Passion, protests and rallying for change – Letitia Webster on the Copenhagen climate change conference

Back from the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, we asked Letitia Webster of The North Face for her take on what it was like to attend such a controversial, high-profile event attended by world leaders, and peppered her with questions like, what does an attendee actually do at such a gathering?
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Letitia Webster, director of corporate sustainability for The North Face, recently returned from the United Nations Climate Change Conference held in December in Copenhagen, Denmark. As SNEWS® reported, The North Face is a member of BICEP, a coalition of corporations pressing the U.S. government to pass a comprehensive energy and climate bill. (Click here to read the Nov. 11, 2009, story “Outdoor companies flex muscle with BICEP to pass climate and energy bill.”)

We caught up with Webster to get her take on what it was like to attend such a controversial, high-profile event attended by world leaders, and to pepper her with questions like, what does an attendee actually do at such a gathering?

SNEWS: What were the actual activities/meetings that you were involved in? In other words, what does an attendee actually do during a climate change conference?

Webster: There were literally hundreds of things going on at once during the climate conference. The best way to describe it is that it was a mix between a trade show, sustainability conference and, of course, a United Nations policy summit, with opportunities to share and learn constantly. 

I was able to participate in a panel discussion with executives from Nike, Sempra Energy and Johnson Controls entitled, “Leading U.S. Businesses: Innovating the Path for U.S. and Global Climate Action.” We discussed the current and potential impacts of climate change on our global supply chains, products and services, and what actions we are all taking to address climate change. 

I attended many seminars and meetings with everyone from Larry Schweiger, president of the National Wildlife Federation, to hear about the migration and habitat issues climate change is having on our wildlife, to Jonathan Powers, COO of Truman National Security Project, to understand better how climate change is impacting our national security around the globe. It was also powerful to listen to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on California’s initiatives, Dr. Stephen Schneider on some of the history of climate change science and, of course, a strong rally cry from Al Gore.

SNEWS: What was the general vibe of the event, considering the protests and struggles of leaders to come to some agreement?

Webster: The general vibe of the event can be summed up by one of the signs that I saw coming into the event that said “Hopenhagen” -- a great reminder that many of us there needed to stay positive and push to keep the hope alive for meaningful climate change action. 

The demonstrators at Copenhagen illustrated the great passion that is felt around the world and across generational lines. It kept the civil society, as much as possible, engaged with a voice that was loud and clear that the leaders need to lead and results are expected.

SNEWS: What do you think was the most significant accomplishment of the Conference? And what -- in your opinion -- was a disappointment, as far as what people were hoping to achieve?

Webster: The biggest accomplishment in my view was that this event more than ever before raised global consciousness around climate change. 

While it was disappointing that there wasn’t a stronger climate change policy that emerged out of the conference, I was happy that we made a step in the right direction. But we still have much to do to work toward a binding international agreement. I think it will come if we continue to keep up the pressure. 

SNEWS: For you, what was the high point of the conference, and what was the low point?

Webster: The tipping point of the negotiations was when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the U.S. is prepared to work with other countries toward a goal of jointly mobilizing $100 billion a year by 2020 to address the climate change needs of developing countries. This was significant because two days earlier several businesses, including The North Face, sent a letter to President Obama urging him to secure a comprehensive climate agreement with strong greenhouse gas reduction targets and “strong finance provisions, with a substantial commitment of new long-term finance from developed nations, including the United States.” So, I honestly think our letter had some influence. 

SNEWS: How did the conference, or your experience there, differ from your expectations?

Webster: Moving almost 200 countries to a progressive and concrete agreement takes a tremendous amount of trust, transparency and compromise. This conference was the pinnacle of a complex negotiation process that ended with significant steps forward in all of those areas, setting the stage for deeper conversations and meaningful action. I did not realize how much ground needed to be covered in those two weeks, but was impressed with how willing the U.S. was to build allegiances and help lead this effort.

SNEWS: To what degree has this conference affected the world’s efforts to reduce environmental impact?

Webster: Climate change is a global planet issue that knows no boundaries. Our actions impact the far reaches of the world and vice versa. This must be dealt with on a global policy level to ensure agreement on greenhouse gas targets, adaptation methods, financing, etc.; however, every nation must come to the table with tangible actions that are relevant to its place in the global economy and footprint.

This conference highlighted the importance of acting globally and locally, we must have both to hold back the tide, and the result of the conference was just this. The agreement codifies the commitments of individual nations to act on their own to tackle global warming. It also provides a system for monitoring and reporting progress toward those national pollution-reduction goals, and it calls for hundreds of billions of dollars to flow from the wealthier nations to the more developing nations that are vulnerable to climate change for adaptation and technology transfer solutions. It sets a goal of limiting the global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2050, so that over the next four decades, deep cuts in climate-altering emissions will occur. 

SNEWS: Any travel advice for visiting Copenhagen?

Webster: The best thing about Copenhagen is the bike riding. Everyone -- rain, snow or shine -- rides their bikes. I would recommend renting bikes if you ever visit, and cruise the beautiful side streets and downtown.

--Marcus Woolf

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