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Chaos in Copenhagen: behind the scenes at global warming summit

The UN global warming summit in Copenhagen presented a picture of confusion to the outsider. It appeared even wilder to reporters covering President Obama's trip from the inside.

By Staff writer / December 20, 2009

A journalist walks over press releases littered in the floor of the press center at the climate summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, early morning Saturday. President Barack Obama and attending press experienced a frenzied trip to Copenhagen, which ended in a climate accord.

Anja Niedringhaus/AP

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Copenhagen, Denmark

When we took off Thursday evening for Copenhagen on Air Force One, the anticipation among the small press corps at the back of the plane was high.

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Yes, we wondered if President Obama had anything up his sleeve to pull the UN climate change conference away from the brink of collapse. But we were almost as curious about something else: Would we head on to Afghanistan after Copenhagen?

Rumors had swirled for a week before the Copenhagen trip that Mr. Obama would make an off-the-record stop – that is, not announced in advance – in Kabul on our way back to D.C. For the duration of our 30-hour mission to Denmark, we wondered about Afghanistan almost until we touched down at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington at 1:11 a.m. Saturday.

As it turns out, being in the dark describes much of the presidential press pool's 15 hours at the Bella Center, the scene of the UN climate change conference.

The first change of plans (of many)

When we first arrived, the official schedule had Obama meeting with the Danish prime minister, with comments to the pool beforehand. We were ushered into a small conference room – think early Ikea, décor-wise – where we waited. And waited. And waited.

Finally, a White House official came in and told us there had been a change of plans – ya think? – and he read us a long list of world leaders the president was meeting. Turns out the "bi-lat" (bilateral meeting) with the Danish prime minister had been scrapped in favor of an emergency multilateral meeting among leaders from both developed and developing countries, trying to hash out a climate agreement. And when we heard the list, we knew something was rotten in Denmark: The Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, was not in the meeting. Instead, China was represented by a lower-level official, vice foreign minister He Yafei.

China, now the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, was crucial to any final agreement in Copenhagen, and the White House knew that anyone less than Premier Wen Jiabao at the table would not produce an accord.

Postcard from a post-apocalyptic shopping mall

Fast forward to later that afternoon – after Obama's speech to the conference, exhorting action. He had stressed the need for a review mechanism that would verify whether nations are keeping their commitments to cut carbon emissions. And he uttered a line the Chinese took personally: "Without such accountability, any agreement would be empty words on a page."

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