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.

Anja Niedringhaus/AP
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.

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.

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."

By then, the press pool was ensconced in a room that felt like an empty store. In fact, the whole Bella Center felt like a post-apocalyptic shopping mall – lots of empty stores, some with product on display, but mostly empty shelves and naked mannequins. (Turns out the center is used to demonstrate how to set up a store.)

As we sat in that room, we were fed updates on events. Obama had a 55-minute meeting with Premier Wen, and the two then instructed their negotiators to get together to keep working one-on-one and with other countries, a White House official told us. Obama had a meeting with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, and afterwards announced to the pool that their two countries were close to agreement on a new arms control agreement – a brief, positive side excursion away from climate change.

Photo op or rugby scrum?

But the central issue loomed: Would China play ball on climate change?

As far as the US press pool knew, Obama was set to have another bi-lat with Wen, and we lined up to be ushered into their meeting room for a photo op. When we got there, chaos ensued. The Chinese media were already set up, and there was little room for anyone else to squeeze in. A few of the American press managed to get in – mainly photographers, and a cameraman for ABC TV (but not his sound man). But there was lots of pushing and shoving, all next to a giant glass sliding door that could easily have shattered with a well-placed blow from a TV camera. The Secret Service finally kicked out the media.

Then the truth emerged: It was not an Obama-Wen bi-lat, but a meeting of Wen, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Brazilian President Lula da Silva, and South African President Jacob Zuma. Obama and his entourage were the last to arrive. A senior administration official later maintained that Obama had not crashed a meeting he was not intended to attend (although there was no chair at the table waiting for him). Obama joined the group and for an hour and a half, the final accord was hatched.

The exact "tick tock" of what happened leading up to that meeting was later laid out to the pool on Air Force One by that senior administration official, a story that has by now been well publicized.

Reporters wielding pitchforks

Back to the Bella Center: We were ushered into a modest-sized room set up for a press conference with Obama, and other American reporters from major news outlets were allowed in, as well. I put out a pool report indicating that it was "expected" that Obama would hold a "media avail" soon at the Bella Center. My cell phone and e-mail inbox were soon flooded with inquiries from other media.

Where are you? Is Obama still in the building? I had no idea.

I had a distinct sensation that a mob of pitchfork-wielding reporters were looking for us, trying to get in. But we were surrounded by Secret Service, so chances were good that we would not have a rerun of the melee with the Chinese media.

Eventually, Obama came out and announced the accord. The pool sprinted to the motorcade for the ride back to the airport. Soon, Air Force One was airborne. We were heading for a blizzard back in Washington that felt relaxing compared to the flurry of activity back in Copenhagen.


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