chaos, is back as both a passionate and effective force. They have added a perceptible edge to the muffled business-as-usual sense of this international gathering. And they’ve given some hope for the growth of a rowdy-but-effective student movement focused much more tightly on particular issues than the leaderless and amorphous web-mob that emerged from Seattle. They’ve made me feel hopeful about the future of U.S. environmentalism for the first time since the death of David Brower — who, if he were in The Hague, would definitely be hanging at the bar of the youth hostel.

Hague Highlights

There was little obvious movement in the conference today, and a sense that progress on the massive text was slowing. The European Union formally rejected a new American proposal on how much credit it should get for its sinks, but there were rumors of a deal that would see the U.S. drop support for nuclear power in developing countries in return for flexibility on giving us carbon credits for our forests.

Things are heating up.

nd perhaps more significantly, a panel of GOP members of congress led by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) reiterated its outspoken opposition to all things Kyoto. The politicians seemed to be protesting too much, as if in reaction to the clear signals that Sens. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and especially Larry Craig (R-Idaho) sent yesterday indicating that they accepted greenhouse science and indeed accepted the need for some sort of international agreement. Sensenbrenner declared that Al Gore lost the presidency (“if he did”) because of his opposition to coal mining in West Virginia, and added that high gas prices in his Wisconsin district this summer had “almost led to a revolution.” Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) indicated he would advise any Bush transition team to send the Kyoto Protocol to the Senate immediately so “we can put a stop to this exercise in futility and fantasy.”

Because that’s precisely what Craig said should not happen, Barton’s comment seems to symbolize a growing split in the rejectionist camp — a split that may be aided by the increasing number of businesses signing on as climate advocates. The Pew Center on Global Climate Change yesterday held a briefing that featured spokespeople from Boeing, Intel, BP, and other companies talking about the need for action, and the center plans today to announce new business signatories for its program of voluntary steps to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

As to the question that hangs over all domestic political calculations — and perhaps over the fate of the entire accord — suffice it to say that journalists at the long rows of computers in the cavernous press center here log on regularly to see what’s new in Broward County, Fla.

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free. All donations DOUBLED!