Press caught off guard as Obama takes shortcut to talks

“HI GUYS. How are you?”

The twang rang out across the almost empty press conference room.

By the time the photographers grabbed their cameras, he was gone. The US President had just marched through the lions den, and almost nobody had noticed.

Barack Obama’s shortcut to the conference room to address other world leaders, however, was about the only unexpected move the Americans made in Copenhagen.

After a long night of fruitless negotiations over details, anger was giving way to hopelessness.

“The Americans do not participate. They just sit there. It’s as though they are just passing time, waiting for Obama to arrive”, said one diplomat as the police closed down Copenhagen, waiting Obama’s arrival.

“The feeling seems to be that climate change can wait. They will invent a technology to deal with it later,” said an observer close to the negotiations.

The world’s other biggest emitter of carbon, China, was slow to come to the table, and was accused of hiding behind the G77, made up mostly of poor African nations and others in line to suffer the worst consequences of global warming.

Other developing nations like Mexico felt little responsibility to push for a deal. They will not qualify for funds earmarked for poorer countries and have much to lose as their economies take off, fuelled by carbon.

But there was little chance of the 115 or so government leaders learning much about each other’s plight. Divided up into like-minded groups to increase their leverage, it also cut them off from one another.

The previous day, all NGO’s had been banned from the huge Bella Centre.

Groups representing those people on the front line of the global warming battle had disappeared too, with their banners proclaiming their reality. In the days before, many had posed for photographs in front of the huge welcoming screen declaring COP15, with banners such as Save Bangladesh: The most affected country for climate change.

From the Maldives to Nepal threatened with water problems, from small islands and coral reefs sinking daily, rapidly deforestating South America and the spreading deserts of Africa, people came to make their case for survival.

As the clock ticked away towards the hour of success or failure, the world’s main players took over – it was a little like bringing in the salvagers to a sinking ship.

Their experts worked to put together something everyone could sign up to and in non-technical language the world leaders could understand.

Meanwhile, those leaders, diplomats and experts waited patiently for the US President to arrive. One after the other, press conferences were cancelled – Africa, Brazil, India, Britain – all except Iran and its belligerent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

It gave him the opportunity to miss Mr Obama’s arrival and tell the media that nuclear energy plants were part of their fight against global warming.

When Barack Obama did arrive, he held a series of bi-laterals. It looked a bit like speed-dating as he moved from one room to another speaking to France’s Nicholas Sarkozy and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev – not about climate change but about renewing the nuclear arms reduction treaty.

There was widespread shock over his speech – with its talk of America’s national security and claims to have renewed leadership in the climate negotiations, it sounded more like an address to Congress than the United Nations.

The Chinese were so furious with his emphasis on verification of emission reductions that their prime minister, Wen Jiabao, refused to attend meetings afterwards. They understood they had an agreement with the American administration about the issue from the day before.

Hugo Chaves, the Venezuelan president who called former US president George Bush the devil, said: “It still smells of sulphur here,” apparently referring to Mr Obama when challenging him to act.

Afterwards, President Obama became engaged in a round of discussions and meetings with all the main players. Those frantic discussions resulted in Mr Obama announcing the last minute deal that he described as a “meaningful agreement” being accepted.


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