After a particularly merry Nativity themed Lacrosse social last Wednesday evening, I woke up on Thursday still partially wrapped in tinsel and my pillow cases sparkling with the glitter I’d sprayed in my hair. Whilst I knew the campaigns team would see the funny side of this, I threw myself under the shower whilst a housemate cooked up a much needed bacon and egg sandwich and filled my thermos with a strong black coffee.
As students we are necessarily very eco-friendly. The heating goes on as an absolute last resort, we walk, cycle or take the bus everywhere and have lots of glass and cans to recycle. For us, climate change issues loom over our future much like our student loans. Whatever degree we are studying for, we all know that our future careers are under threat from global health, finance and climate crises. Unless those in a position to act take responsibility for the past and start to make strong decisions about the future, we all share a common fate that isn’t exactly what we had hoped for when filling out our UCAS forms.
Having made it to CAFOD HQ in Brixton and after a few briefings on policy, plans and a talk from a CAFOD partner from Bangladesh we got on the road to Copenhagen. Long journeys always seem daunting and this one was no exception. The group of CAFOD employees and supporters shared the coach with those from Tearfund and Trocaire too. As Morning and Evening Prayer booklets were distributed I wondered how Chess, one of my best friends from school and a non-Catholic, was going to find this weekend.
On Friday evening, I took the opportunity to explore Copenhagen with Chess and Neil, another volunteer who had joined CAFOD at the same time as me in the summer. Our accommodation was only a ten minute walk form the city centre and we wondered around taking everything in and getting our bearings for a couple of hours before meeting the rest of the group at a Caritas Internationalis reception opposite the city’s cathedral.
Needless to say, we all slept extremely well that first night and were grateful for the hot showers and substantial breakfast provided the following morning. It was going to be a long day. At midday we headed to parliament square with our banners, placards and packed lunches ready to show our support to the world leaders, who had begun their talks on reforming and updating international climate change policies and targets. For over an hour we mingled with supporters from a vast and diverse range of organisations, before finally beginning to march.
At times, there was a carnival like atmosphere with people dressed up as polar bears, mermaids, pandas and pirates, everyone chanting about the need for climate justice and demanding positive changes from the authorities. Being in amongst the crown, it was difficult to get an idea of the scale of the march but it certainly felt much bigger than The Wave in London the previous weekend. Danish police estimated around 100,000 people had turned out to show their support, whilst the BBC reported more conservative estimates of around half that figure
After the protest against the Iraq war failed to stop Britain getting involved, many analysts suggested that such forms of political action had become ineffective and redundant. The crowds in Copenhagen last weekend tell a different story. As one retired supporter of CAFOD said to me during the demonstration, ‘There’s not much an old lady can do, but I can stand up and be counted,’ a sentiment that was echoed throughout the march.
Unlike the overwhelming blue-ness of The Wave, the crowd in Copenhagen was a sea of colourful signs and make-shift floats with upbeat music from all over the world lifting the spirits of the crowd as noses and fingers began to numb in the bitter cold. Placards reminded us there was ‘NO PLANET B’ or suggested making ‘Love not CO2’.
NGO’s can often find themselves competing for budgets, better strategies and more publicity but in Copenhagen we marched proudly alongside each other, united in our concern over the rate and intensity of climate change and those worst affected but least able to deal with it.
The route of the march was diverted at one point as police made a, surprisingly legal, pre-emptive arrest of 300 people who they suspected would cause trouble. This sent us walking through the suburbs of the city and meant that we were never going to reach the Bellacentre, the final destination, as planned.
We took this chance to duck out of the crowd as the police donned their riot gear and started moving towards the demonstrators even though everything seemed pretty calm. Back at the school where we were staying, we all gathered in the kitchen, like at all good parties, and refuelled with tea and fair trade cookies. News reports about the arrests we had been oblivious to were coming through on people’s blackberries and the BBC even asked permission to use a photo one of us had sent in.
On Sunday morning, the majority of us attended Mass in Danish, with the feast of St Lucy marked by a special candle-lit procession of the choir. We then all went to the ‘Hopenhagen’ stage in the city centre to see the handover of more than half a million signatures of public support for acting on climate change. Desmond Tutu was on fine form, giving a humorous and rousing speech about everyone who recognised and supported the various campaigns about climate change making God proud. There was a fantastic sense of achievement in seeing CAFOD’s Climate Justice campaign, or at least this phase of it, come to fruition.
In our free time on Sunday afternoon, a small group of us got hot chocolates and went to see the statue of ‘The Little Mermaid’. A French group of protesters happened to be doing a stunt as we arrived at the statue, stripping off into the underwear and wading into the water to climb up on the rock that the mermaid sits on. It sent a shiver down all of our spines just watching them as by this point the temperature had dropped below freezing!
Our weekend in Copenhagen had definitely been a unique experience and something I know we are all grateful to have been a part of, any doubt we may have arrived with firmly replaced by a realistic sense of hope.